1. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Avoiding Cultural Anachronisms Without Losing the Reader

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by Catrin Lewis, Jul 10, 2014.

    Putting this out there for comment, reflection, reaction, etc.:

    Times change. And while I would argue that basic human morality remains the same, ethics and the practical outworking of morality shift with culture and milieu. I think most people who read historical fiction understand this, and if they're like me they're irritated when an author makes someone in the Middle Ages, say, talk and act and think just like someone out of 1998.

    But what if the "historical" period you're writing about isn't that long ago? What if it's a milieu very similar to ours but with very big differences as well? What if it's a time we haven't quite finished reacting against; a time like, say, 1981-'82?

    When I wrote the novella I currently have in revision it was 1983 and the milieu I described, along with its permissions and expectations, were the way things were. I didn't have to worry about reader disconnection. But now I'm dusting it off and I've made a conscious choice to keep the story in its time period and not permit any of the characters to reflect on the action from a later date

    I'm doing pretty well with that so far, I think. It's been fun remembering and researching when certain slang terms began to be used and what clothes were worn and what was available as to equipment and so forth. But in a short while I'm going to be reworking the scene where my hero and heroine confess their love for one another and have their first sexual encounter. Some revision is needed, yes, to tighten up the plot and to deepen the drama. But I want to leave the basic action the same, otherwise there's no crisis.

    But! But! That scene, and in fact the whole love story subplot, involves a boss (single, but still a boss) carrying on a romance with his female employee. Yes, she's single, too. Yes, she's been hot for him since the book began (though up to the moment of the encounter she has herself convinced she's cooled off and they're Just Friends). Yes, they're both mature, consenting adults. And being people of the early '80s they're both acting on assumptions that back then would have been thought of as forgivable at worst and even would have fulfilled contemporary expectations. (I mean, for decades of the 20th century wasn't getting a job with a powerful guy the first step towards landing him as a husband? In popular assumption, at least?)

    But last night it occurred to me that a reader in 2014 might look at that scene, even at the whole plotline, and think, "What a terrible person! He's using his power as her employer to get an advantage over her and she won't be able to say No without risking her livelihood!" Which is the last reaction I want. I want the reader to say, "At last these two are together!" Until, that is, I throw more obstacles in the way of their permanent relationship that won't be removed till the book's end. :D :twisted:

    What do you think? What's the best way to write recent historical fiction and stay true to the time without losing the reader? Especially when an essential part of your plot involves something that might (or does) violate today's ethics?
     
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2014
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  2. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I'm going to get some argument here, and that's cool, but I think there's a difference, as regards anachronism, between a) what takes places, b) how the characters react to and assimilate what takes place, and c) how you the writer treat the presentation of both. I had a similar conversation concerning the presentation of LGBT characters in a period piece where I argued that it's perfectly possible for the writer to have everything that takes place be period-correct, have the reactions of the characters, even the LGBT characters, be period-correct, and still write the story in a manner that brings sensitivity to the issue, without making the work as a whole present the happenings and reactions as those held by the writer. In short, you can write a period, LGBT story, that is not anachronistic, and still treat it with sensitivity. You can.

    Also, I think there's only so much you can do to remove yourself from your personal present paradigm in your writing. Something of you now is going to bleed into your story then. So, I think it's more a matter of degree, not a black or white yes or no.

    On a similar note, I was watching American Hustle the other day, and even as much as they tried to capture the essence and the realism of the time period, even still, no one, even if they came from a far flung culture, would ever confuse that film for one actually made in the 70's, were they to watch one and compare it. American Hustle is a look back, through time, and there's no way around that. The storyline itself, though it happened in the 70's is not one that would have mattered as much to a 70's audience as it does to us today. The why of the story is totally 2014, even though the happenings are 1975.

    You're not who you were in 1981 or 1982. You are a different person. Why you chose to write the things you chose to write is affected by your now. Your concern over how readers are going to read what you wrote way back when is a product of your now. You cannot escape it. You can only try to mitigate it. So don't worry overmuch about it.
     
  3. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Troo dat.

    True, again. Which is why I'm going to have to put particularly hard labor into fleshing out my villain. When I wrote him I plastered certain stereotypical labels on him that were popular at the time. And as much as I'd like to convince my readers the revised version was completed by the mid-'80s, I cannot and will not keep those cheap-ass labels because I've learned since then that they're a lie. So I have to invent something more complex for him. :unsure:

    *werkwerkwerkwerkwerk*

    {Italics mine.}

    I agree-- mostly. Actually, though, I do want the reader to feel I'm invested in what my characters do and believe. Not that I approve of all they get up to; they make dumb mistakes, they commit sins, and those dumb mistakes and sins are necessary to forward the plot. But if they are to be judged I want it to be according to the standards of their own time, not by me looking over my glasses at them in indulgent 21st century disapproval. And I can't invite my readers to do the same. It'd be dishonest to the nth degree.

    No, my goal is to write the story well enough so the reader takes it for granted that what's going on between my protagonists is, except for the obstacles I mentioned before, perfectly right and good. So my task is to remove anything that's red-flag objectionable. I want the reader to get so far into the protags' story it'll take awhile before he or she remembers that's not how we do things now. And when she does remember, she won't care!
     
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2014
  4. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Well, you know that the 'labels' in question were part of the paradigm of that decade. You were there. You lived it. (So did I, btw. Born in 1970). Maybe it's less about removing those labels - since they are valid to the time if not to the greater reality of things - and using them to say something relevant to your now. We don't delete the "N word" from historical pieces because we would be aghast to hear anyone use it now, right? It's relevant to the then of the story. I think it would be more anachronistic to remove the labels that are worrying you because your present you finds them perhaps a little repellant. Better to use them to speak about the then you experienced first hand. What you say about the then is up to you and, to me, a separate thing from the concept of anachronism.
     
  5. stevesh
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    stevesh Banned Contributor

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    It might also be that not as many readers as you fear would have a negative reaction to that situation. Bosses have been getting involved with underlings for as long as there have been both, and I don't see that changing. As long as the boss doesn't overtly 'abuse his power', I, as a reader, wouldn't think twice about the propriety of the relationship.
     
  6. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    You may have a point. And the solution may be in the original typescript. The label in question is applied from the outside; the reality about the villain's motivations and views is a lot more complex, even before revision.
     

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