How to Write Period PiecesbyColleen Thomas©
At some point in her writing career, nearly everyone tries a period piece. It can be near past or far, based on historical events or purely fictionalized, fantastic or mundane. In many cases, the only thing they have in common is being bad. This little how to, then, will give you some pointers from a history major and amateur historian on making your period pieces shine rather than flop.
In deference to feedback on my other How To, I am including examples from my own works to illustrate the points.
Back In The Good Old Days:
The number one failing of most period pieces is that the author takes a romanticized ideal back with him as he writes. This is natural. If we weren't interested in the period, we wouldn't be writing in it. On the other hand, if we just sit down and start typing with visions of Scarlett O'Hara dancing in our heads, our antebellum world becomes a caricature of what it was really like.
For the most prevalent of sins in writing period pieces, it has the simplest fix. Research. Don't just research what you're interested in; research across a broad spectrum. Include social, political and military histories as well as specific commentary, and above all, look for some first person, primary sources, such as journals and diaries.
The good old days weren't always good and if you are conversant in the social ills, political fights and various military actions, you can paint a picture that is no less interesting but is far more accurate. As little as two hours of intensive research can help you put your character into her time period in a way that reflects the plausible. A pointed comment on Grover Cleveland's alleged infidelity or on General Lee's great victory at Fredericksburg will add a layer of realism over your story that can make up for a lot of faults. Twenty minutes of fighting her way into a panty girdle and crinolines can make your fifties single girl much more real to people who remember doing the same thing or to those gents who remember trying to undo it.
You don't have to be an expert on the times to write a story that is very plausible, even to experts on the period. You just have to invest a little of your prewriting time to get conversant and to make some annotations of events you can work in that breath life into the times.
This example is from my Regency Piece The Spy Wore Petticoats
Julia gathered up her makeup and gave her brother a critical once over. She patiently plucked his eyebrows and about three quarters of an inch of the hair from his head, to give him the fashionably high forehead needed at court. His skin was so pale, he almost didn't need the ceruse base, but she dutifully applied it from his head to his bosom, making sure to smooth it until his skin was flawlessly white. Once she was done, she broke an egg, carefully separated the yolk and used the white to glaze his skin.
Next came vermillion for a rosy blush and a cute puckered smile. She used kohl to outline his wide eyes and make them seem slightly farther apart. Next came a drop of belladonna in each, to give them that sparkle women so craved.
His hair was already fashionably red and it took her only a few minutes to put it up.
I'm no expert on period costume or makeup, but with this passage I managed to relate just how much makeup was worn, as well as other interesting period tidbits, like red hair being fashionable and high foreheads. Since this particular piece deals with a man passing himself off as a woman, I also gave the premise a plausibility boost by showing just how made up a woman at court was. Under that much makeup, Tony Blair could have passed as a woman.
I received a good deal of feedback from reenactors and others who were very knowledgeable about the times and makeup used. To them, this simple passage established the realism of the story. Twenty minutes of research, tops, and yet the results, boiled down to a few passages, established the realism for many readers. Other passages, including specific dueling techniques, breeds of horses, and "current" events, all gave the same kind of feel to other readers whose knowledge of the period differed from the reenactors.
A few minutes of research can be the difference between taking the reader there or leaving him spluttering in outrage at your ignorance. The Good Old Days syndrome has sunk more works than icebergs have ships; don't fall into that trap. Know the romantic from the accurate and always fudge towards the accurate when in doubt.
For a silly, but telling example, I'll cite the old TV standby Leave it to Beaver. Ah those simple and innocent times, back when people were so pure. Ever notice that Mr. & Mrs. Cleaver slept in separate beds? Ever try having sex in a single bed? One of two things, Ward is hung like an anaconda or he and June are contortionists, cause Wally and the Beav came from somewhere. This example is a little spurious, in that it was censors who made the decision and not the writers, but I have seen many a period piece with just as silly ideas of their times.
