Where I spray-paint my thoughts…

Writing Wednesday 04: Touch Not, Taste Not!


This is the not-long-awaited Writing Wednesday vlog where you get to hear me sing … and discover why you so rarely get to hear me sing!

On a very slightly more serious note, this vlog also touches on what I think is one of the more significant (and frequently mishandled) issues in writing historical fiction — writing historical characters whose viewpoints and values are consistent with their time, not ours. In this case, I’m dealing specifically with the fact that women in the era I’m researching — the women who paved the way for the next generation of women to have the vote — sought political voice because they were interested in a single issue: prohibition. These were women, mostly middle to upper-middle class and devoutly religious (often Methodist, though the temperance movement drew adherents from other churches as well) who believed that alcohol was the source of many social problems and that the best solution was to ban the sale of alcoholic beverages. In Newfoundland, as in the US and Canada, a Prohibition law eventually did pass and was in effect (though poorly observed and barely enforced) from 1917-1924.

Nearly 100 years later, it’s easy to view Prohibition as a historical mistake. The majority of people who enjoy a casual social drink would argue that the real problem is not alcohol use but abuse and that nothing is gained by demonizing alcohol itself. Non-drinkers like me might feel more sympathy with the temperance activists of yore but recognize that in practice, making alcohol illegal only drove its sale and production underground and was, in some places, a gift to organized crime. Yet if I’m going to accurately depict these women of the 1890s I’m writing about, I have to portray their dedication to passing a Prohibition law in a way that’s believable enough that a modern reader will at least empathize, if not agree.

There are writers of historical fiction who do this kind of thing very well, and then there are those, as I mention in the vlog, who do it poorly, so that a reader is left feeling that the character is essentially a modern person dressing up as a historical character. It’s so easy to import modern views and attitudes into historical characters — especially when writing about women. How often have you read a historical novel where the main female character is an independent free spirit who rejects an arranged marriage and chafes against the conventions surrounding women’s roles? Obviously there were some women like this but the vast majority presumably accepted their role as the natural order of things — and even the “rebels” probably took for granted views and attitudes that would seem strange to us modern women.

This is particularly true, I think, in the area of religion (which is why I chose to record this vlog in church). Many modern readers and writers tend to either forget or downplay just how religious most of our ancestors were. The most egregious example of this that I’ve read lately is Donna Woolfolk Cross’s Pope Joan, in which a woman who improbably (but with some historical basis) rises to the highest position in the medieval Catholic Church, doesn’t actually believe in all that Christianity stuff but clings secretly to her mother’s pagan beliefs. I found this mind boggling. If there ever was a woman like the Pope Joan of legend, wouldn’t she almost certainly have been a woman of devout faith? But it’s very hard, I think, for writers to portray characters genuinely motivated by a faith the writer doesn’t share (and many readers won’t either). It’s also a problem when historical characters’ religious beliefs make them do things that we know historically they actually did, but which might be repugnant to a modern reader — as, for example, with a recent novel I read about Isabella of Castile (The Queen’s Vow, by C.W. Gortner) in which the author takes great pains to create a sympathetic and likable Isabella and then has to account for her support of the Inquisition.

What do you think? When you read about a historical character, is it more important to you that she be sympathetic and relatable to you as a modern reader, or more important that she be believable in her own time and place? I’d also love to know how other writers of historical fiction grapple with this issue — I’m sure I’m not the only one who struggles with this.


2 thoughts on “Writing Wednesday 04: Touch Not, Taste Not!

  1. I’ve never commented before, although I love your blog (both of your blogs!) and so I really should have. But this is an issue that I’ve always considered really important, because I really hate the “modern characters in historical costume” type of historical fiction. To me, it’s insulting, as if the author is implying that I wouldn’t be able to understand that values have varied greatly over time periods (and areas, and even/especially individuals) and find someone sympathetic despite them possessing beliefs that I find strange or even abhorrent. Simply put, I believe passionately in the essential humanity of people, and I think when we pretend that that humanity exists in only one form (whatever one we like best), we falsely congratulate ourselves on our good, enlightened mind-sets while missing that we probably have several beliefs that other people or later generations would judge just as harshly.

    I think you have by far the right approach. Not that temperance is really detestable, but it’s an alien viewpoint to many, and one that they may find harsh–but it’s something that should be presented as part of the worldview of the characters that you’re writing about, characters who may be sympathetic or unsympathetic from other angles. Much like we all are. I’m a big fan of finding even the “worst” characters sympathetic in at least some aspects, and that applies especially to historical fiction, where the faults can still be excused as “part of their time.” Though I think this also should apply to contemporary-set characters with their own terrible faults, convictions, etc.

    I’m sorry about the massively long comment! (And again, I’ve really enjoyed your writing, so thank you for all of it that I’ve lurked in over the last few years.)

    • Thanks Lauren! (and given how long some of my blogs are, I don’t mind long comments at all!). Yes, I do think trusting the reader is the ultimate issue — but I think the writer also has to be able to create the character in a convincing enough way that their beliefs, even if alien to the modern reader, seem a coherent part of this character whom we should like and “root for.” It’s not always easy. Right now I feel like my main character is a little bit of a prissy, uptight moralist, and it probably would be easier for readers to like her if I made her into a free-spirited rebel instead (and maybe gave her red hair!) but it wouldn’t be true to the character I want to write.

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