History Off The Shelf

Old books, inkstand and scroll isolated on white


Writing historical fiction is a lot like worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction, so much so I altered Patricia Wrede’s ubiquitous Worldbuilding Question’s list for my own historical writing purposes. The list is on her blog here: http://www.pcwrede.com/?s=world

Historical fiction writing isn’t about dressing modern characters in outlandish clothing, but about the people of a specific culture within a certain era. While Kings and Queens fight to rule, while battles are fought and lost, and religious schisms occur, people have to live their lives—get an education or apprenticeship, answer a calling, find a mate, and build a household. They may never leave their village, never see a royal procession, or sign up on a ship bent on exploration beyond the far horizon. They grow up and pass on what they’ve learned to the next generation, a social history. Culture is how those inner workings of a society are transmitted, and I have a list for that, too.

This is from a wonderful book called “Albion’s Seed” by David Hacker Fischer. It is dense and scholarly and the depth and breadth of the study of four British Folkways in early America is fascinating, yet highly readable.

Basically it covers four big migrations from England to America by geography:

East Anglia to Massachusetts

South of England to Virginia

North Midlands to the Deleware

Borderlands to the Backcountry

What made them leave, what did they bring with them that still endures? There is an island that is part of Virginia that still has a very Elizabethan pronunciation to the language.

Here’s a quote from the preface to that book, something to keep in mind when building the stage your characters will inhabit: “History is culturally ordered, differently so in different societies…The converse is also true: cultural schemes are historically ordered.” (Marshal Sahlins, 1985)

The book is divided by geography first, then buckles down to the real purpose: Why we do the things we do in the place where we are.

Why do your characters act the way they do? What place do they take in their society?

It’s further divided into twenty-six Folkways, and Wikipedia has them listed here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albion%27s_Seed

What does this all have to do with writing Gay historical romance?

What happens to the Other in the cultural history your characters inhabit? The woman or man who doesn’t fit gender norms, the religious outsider, the ethnic outsider? The index in this particular book has no entry between Homicide and Honeywell, but I didn’t write this piece about that inasmuch as a starting point for writing historical fiction and romance.

Next week we’ll visit with some of the resource books and sites I use for my men-who-love-men characters.

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