That Was Now, This Is Then:
Another failing of most period pieces is that the author has carried modern day perceptions into a period that isn't contemporary with those perceptions. The sexually liberated woman is a stock character, but in the fifties, she's a tramp, in the 20's, she's a flapper, in the 1800's, a strumpet, and the 1600's probably on trail for witchcraft.
The problem goes well beyond sexual mores to encompass societal norms. Crime stories, for example, are big on setting themselves in the age of gas light or before modern forensics, where the character of the detective and his intuition are so pivotal. It makes for strong characterizations, to be sure, but in the trial phase, you see the same standards of evidence that you get off any episode of "Law and Order." The philosophy of what constitutes a fair trail has evolved, and you can't retroactively apply it to a period without causing anyone who knows the period to cringe. This is just one of many mistakes the novice author is likely to make.
Attitudes towards women, towards gays, towards blacks, towards Chinese or the Irish, went through monumental change in relatively short periods and are fresh in our consciousness. These radical changes, though, are the exception to the rule, not the rule. As an author, you may well want to write your story about the exception to the rule, but in doing so, you have to be very cognizant of the rule.
The resolution to this pitfall is also fairly simple. When you step back in time, leave all your baggage at the platform.
This example is from a forties piece entitled WASP
Flying gave her plenty of time to think; it was one of the things she loved about it. The freedom and adrenaline rush were complimented by the isolation and time to contemplate. The war was far from over, but Andrea knew it was coming to a close. The D-Day invasion had been called the beginning of the end for Hitler and the Nazis. In the Pacific, General Macarthur and Admiral Nimitz had the hated Japanese on the run.
The "hated Japanese" in this passage isn't PC. In fact, my editor asked that I drop it. To her, it was intolerably racist. This is the very reason I demanded it not be dropped. You cannot write about Americans during the war years and not show the racism and hatred that was felt in this country towards the perpetrators of Pearl Harbor. War time propaganda was horribly racist and it reflected the sentiments of the population in general. For a modern character in the mold of this one, such an attitude would be anathema, but for a person living then, it was the norm.
Racism, sexism, religious dogma, governmental and working procedures, your period has its own distinct take on all these things and more. If you try to transpose today's norms, you are destroying the ability to suspend disbelief in anyone knowledgeable about the period. You have to remember, when viewed through a contemporary lens, that Jazz was the devil's music, lipstick and the bob haircut the work of anarchists, and degenerates infiltrating our society, teaching evolution in our schools, nothing less than the work of Satan. To the Greeks homosexuality was natural, in the regency, people fucked like bunnies. Our mores and attitudes reflect a particular place in time; those of your character's must also reflect their particular place in time.
Groovy, Rad, Cool, A Happening Cat, And The Stud Broad:
If you try to write a tale in archaic English, you'll send your audience running for cover as memories of college and John Donne rear their ugly heads. At the same time, if your English highwayman says "Cool, baby" after he steals a kiss and rides off, you've lost them.
Slang, vocabulary, colloquialisms, even speech patterns change from year to year and society to society. In a period piece, you not only need to know what was being said, you need to know how it would have been said. In pieces moving back to times when society was very striated, you also have to know how your aristocratic young miss would have said it as compared to how the dashing rogue who has kidnapped her would say it.
This part of writing a period piece is fundamental, but also very delicate. For ease of reading, you can't litter a work with 18th century Australian colloquialisms, even if they would be the most likely word choice for your hero. You have to strike a balance between realism and readability. No one wants to have to go to the dictionary every time Sir Reginald opens his mouth to figure out what the old bastard said. Conversely, no one wants pretty Julia, his only living relative, to sound like a valley girl.
In any endeavor, you will encounter situations that demand compromise, none so much as in a period piece where speech is concerned. The best approach is to have a few slang terms or colloquialisms ready to mind. Use them sparingly, but in moments of tension or conflict, to subtly remind your reader that the conversation has been rendered into modern terms for his or her ease of reading.
