Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Any Point In Time

Kristin Nelson asked an intriguing question in her RTB column today. She supposes if the central theme of a love story is universal, why would it matter in what time period the story was set? If the story is about, say, a man seeking redemption for past wrongs and trying to win the hand of the girl-next-door, wouldn't it be smarter to set said story in the marketable Regency era rather than the unmarketable Medieval days? Since publishers seem determined to walk the narrow line as far as what they'll buy as far as historicals, why not do all you can to work the system, especially if the basic story premise is relatively neutral time-wise.

I won't argue about the smarter part as far as business goes. I'm sure it is smarter to write in a time period that is currently hotcakes hot, which I guess is Regency England.

Thing is, if you boil all stories down to their most basic elements, there are only a handful of "themes" or premises out there. Recall that there really are no new ideas. The best any writer can hope for is to take an old idea and find a way to make it fresh and appealing.

Which leads me to argue that it is actually very important where and when a story is set if a writer has any hope of accomplishing that goal. The generic premise of an arranged marriage, for example, can take on completely different parameters based on when it is set. An arranged marriage in Medieval England results from and in something different than one set in the Regency.

Too, the way that people act and react, what is acceptable or expected, possible situations versus the completely improbable all depend heavily on when the story takes place. Things that could or would happen in America's wild west certainly wouldn't be the same things one would expect in Georgian drawing rooms.

Picking a time period places a certain range of parameters on a story. Sure, the theme that anchors these parameters might pivot from the same point, but the details could be completely different. Characters might be the life blood of a romance novel, but plot pumps them from place to place. And time period is crucial to what a plot can and cannot allow.

A man on a mission of redemption could have a dozen different sins he might be seeking to clear, but those wrongs would differ from era to era. If I, as a reader, am expected to buy into the story, I need to believe that what he did really did qualify for a need for redemption. In order to do this, I need to know what the time period allowed as far as actions go. Once upon a time, having a mistress was a perfectly acceptable option for a married noble. Nearer to today, not so much. If I'm to believe the hero is seeking forgiveness from his wife for some dalliance, I need to know that such actions were not the norm for his time. If everyone else was doing it, I'd need to know what special circumstances arose that either a) made the hero believe he, alone, was wrong or b) his wife deserved some special consideration not afforded any other wives of the time.

If all this weren't enough, I think different time periods allow the writer different levels of latitude. I, for one, could never manage a Regency because I don't have the patience as a writer for all the drawing room intrigue nor the ability to seduce through words alone. I find the Regency simply too restrictive for my tastes. I'd rather romp in the Medievals.

In the end, I suppose it all comes down to a matter of taste. Whether or not I could write my story in era and still make it work is irrelevant. If I'm not having any fun writing it, if my only goal is to churn out something that will sell and therefore must be placed in a time that doesn't hold my interest, I don't see how I could fake it well enough that the reader couldn't sense my ambivalence.

Writing is simply too hard and too risky not to be any fun.

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