Historical Romance: learn or die

I am not writing about the election. I’m not. If you want my opinion you can find it, extensively, on Twitter, although let’s be honest, if you’ve ever read anything by me you can probably take a stab in the dark as to what I think anyway.

Instead, I’m going  to talk more about getting British titles right in historical romance. Which seems a pretty trivial thing to write about at such a time but I have a couple of points to make, and only one of them is “JFC do your research”.

I wrote this post about aristocratic titles in large part because I’m sick of reading blurbs that begin,

Lord Michael Pemberley, the Earl of Northfield, has long delighted in the carefree existence he enjoys as the ducal heir.

That (with names changed because I want to pick on a general issue rather than this specific book) is a quote from a published book. I can see two (maybe three) glaring problems in that, the first line of the blurb, starting with the guy’s title.

 

 

 

***pause for writers of historicals to work it out. Here is your cheat sheet.***

 

 

 

 

An earl is addressed as Lord Title. If he is earl of Northfield, he’s Lord Northfield. “Lord Firstname” is a courtesy title granted to a younger son; Michael is the heir and thus the eldest son. This is not optional; he cannot be both an eldest son and a younger son. Calling him “Lord Michael the Earl” makes as much sense as calling him “Sergeant Pemberley the Admiral”.

Nitpick: Courtesy titles don’t take “the” so if this is introducing him, rather than a casual narrative reference, he ought to be Michael Pemberley, earl of Northfield (or Michael Pemberley, Lord Northfield).

Now, the book in question goes on to have the duke’s heir marry a commoner of the lowest kind. In historical romance terms I have no problem with that. It’s wildly implausible, sure, but I like a good Cinderella story as much as anyone. I’m cool with a romance that overturns an established order; that is, in fact, what historical romance does, by putting women and queer people at the centre of the story.

So my problem isn’t a romance defying the established power system. My problem is when a book doesn’t understand the power system it’s nominally about. And this blurb (which I am picking on as just one of many) suggests precisely that because of a) getting the main character’s title wrong, and b) the description of the heir to a duke as having a “carefree existence”.

A story about a lower class woman with no rights and a male duke’s heir with immense wealth and privilege is a story about power imbalance. If you don’t understand the power system, you cannot write a meaningful story about power imbalance within it. If you’re writing about aristocracy, about class gaps, about people needing to marry for money, about people meeting or not meeting family expectations when they fall in love, about inheritance, about the freedom to live as you want or dependence on someone else holding the purse strings, about the need to fit into a social role and the chance that your love story will blow your position in that order out of the water, let alone possibly endanger your life or liberty…if you are writing a historical romance where any of those things ought to apply and you just handwave them or treat them as unimportant, I would ask very seriously what you’re writing historical romance for.

This is not just a matter of taste—“Very Serious Romances with lots of politics are better than ones with floofy dresses and fun!” It is, I think, a matter of craft.

Take Lord Michael the Earl enjoying the “freedom afforded him as the ducal heir”. What that says is, Wow, a really rich guy, he must have a great life. It’s not looking at, for example, what it would really mean to be heir to a duke, one step below the king, possessed of jawdropping wealth, vast landholdings, literally thousands of people depending on you. The weight of the position, the responsibility to which you were born. What sort of mentality it would take to ignore it, and why you would, and what that would say about your political views, micro and macro, what you’d ever been exposed to, how you’d have been brought up to regard other people. The hero might be crushed by his position, or he might indeed be an irresponsible pleasure seeker ignoring his responsibilities, or an earnest man shouldering them with enthusiasm. But he’s got to be in his place in society in time in some way because that’s what the “historical” part of “historical romance” means.

Writing “Lord Michael the Earl” pretty much advertises that you haven’t looked at the basic functions of the society you’re writing about or considered how people operate within it, which isn’t something I’d recommend slapping on your book cover. It proclaims the book to be contemporary romance with a dressing-up box.  And mostly, it misses out on the chance to explore different perspectives from those of, for example, a 21st-century mildly liberal white American.

I wrote a book, A Gentleman’s Position, which is the story of Lord Richard Vane, a marquess’s younger brother, who falls in love with his valet. The power balance is obscenely skewed, and the entire conflict comes down to whether there is any way that a relationship between two people in such grossly unequal positions, embedded in a class structure of inferiority and superiority, can work. For Lord Richard, following his heart feels profoundly morally wrong, for his valet it’s wildly transgressive and incredibly risky—and that’s without considering the effects of a grossly homophobic society. Lord Richard gets a lot of flak from readers for having a serious stick up his arse on the subject. (Quite fairly. What? I’m not here to make my characters’ lives easy.) But he considers himself responsible for the virtue and well being of his valet because that was what a good man in his time and position should do. It is a book that basically wouldn’t work at all without the historical attitudes because they are the source of the conflict.

