Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Zeitgeist

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.

21 comments :

  1. Very true. Although we'd like strong female protagonists, we need to reflect the times they lived in.

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  2. You are so right. There is nothing worse than characters behaving and speaking in contemporary ways in a historical settting, unless it is Dr. Who. That kind of plot hole will inspire me to put a book down.

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  3. Unless your reader is me. I'm the perfect reader for historical fiction because I remember absolutely nothing from my history classes, which I dreaded. I'll buy almost anything that happened prior to my conscious memory (which is fading). So, wearing a hat doesn't bother me, but writing a contemporary where a character is shooting film does. (Which became an issue when I republished one of my back list title, when you could still buy film!)

    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  4. This is a really powerful post, Carola. Thanks for the straightforward insights. Time stamp is so important, sometimes even in a tight window, and this is especially true with technological changes.

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    1. My editor told me once he was editing a ms that was up-to-the-minute on technology. He was taking his blood-red pencil to all the up-to-the-minute details--because by the time the book came out a year or so later they'd be out of date. That's why I say a sense of the times is even more important than detail.

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    2. This is one of the things I like about writing historical fiction; at least the technology can't shift away from you as you write.
      Thanks for an insightful post. I agree that errors in zeitgeist bother me more than little matters of fact. Although possibly many women like historical fiction because it lets us write ourselves into the action. Non-fiction histories so often leave us out.

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    3. I agree with Anna. At least we know for a fact how limited women were and can figure out how to get around those limits in believable fashion.

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  5. Great post, Carola! What's the saying? The devil is in the details? Indeed, it is. It's those seemingly little details of social and era correctness that, for me, make or break the story. The realism of the background is as essential as the believability of the characters.

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  6. I learned this from a writing workshop from the great Diana Gaboldon. She said the best way to let your readers understand the time period is to show them what people eat, what their living accommodations are and what the women can and cannot do. I've always remembered it.

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  7. I always thought there should be a word for that concept. Now I know there is one. Thanks!

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  8. How about "mindset"? Great post, Carola!

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    1. But won't substitute for Zeitgeist as you still have to add "of the period." The German penchant for adding nouns together can--and often does--get out of hand, but this one works well.

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  9. Wonderful essay, Carola. Thank you.

    I underscore the importance of understanding the specific setting if you write historical fiction. For example, in 1781, married women in both America and Britain were considered the property of their husbands. However, American society permitted women to do a lot more than their British counterparts.

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  10. I love Regencies and historical mysteries. But I agree that writers must do research and have the right Zeitgeist for the period.

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  11. And that is why I love your historicals and can't stand the bulk of the rest of them out there.
    One of my pet peeves is "historical" movies that show women in public with their hair down their back. That's like being in your nightgown!

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  12. I enjoyed this post, Carola. In regard to the position of women in a particular era: I think writers struggle with this problem all the time! On the one hand, we can't have a milquetoast protagonist who doesn't get to DO anything. On the other hand, the doing needs to be believable within that context. Often, we resort to coming up with plausible excuses as to why a female protagonist could have acted in this way--or we punish her severely. Subterfuge also works!

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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