Just a few, applied at the right time, will build a perception of how Old Uncle John talks in the reader's mind. Once they have that perception, they will read his words in a manner closer to what is realistic without you having to stumble through ten pages of archaic speech every time he opens his mouth. Always start your characters out speaking in the manner you want them heard. If you make the impression early, the voice will stick with a reader even as you ease into a more readable format for his oratory.
This is from WASP
"I don't think I would have had time, the mechanic said the engine was about to rip loose. He's also the one who told me your name."
"Seamus?" Tommy asked.
"Probably told you I'm a stud broad too," Tommy said, smiling when Andrea blushed scarlet.
"Well, he did mention you liked redheads," Andrea said softly.
"Sure do, nothing like a little redheaded Dutch girl to get me going," Tommy said.
Andrea blushed and felt very uncomfortable. She had never met anyone so up front about her sexuality and it made her nervous.
"You're blushing, am I making you nervous?"
"I've just never met anyone who was so... open... about... well, you know."
"About being a lezzie? Well, I guess I'm pretty upfront about it, but why try and hide it? I love a girl who likes to eat jam," she said and shrugged.
Tommy's voice should be established via this short dialogue sequence where she speaks with a lot of the slang of the period. Earlier, I noted in passing she had a thick Brooklyn accent to help the reader "hear" her, because I knew her voice would be tricky.
Another pitfall is picking one or two "catch phrases" and doing them to death. I see this quite frequently when American authors try to render a British character. You get the feel of a good slasher film because everything is bloody. Bloody this, bloody that, after eight hundred or so uses, it has not only lost its value, it has become a distraction. The same goes for a Scottish Burr or an Irish Brogue or Cockney and especially with a Patois. Less is really more when it comes to such phrases.
Dildos, Jet Airplanes, Microwaves And The Velocipede:
This seems common sense and boils down to a simple tenet: if they didn't have it back then, don't write it. But what if your butch lesbian absolutely has to have a strapon for your climactic sex scene? Can't you just fudge it?
Yes and no. You can fudge it, because no one knows precisely when women began to use phallic shaped objects as toys. You can't fudge it, in that Doc Johnson wasn't even a gleam in his daddy's eye back in 1896.
It may seem perfectly logical to you that your heroine jumps in a car and drives all night from Chicago to New York to stop her beloved from taking ship back to England. They had cars back then, so what's the problem? Just this, even trains barely managed sixty miles per hour. The model T was lucky to get four.
This one is again fixed by research. You need to know what was and wasn't available and to what extent it was functional in the time period you are writing. For something so basic, it's appallingly prevalent. I can't count the number of period pieces I've been jarred out of by the inclusion of something I know or even suspect didn't exist at the time.
The bottom line here is, if you aren't sure, look it up or don't use it. If you absolutely have to use something not available, include a plausible reason for it being there.
This example is from a pirate story entitled Captive Hearts
Abby could not take her eyes off the handsome pirate as she stripped off her shirt and removed the codpiece. Lissa stared at Abby as she undid the drawstring of her pants and eased them down.
"My God!" Abby exclaimed as she stared. Around the pirate's slim waist was a broad girdle, attached to the front of it was a large black phallus. Lissa laughed at her bride's embarrassment and stroked the large shaft.
"I... Where... How?"
"The crew had it made for me in Tortuga. Their wedding gift to us. I flatter myself that the size of it reflects their respect for me,"
The pirate moved to the bed and sat holding a leg up. Abby quickly helped her out of her high sea boots. Lissa spread her legs and Abby knelt to examine the dildo. She touched it carefully and felt the smooth, warm leather.
"How does it work?"
"Well, it serves as a substitute for the real thing. Men who have been maimed have them made as well as ladies of a certain temperament."
