I find the past fascinating, and love reading and writing historical novels. In two recent blogs, I have written about some of the reasons for setting a story in a particular century. I also realise that a writer can re-tell some stories in a different setting, more readily than others. As promised, I now come to a different reason why people sometimes choose a historical setting for a novel.
The past is less in-your-face than the present.
What I mean is that, if you are writing about a controversial subject, you can make it less offensive, if you set it in the past. You are not talking about ‘us’ but about some other people. Hopefully, when people think about it, they will see it applies to ‘us’ as well as to ‘them’. Readers may find things some of the characters say are echoed in things they hear today. Perhaps they will see they are as wrong now as they were then.
Why not be obvious? Why hide it in the past?
If you mention something controversial, such as race, gender, religion or Ireland, people tend to take sides as soon as you begin, before they have heard what you are saying. When they read something that happened back in some other age, they sometimes come with a more open mind. When you have deplored racism in the US Cavalry in a western, you might reflect on the similarities to racism in the Army or the Police today. If the book was set in the present, you might reject its message before you had taken it in.
Is that why I set Highwaypersons in the past?
No! The stories are bound up in the events in Britain in the early eighteenth century. But you will find things in those novels that are relevant today. After all, race, sex, class and injustice were around then and still are.
Could I have chosen a different setting for Highwaypersons?
I have written about the reasons for setting a novel in a particular century. As promised, I am going to consider a few other factors. The important question is, ‘What happens in the story?’
How does the revolution in IT affect the setting for a novel?
Instant communication is a modern phenomenon. In the past, people had to make decisions for themselves. They could not ask for instructions, unless their superiors were present. Likewise, people had to acquire knowledge from libraries or from experience, as they could not look things up on the internet. News travelled at the speed of a horse. You will see instances where my characters have to work within the limitations of their time. If you updated the story, you would have to justify their apparent deficiencies, or make considerable changes to the plot.
How do social changes affect the setting?
In Highwaypersons, Book II, The King’s Justice, the main characters encounter the slave trade. A similar encounter could have occurred in a book set in the present, perhaps about people-trafficking or debt-slavery, but it would need some careful adapting.
Career opportunities for women are better now, although there’s room for improvement. Bethan and Megan would not have had so few options and therefore their decisions would have taken more explaining, had the story been set in the present. (Pride and Prejudice would not update well for the same reason: Miss Bennett would not need to find a man to keep her.)
In many novels, a lot of comedy depends on efforts at protecting a woman’s reputation. (Bertie Wooster comes to mind.) In the modern World, this does not seem to be so important. Being a virgin, after a certain age, is more of an embarrassment today than the opposite.
In the modern World, debt can be dealt with in various ways. Billy and Bethan would have found it harder to justify turning to crime.
If none of these issues apply, can a novelist pick any setting?
There is at least on more issue to be considered. I will consider it in my next blog.
Is the century in which a novel is to be set not obvious? You might think I am asking a silly question. However, many stories have been updated into different periods. I have just seen a BBC production of King Lear (and a little while ago Hamlet) set in the present. Opinions vary as to how well each adaptation worked. You have probably heard Bible stories retold in modern settings. Some people say a good story is independent of its time.
Why adapt a story to the present century?
Some writers believe that modern readers prefer books with present day settings. They think people can’t relate to the culture of another century. Others say they find it difficult to avoid anachronisms, which can distract readers. It is especially difficult to write in a style which does not seem old-fashioned, yet also not too gratingly modern. I agree these are challenges, but I find they make the writing process enjoyable.
How to choose your century?
Some writers choose the period they are most familiar with, or where they feel most comfortable. Sometimes you have to keep the story in the original setting because it includes actual historical events. The Jacobite Rebellions of the early eighteenth century provide the background for the Highwaypersons trilogy. The stories would not transfer easily to any other time. I like weaving my fictitious stories into real history, but some stories appear to be independent of any period.
How does the content affect the century for the setting?
Apart from major events, stories often contain features which limit your choice of setting. Swordfights, chases on horseback and voyages on sailing ships all occur in Highwaypersons. They could happen in the 21st century, but would tend to seem out of place. Perhaps I could have rewritten them as gunfights, car chases and airline travel. Or left them out? Some writers say they have successfully made such adaptations to old stories. Readers may have their opinions as to the extent of the success.
What else affects the century in which to set a novel?
The important question is ‘What happens’ in the story. I will explain this in a future blog.