The Historical Line
When you plant a story in historical times, you must recognize that your audience might find the setting to be something of a barrier. This is not a criticism of either the setting or the readers, it’s just a fact: when so many good stories are already based in the present day, asking people to fully understand the nuances of a bygone era –– or for that matter, a future one –– can be a challenge.
From a writing standpoint, the easy solution to this problem is to try to make that past period as familiar as possible –– to change some of its circumstances to improve its accessibility. This is undoubtedly necessary, though it can go too far… if the past setting is merely a poor copy of the modern world, then why wouldn’t the audience simply go for a genuinely present-day story? I’m of the opinion that the uniqueness of the past must be respected… but the modern expectations of an audience must be met as well. How do you strike that balance?
Short answer: carefully.
Obviously, having spent six books with the b’ys in His Majesty’s New World, and being over a year into Champions, I have some ideas about trying to blend past and present. In both those series, I used the fact that they were alternate history (that there’s a whole other planet in the picture) to bend the rules. That’s why, for instance, we can have young Stephanie Shylock serving as a gun-toting Second Lieutenant in Britain’s most elite Special Service Regiment in 1940… even though she’s American, and even though she’s a she.
But putting Stephanie in that role wouldn’t work without acknowledging the real historical context of the period. Even though Champions takes place six decades after Earth has been connected to another planet, and two decades after genetically-engineered human heroes have become widely accepted, its broader society must still reflect something of our real 1940s. If everyone was to tacitly accept Stephanie’s right to her job, the story might as well have been set today (or perhaps in the future, given present-day anxieties about women in combat).
The problem is similar with questions of race. I obviously have some rather modern views on the subject of cultural relations, but those have to be set against the historical realities of the period. Making sure plots don’t become too unrealistic, or indeed, too depressingly realistic, takes compromise –– walking a fine line that often requires rewrites to get right. Naturally that can be frustrating… but writing alternate history, I feel fortunate: I can bend the rules. Writers of good historical fiction enjoy far less latitude…
And yet, some still do brilliant jobs mixing modern themes and characters with historical settings. The best example of this, for me, is not a book, but a television program called Ripper Street.
Set in the years after the Jack the Ripper murders in London, the series is effectively a Victorian crime drama. What makes it brilliant is the quality of its writing, its acting, and the way it manages to marry a very authentic-feeling 1880s-1890s setting, with some surprisingly current themes. It’s as though Dirty Harry and Downton Abbey have met to address modern issues such as mental health, support for veterans, collective bargaining, insurgency, eugenics, and gay rights. And it works.
Detective Inspector Reid is the lead, and he is a thoroughly progressive sort (by the standards of the time, and indeed, by some standards of today), without ever seeming out of place. He is interested in science, believes strongly in forensics, is relentlessly noble in his determination to protect the citizens of his quarter… but like all good present-day television characters, he is simultaneously haunted by tragedy, and flawed. He also subscribes to some of the most delightful policing techniques of his times –– namely having his Sergeant beat the hell out of bad guys who won’t talk:
Following Reid and his excellent Lieutenants through the series, you get a very visceral sense for London of that period. This is not a typical costume drama (though being the sort of person who enjoys wearing a three-piece suit to the office every day, I certainly approve of the Metropolitan Police dress code for Detectives). The Victorian era was rough, unsympathetic, and not nearly so civilized as posh romanticists might have liked it to be… and perhaps that makes it all the more accessible.
Either way, it’s a place and time worth visiting, and when you go with Ripper Street, you’ll learn something of what it was like (in the broad strokes suitable to a television drama), while also finding clever commentary about the state of the world today. I must say the writers are particularly good at that last part –– by having their characters imagine how certain technologies and social developments might alter future society, they allow us to reflect on what’s actually occurred, without ever needing to preach. Well handled indeed.
Whenever I’m having a headache trying to walk the line between historical accuracy and modern storytelling, it’s easy to find inspiration in a show like Ripper Street. Oh, and not for nothing, its trailers are pretty bad-ass: