If there's any single word in the English language that expresses this concept, I don't know it. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as: The spirit or genius which marks the thought or feeling of a period or age. Another way you could put it would be the ethos or customs of the times.
Having written books set in three distinct periods, I've come to the conclusion that, important as correct historical detail may be, still more important is to understand--and accurately present to the reader--the Zeitgeist of your chosen setting.
Included in this term is the status of women, the possible paths open to them, and the consequences they were likely to face if they stepped outside the conventions. Your female protagonist may do anything she chooses, but if she acts in an unconventional way for the times, you must explain why, and how she suffers as a result.
For instance, in my Regency novel, The Improper Governess, my heroine goes on the stage in order to support her younger brothers: Not a possible career or a fun adventure, as it might be here and now. Actresses were assumed to be courtesans, and Lissa suffers the consequences.
Writing a mystery series (Daisy Dalrymple) set in the 1920s, I can't make my female protagonist a police detective. The UK had few women police, those who existed had extremely low status, and many people disapproved of the very concept.
By 1970, women police were more acceptable to the authorities and the general public (though London's Metropolitan Police did not, officially, have female detectives until 1973). They still took a lot of flak from their colleagues (recommended reading: A Different Shade of Blue by Adam Eisenberg). So, in my Cornish Mysteries, the niece of my amateur protagonist is a woman detective, the only one on my imaginary Cornish force. DS Megan Pencarrow has to struggle for respect and do her best not to overreact to slurs and teasing.
Besides sex discrimination, other attitudes that have changed significantly in the two centuries between the Regency and the present are class distinctions, racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-gay sentiment. Though all are still present, alas, they are for the most part unacceptable in modern society. However, when you're writing about characters in the past, you have to take the general viewpoint of society into account. If you want to create a sympathetic protagonist who doesn't hold such unsympathetic beliefs, you have to show him or her as out-of-step with his/her surroundings.
For recent history, I find reading novels written in the relevant period to be a more useful guide to Zeitgeist than any number of history books. Such little things as Never Going Out Without a Hat in the '20s tend to escape the notice of serious historians. Daisy even feels slightly improper taking off her hat in the train (Murder on the Flying Scotsman) on a 400-mile journey. Incidentally, well into the 1990s, my great-aunt Never Went Out Without a Hat.
|Carola Dunn is author of the Daisy Dalrymple Mysteries, Cornish Mysteries, and multitudinous Regencies.|