I think this is one of the most romantic romances I’ve written, because Lord Richard  has to change his entire socially programmed way of thinking in order to be with the one he loves. And “learn to change your entirely socially programmed way of thinking” is not an outdated theme. I’d say it might be one of the most important challenges facing all of us if we want to confront racism and misogyny and homophobia and transphobia and ableism and xenophobia and all the other ways we have of keeping one another down instead of lifting each other up, which are all written on us by the world we live in.

Historical fiction has a unique opportunity to examine different ways of thinking and expand the reader’s horizons. The ways that good people can think things that we might now find hair-raising; the ideas and situations that used to be taken for granted; the ways society shapes people. Historicals can show us the continuity, the sameness, of humanity amid completely different societies and histories and pressures and constrictions—all of which will press and warp and shove that common humanity in different ways. Because society affects people, and we can hurt each other in so many ways when we don’t confront power structures, when we refuse to see them at all, when we take our way of thinking for granted or assume our version of “the right thing” is the same as everyone else’s.

That’s why I think it matters not to handwave historical attitudes or ignore the ways a society works in favour of taking our ideas and priorities and beliefs as the only right way. Because I think it’s pretty obvious at the moment that we 21st-century people are not in fact all-wise, that liberal values are not to be taken for granted, and that people who don’t learn from history are, indeed, condemned to repeat it. God help us all.

 

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KJ Charles is a writer and editor. Her next novel is Wanted, a Gentleman, out in January.

This is an edited and mucked-about-with version of a speech I gave at the Manifold Press Queer Company 2 event.

Tears, Idle Tears

There is a thing romance authors sometimes do which is to post on social media about making themselves cry. “Writing my big love scene today with tears streaming down my cheeks!” sort of thing. I’ve long found this a bit uncomfortable, and I started thinking about why.

Evoking tears is pretty much a life goal for romance writers. (It’s pretty damn cool to have a job where “I made someone cry!” is a professional success, not an indication that you’ll be getting a warning from HR.) And that isn’t a casual thing. Weeping readers means you’ve created powerful characters and tapped into strong feelings. My three books that reliably cause tearful tweeting are in my personal top four of my books—the ones I consider my best work.

It’s therefore possible that I’m unsettled when I see “making myself cry!” type tweets because it seems akin to announcing “I just wrote a wonderful character you’ll fall in love with!” or “What a brilliantly written passage of prose I have produced!” This has everything to do with me being British: people from other cultures are apparently able to express pride in their achievements without curling up and dying inside, which must be nice. (Brits tend to prefer an anguished mumble of “not very good really, sorry.”) If you want to tell the world you’re proud of yourself, go for it and good for you.

But there is something more to my discomfort than my cultural emotional constipation, I think, to which we’ll come via a brief digression. Bear with me.

I’m writing a book in which one MC, Nathaniel, has been bereaved. He misses his lover desperately, and is currently having all those feelings brought back via the callous machinations of a nasty manipulative bastard (who will turn out to be the other MC because I’m an evil cow, ahaha). So I’ve been working into that for a couple of days. Timelining, blocking some quite complicated scenes, setting up a lot of stuff, dissecting Nathaniel’s renewed emotional distress.

Now, as it happens, I do singing lessons, and this week we started ‘On My Own’ from Les Miserables. I didn’t know the song, but it’s basically a woman painfully missing her absent lover and fantasising he’s with her. “On my own, I walk with him beside me. All alone, I walk with him till morning…”So I go to my lesson, we kick into On My Own, and Nathaniel—alone, walking through a London fog, desperate—comes into my head as the protagonist of the song. My throat closes up, my teacher asks where the hell my voice went, and the next thing I’m crying like a baby. I’m 42. This is quite embarrassing.

So I explained to my singing teacher that I’m writing this book and how the song hit me like a truck because of that connection. And we talked about it (my teacher is fantastic, let me say), and one of the things he said was about using emotion on stage. How a performer needs to be able to summon up intense feelings (his example was performing a part where a father has to bury his child), and sing with agony in his voice and real tears dripping down his cheeks…but still sing. Because you can’t sing properly if you’re actually choking up. The two are not compatible.

And that applies to writing too, I think. Digging deep into yourself, finding the point of emotional engagement, but keeping control. Because the writer splurging emotions onto  the page doesn’t make a great scene. That takes craft, building up to it, shaping the scene, tweaking the words, getting the ebb and flow right. Not getting carried away by the tide of emotion but riding it. Controlling it, because that’s the singer’s, and the author’s, job.

The reader or the watcher or the listener gets to be swept away in floods of tears; the author or singer or actor has to get on her surfboard and ride the choppy waters, right on top of it but never quite falling in. This is why Graham Greene famously said, “There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.” You need that little bit of detachment, that cool assessing eye, to make it work.

