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Monday, November 8, 2010

THEY CALL ME TIFFANY: HOW TO MAKE YOUR HISTORICAL CHARACTERS, WELL, HISTORICAL

    
by Beatriz Williams



I remember well the day I gave up on historical romance. I was a sophomore in college, sneaking in a little light reading during a study break, when I turned the first page and encountered Tiffany.

Now, in real life, you could count the number of Regency women named Tiffany on zero fingers. But romance isn’t real life, and I could just about tolerate Tiffany. Her best friend was another matter. Annoyed, no doubt, by another one of Our Heroine’s spirited yet childish antics, the BFF was all, “Cut it out, Tiff!” The book hit the wall in an explosion of cheap paper, and I didn’t read another romance for fifteen years.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a stickler for historical detail. If a writer gets her dates mixed up, or dresses her heroine in a sacque gown two years after they went out of style, I’m probably not even going to notice, let alone complain. But nothing yanks me out of a story faster than a modern character dressed up in period clothing, and all the cravats and kid gloves in the world aren’t going to create a historical setting when:

(1) The names sound like a soap opera casting call. Look, I know old-fashioned names sound all boring and junk, but there’s no excuse for a Regency-era Tiffany or a medieval Chandra. Do a Google search for “baby names England 1800”. I guarantee there won’t be a Devlin or a Raven in the bunch. (And let’s not even get started on made-up names, or non-standard spellings, or females given traditionally male names such as Leslie…)

(2) The hero is “quite the” hunk. Perhaps writers are riffing off the legitimately historical expression “not quite the thing,” but the recent explosion of “quite the” (as in, Kayla considered the Duke of Dreadnought quite the rake, or Lady Topnotch made quite the fuss over Breyandra’s new hat) has the unmistakable ring of a modern person trying to sound elegant and historical. “Quite a” will do just fine.

(3) The heroine wants to, like, find herself. I mean, please. Did someone time-travel a copy of EAT, PRAY, LOVE to her bedside table? Modern navel-gazing has no place in a historical brain. (Arguably, it has no place in a modern brain, either.)

(4) The hero is either the heir or the spare. Spare me. I know it’s a hilariously witty phrase and all, but it was first coined around the turn of the 20th century by Consuelo Vanderbilt, who had just produced her second son with the Duke of Marlborough and was inspired to aphorism by the joyous prospect of never having sex with him again.

(5) The hero has no foreskin. In all the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of historical romances I’ve read, not one penis has appeared properly attired. Let me be clear: unless all the dukes of England were secretly Jewish back in the day, they wouldn’t have been circumcised. NOT ONE. So if you write historical fiction (and especially if you write erotic historical fiction) and you’ve never seen a covered wagon cross the mountain divide, I suggest you find a video. Or put an ad on Craigslist. (Or just use your imagination, but where’s the fun in that?)

As for poor old Tiffany, I hope she found her Happily Ever After, and sent her wiseass bestie back to the 20th century where she belonged.♥


Beatriz Chantrill Williams isn’t telling whether the hero of her debut novel OVERSEAS, forthcoming from Putnam, is circumcised or not. But you can read more at http://www.beatrizwilliams.com/ and decide for yourself.

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for your fun take on these not uncommon mistakes found in certain stories. I too find that characters that act totally out of character for the time period, unless they're time travelling, can be distracting and make me want to put the book down. And, now that you've got me pondering the foreskin issue, I have to say I don't remember reading any romances that include THAT much detail!

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  2. Thanks for your thoughts. I agree!

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  3. Beatriz - howlingly funny, spot on, and I have to admit the whole foreskin thing never entered my mind! Cannot recall a single incident of it being, um, described in detail!

    Thanks for the humorous look and reminder to keep it appropriate - though I do have to say I have, from time to time, gotten on my high horse about what I perceived to be an anachronistic use of a saying only to discover upon researching it that it was, indeed, appropriate.

    Which just goes to show - even if it IS appropriate, if it sounds out of time and place, and a reader is jarred by it, does it really matter if it is right or wrong if you lose your reader?

    Here's to all the Tiffanys (Tiffanies?) staying where they belong - Beverly Hills.

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  4. Thanks for your comments, all! Of course, I admit it's also possible to lose your readers on the other side -- too formal and authentic a period tone!

    Lise, I agree it's sometimes hard to figure out what's authentic and what's not. The best way to develop an ear is to go to the source -- period writings. Novels, of course, but also personal letters, which were often conversational in tone and give a good feel for how dialogue would have sounded as actually performed!

    As for foreskins, well, it's the true the issue doesn't come up (so to speak) that often, but I've yet to see even passing descriptions that remotely reflect prewar reality!

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  5. Brilliant post Beatriz! The foreskin thing is actually a real pet peeve of mine, thanks so much for mentioning. :) And lol on Tiff.

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