Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Use of Etiquette in an Historical Setting

A good work of fiction requires mastery of plot, character, dialogue, etc. For some writers, that's not enough of a challenge. I'm writing specifically of those authors who choose an historical setting for their story. Not only must they master the basic elements of fiction, they must also depict the overlaying historical setting in a convincing manner. Of course an author runs the risk of jeopardizing her credibility if she mishandles the historical setting of their story.

Recently I've had occasion to think about how even small historical details related to social etiquette can substantially strengthen or weaken a story. Historical social etiquette can be used to communicate volumes about characters, their relationships, and their perception of the world. Clever use of social etiquette can be particularly useful to show rather than tell the reader important information. For example, think of how a subtle slight or obsequiousness could convey important details to the reader about the characters. On the other hand, a story suffers a loss of credibility if the characters seem to act inappropriately for the setting. For example, what if a character set in Victorian England had the social grace of a hippie from San Francisco in the '60s--far out, indeed!

Some creative research could help avoid such a bad trip. The trick is to find a research source which the author can first mine for details to enhance the realism of her story and secondly use to get into the correct mindset for her storytelling. To illustrate, let's imagine an author's story takes place in colonial America among affluent planters in Virginia. In this case, she could read "George Washington's 'Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.'"

This small book originated sometime before Washington's16th birthday when young George's teacher assigned him a dual-purpose task. He was to practice his French while also polishing his social grace by translating a French etiquette book into English. The book contained 110 rules governing all types of social interactions. An author could easily follow these rules when crafting various scenes in her story.

Similar sources could be found for any historical setting. I believe such research is a crucial investment. To mishandle the etiquette component, could be as disastrous as portraying a caveman wearing a suite of armour while speaking on a cell phone. -- Matthew Bergstrom

1 comment:

Dee said...

Mr. Bergstrom: I have to agree with you. I have lived in coastal, rural, South Carolina for many years. My husband's family were cotton/indigo plantation owners before the Civil War. My children cut their teeth on stories passed down from generations about plantation life told by their grandfather in a thick, slow, Southern accent. Then, they and I (being an Ungodly Yankee), were taken to the Plantation mansion and given an inch-by-in tour of the grounds and graveyard along with a descriptive list of our ancestors. When my husband passed away tragically, five years ago, I gave up my nursing career and began my second career in writing. "What could I write about?" I asked myself. The answer was as clear as the 'Muscadine jam smeared' nose on my face. My mother-in-law had told me terror-filled tales about disappointment rooms and the horrors of the children that were subjected to them. Well, The Disappointment Room was a perfect story for me write. If it were not for living in the Lowcountry and having the family that I do, the historical/modern day suspense would never have happened. Dee Phelps