Or am I Britting out here, and many authors have produced their best work while crying so hard they can’t see the screen? Comments welcome: you tell me.

 

How to Screw Up

A slightly misleading clickbait title there, because we can all screw up without assistance. We screw up by commission and omission. We forget, or erase; we don’t care, or do harm. We fail to listen, we fail to act. We say stupid things. Stupider than that. You know that thing you said twenty years ago that still comes into your mind at 3am and makes you sink your teeth into the pillow? Those. We write books or blog posts or emails or tweets that, in retrospect, make us wonder if we were high, or maybe possessed by whatever demon is wearing Donald Trump’s skin, or at least if we could use that as an excuse. We hurt people. We hurt ourselves. We say and do and write things that were meant to be funny or positive and turn out to be hurtful and stupid, stupid, why did I ever think that was a good idea? We fail.

The question is not whether we will screw up, but what we do about it.

The first step is usually to face the fact of screw-uppage, which is harder than it sounds. Denial is so much easier. I didn’t say that. I didn’t mean that. You definitely said Thursday. I’m sure I didn’t get that email.

I like to see myself as a nice person. (Stop laughing at the back, I need my delusions.) To pluck an example out of a current situation in my genre: I believe in diversity and representation. I am working hard to turn my fictional landscape into one that’s home to a wide variety of people. But I have got that wrong before, in a number of ways, and I will doubtless get it wrong again, no matter how hard I work and how good my intentions. (I have an old manuscript in my drawer that I pulled out recently. It was written fifteen years ago with the absolute best of intentions, and I almost cringed myself to death reading it. Thank God fasting that everyone rejected the damn thing; how right they were to do so.) I don’t want to screw up, but the fact is, I’ve got a shedload of things wrong in my 42 years on the planet to date and I see no reason why that’s likely to change.

I don’t want to get things wrong, because to get it wrong likely means that I hurt someone, and I’m not here to hurt people (except fictional bad guys, who can expect to be eaten by eels). But it’s dangerously easy to let my desire not to hurt people morph into a refusal to admit I have done so. I am not the kind of person who hurts others, therefore I didn’t hurt others and you’re just oversensitive. You took it the wrong way, you misunderstood, you’re making a drama about nothing. Because if I did hurt you, there goes my cherished self-image as a nice person who’s good at stuff, to be replaced with the self-image of a crass, stupid screw-up blundering her way over other people’s feet.

And of course the problem there is that it’s all about me, about my feelings when I screw up, my desire not to be a hurtful person. Rather than about the fact that I hurt you.

Humans are ego monsters. My pinprick of shame at feeling like a bad person can very easily seem more real, more important to me than the punch in the gut I delivered to someone else. My rugby team has, as their operating principles, the four pillars of strength, work rate, discipline, and humility, which is something I often muse on while they’re resetting the scrum for the fifteenth time. Humility can sound weak, but it isn’t a weakness: it’s something we have to learn, and strive for, and it goes hand in hand with strength. Strength without humility is bullying, and overbearing, and ultimately not strength at all—because if I can’t say I was wrong or It’s not all about me, if I can’t look honestly at myself and take another person’s weight on my heart, how weak must I really be?

And humility doesn’t just mean saying sorry. I had a friend who screwed up a lot, and would always apologise freely and generously for doing so. It took me a long time to realise that her apologies demanded not just that her friends forgive her, but that we then had to reaffirm what a good person she was because she apologised so humbly for the things she’d done to us–rather, than, you know, not repeatedly screwing us over in the first place. She’s not my friend any more.

Offering an apology doesn’t entitle anyone to forgiveness, and a performative apology–the kind made in a spirit of “look how sorry I am, therefore you have to forgive me!”–is just another way for the apologiser to feel better. We all know it. One of the great romance moments is ‘the grovel’—where the alpha male hero (usually) is brought to acknowledge what he did wrong. Readers are scalpel-sharp at distinguishing a good grovel, which is about unconditionally expressing remorse, making amends, changing things, from one which is designed to win forgiveness, smooth over the unpleasantness and re-establish the status quo.

Apologies are important, acknowledgement is important, but to my mind, the fundamental question is whether, having screwed up, I do better next time. Even if that just means, in practice, finding different ways to make less bad mistakes.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. (Samuel Beckett)

All of which is a great deal easier to say than do. But if I didn’t believe that people–I, we, all of us–can do just a tiny bit better by one another, I wouldn’t be writing romance.

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KJ Charles just signed a contract to write horror. She is a writer and freelance editor who lives in London with her husband, two kids, an out-of-control garden and an increasingly murderous cat. Her most recent release is A Gentleman’s Position, which by coincidence features a hero with a lot of apologising to do.

Find her on Twitter @kj_charles or on Facebook, join her Facebook group, or get the newsletter.