No one knows when the first strapon was made and there is historical evidence of seamen maimed in battle have prosthetics constructed. So I am on fairly safe ground here, but I knew a reader might be going "Aww, gimme a break" so I provided the explanation. Is it an anachronism? In the scene I am going to use it in, probably so. But I don't have to be perfectly accurate, I just have to be plausibly accurate. It's important to know the difference, which leads nicely to my last point
How Much Is Too Much?:
So you've done your research. You have your mind set firmly in your period. You know how they talk, what they say, what they wear, and who was president. Time to show off all that knowledge right? Wrong.
One of the more frustrating things about a period piece is that you have to know so much, but you aren't allowed to show off all you know. Unless your readers are very forgiving, they don't want to hear it. And that's the paradox involved. You need to know, but you aren't at liberty to show off all you know.
There is a fine line between accuracy and arrogance. Picking and choosing which tidbits you add and which you just keep in your head can be the very heart and soul of a good period piece. Too much detail and readers will come to feel they are being lectured, which pulls them from the story. Too little and they will feel you don't know what you're talking about, which will pull them from the story. It's your job to provide enough to make it real, but not to get overly enthusiastic. And it's a hard line to find for most writers, because you've invested time in learning the stuff.
This passage, from Cold Reception, is instructive:
It was a dangerous game Annika played because if the man reached the tank he could simply blast away at the world with it's machine guns and god help her if he managed to get the main gun into action by himself. The big 88mm high velocity cannon would not even have to be particularly close to her if he managed to fire it. Also, there was the fifth man. He had disappeared as soon as the shooting began, Annika could ill afford to be watching the tank with such concentration that she allowed him to sneak up on her. A dangerous game it was, but she had played it many times since Stalingrad and she would play it many more if the fates permitted her to.
A flash of movement, her scope filed with gray and the sharp crack of the Mauser seemed to be one event. She pulled her eye from the scope to see the man fall backwards into the snow. He writhed around, shot through the spine, but the Russian woman sent no mercy bullet. She watched casually as he bled to death, her keen eyes now searching the increasingly murky ground for the fifth man. Over time she had developed a keen sense of what the world should look like. Her eyes darted over the landscape before her, but some small thing tugged at her consciousness. Something was slightly wrong, slightly out of place. In a moment she realized what it was and her eye returned to the scope. She carefully surveyed the camp through the magnified view until she came to rest on a large boulder. There, at the very edge she found what had been out of place. A boot, or more precisely, the toe of one.
This is the only mention of a Tiger tank in a six Lit page work. By the time I wrote the story, I could pick a Tiger out by sight in pictures and paintings. I knew who built it, what years it was in production, what the standard armor was, armament, the drive train, relative speed, weight, foot print, etc. etc. etc. For all that research, this is the only thing I really needed to know: that it had a driver's hatch on the fore deck. It's the only time my character's interaction demanded a detail of that particular tank that couldn't be filled by any generic tank. I had to make sure her target would act as I described and he only would if there was access to the tank on the fore deck.
It is, to be sure, a minor detail, one that 90% of my readers or better are ignorant of. But for that scene to work, for me to build the character as I wanted, I had to know before I could write it. And that is precisely how a lot of your knowledge will be. Something you know, that you don't disclose, but that gives your work realism in your mind and for a tiny fraction of your audience.
Remember also, that any details you provide need to be part of the plot. Just throwing them out there, naked and apart from the work, makes them singular distractions to the reader. If you are describing an age of sail cannon duel, for example, you could give a sense of the weapons by having men straining to heft the thirty-six pound ball to the bore in the heat of battle. If you throw in a whole paragraph on cannonry, including all the details you've accumulated, it distracts rather than adding to the story.
Writing a period piece can be one of the most fun projects you ever undertake as an author. Unlike modern day works or future worlds, the period piece imposes its own discipline upon you to conform. It's very demanding, but the rewards go well beyond the approbation of your readers.