An eye for detail

I’ve been swapping chapters and talking story with some of the other historical fiction writers from Pitch Wars. One of them, Gwen C. Katz, drew this to illustrate a scene in the first chapter of my Victorian ghost story, Within the Sickle’s Compass; or, The Haunting of Springett Hall:

Lucy

Trust a historical fiction writer to catch the details, right down to the black-on-black embroidery on Sir Edmund’s waistcoat. 🙂

Of course, I’ve noticed that the artist-writers I know have a knack for detail and description. I have a theory that they’re so used to studying and capturing detail that they know just how to convey it to readers. Gwen’s writing was no exception–it provided me with very clear mental images. Since details are especially important to setting the scene in historical fiction, I spend a lot of time studying literature and artifacts from the time period I’m writing about, and I try to keep a strong mental picture of the setting my characters are moving through. I’ll admit to being jealous of my artist-writer friends for whom that process seems to be second nature.

You can see more of Gwen’s work, and a little about her historical fiction, Among the Red Stars (about the “Night Witches,” Russian women who flew biplanes against the Nazis in WWII), at her deviantART web page here.

Did Lady Macbeth have a first name? Shakespearean name etiquette

I’m working on an Elizabethan historical fiction, and I’ve been struggling to find out what a male and female character who are lifelong friends would call each other in the sixteenth century. I wrote about it here, but I turned to Shakespeare for more research, and I feel a little more confident about my answers now.

First, the question of Lady Macbeth. In Shakespeare’s play, she has no name of her own. She is simply the wife or lady of Macbeth. That’s her entire identity. Though some of that is dramatic convention, there’s also a lot of historical weight behind it. Elizabethan men and women were defined to a large extent by their social and political roles. Women had no legal standing outside of their family role (though they did sometimes have their own jobs and could hold some positions in the parish or community).

**My site statistics tell me a lot of visitors come to this page searching for Lady Macbeth’s first name, and I don’t want to disappoint. The Shakespearian character Lady Macbeth is based on a medieval Scottish queen named Gruoch, daughter of Boite, and granddaughter of Cinaed (Kenneth III, King of Scotland). Macbeth was Gruoch’s second husband, and while I’m not familiar with medieval Scottish naming conventions, I’ll bet that she was not called Lady Macbeth in her own days.**

A lot of Shakespeare’s characters are known only by their surname or role, but not all of them. Romeo and Juliet, of course, have first names and use them to address each other, as do Ferdinand and Miranda in The Tempest, and the characters in Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Most of Shakespeare’s plays have foreign or fantastical settings, though, so the characters may not be following Elizabethan conventions.

The Merry Wives of Windsor takes place in an England that would have felt contemporary to Shakespeare’s audiences, so it may be more accurate in showing English customs. This is the play, then, I’m trusting the most to help me get my name usage right.

The men usually use “Master So-and-so” when speaking to each other, and sometimes just call each other by their last names, especially when speaking to someone lower down the social ladder. Knights and priests are given the title “Sir” along with their first name. The men also address each other by roles or relationships, such as “cousin.”

The women, likewise, address each other as “Mistress So-and-so,” even when they’re close friends. In families, people use first names, including wives speaking to their husbands. Women call servants by their first or last names (gender doesn’t seem to influence which they use).

The character who interests me the most for my purposes is young Anne Page, who’s being courted by several men in the play. All the men–whether courting her or not–generally refer to her as Anne Page or Mistress Anne, and when speaking to her, most call her Mistress Anne. The exception is her favorite beau, who calls her Anne or Sweet Nan. She calls him Master Fenton (Fenton is probably his surname).

So, “Master” or “Mistress” was generally used as a sign of respect, often with last names, but sometimes with first names when the people knew each other well and/or one of them was much younger (I don’t think married women were ever addressed as “Mistress First-name,” and I’m getting the assumption that young men would use “Master First-name” with each other from Much Ado About Nothing).

First names might be used alone between single men and women, but this was probably more common when the couple was courting or at least had a romantic interest–friends would probably still use Master/Mistress. Unlike the Victorians, however, using first names does not seem to have been an indication of betrothal. Also, the use of first names alone seems to have been reserved for private moments. In public, more formal address was probably considered proper.

This all applies to middle class Elizabethans. Members of the nobility would have had titles to complicate matters. Servants seem to have been more relaxed in their name etiquette, and might call each other by just surnames or even first names regardless of gender.

Inspiration (Flash fiction piece featured at Helicon West, June 2014)

There’s a knock at the door.

That’s where I’m stuck. My protagonist is standing over her boyfriend’s corpse, the murder weapon in hand, and she hears a knock at the door.

It could be the police.

Nah, no good. If they knew about the murder they’d break down the door, and if not, why would they be there?

Her best friend? Real friends help you move bodies, right? That’s a bit cliché. So’s the knock on the door, though.

The cat hops up and sniffs my screen, then steps on the keyboard.

aweawvghcbb

“We used that line last time.”

I drop the cat on the floor, hit backspace a dozen times, and lean my swivel chair way back. My hair and arms dangle over the edge as I spin and stare at the patterns on the textured ceiling. I spot a horse, a dancing couple, and a dolphin with a creepy mustache. No inspiration there.

My ever-patient husband took the kids out, giving me the whole day to myself.

“You have to have fun,” he said. “Get some work done on your story.”

Crap.

Three hours until they come home. So far I haven’t had fun or written a word. I cleaned the bathroom, even reorganized the toilet paper, soap, and feminine hygiene products under the counter. Then I overthrew a new civilization forming in the back of the fridge. It may once have been lasagna.

If I can just get past this scene, I’ll call the day a success. I’m sure the story will pick up from there.

I lower my foot, dragging the chair to a stop, and notice the cobwebs over the curtains. Ugh. How long has it been since I’ve dusted anything around here? My new vacuum has an attachment for curtains. According to the kid who sold it to me, it has an attachment for everything.

The box of hoses and brushes is as big as I am. I sort through them until I find the one for removing cobwebs from curtains. It works so well, I use it in the other rooms too, even the ones without cobwebs.

Back to work. My cursor ticks a steady rhythm, mocking me. How hard can this be? Pick the worst thing that can happen to your character and make it happen. So, a meteorite crashes through the roof and kills her. The end. Nah, that’s not the worst thing. It’s too easy.

I spin my chair, this time in the opposite direction. Maybe that’s not a dolphin up there. Maybe it’s a porpoise.

The cat slinks up, purring and wrapping herself around the desk leg.

“Didn’t someone feed you this morning? I’m pretty sure it was someone else’s turn to feed you.”

I sigh and swing to my feet. The cat bolts ahead, her sagging belly swaying back and forth as she runs.

“Maybe you could stand to miss a meal. It might be time to give you a bath or something too.”

There’s still food in her dish. She just wants me to shake it around a bit. Still purring like a clogged lawn mower, she rubs against me, leaving a trail of hairs clinging to my black sweats.

The vacuum has a pet attachment too.

I glance at the clock. Two hours until Greg gets home with the kids. I’ve got plenty of time to figure out that knock at the door.

* * *

“We’re home!”

The kids stampede up the stairs.

I shut my laptop with a scowl at the blinking cursor and the last words on the page:

There was a knock at the door.

The kids dart around the disemboweled vacuum cleaner sprawling across the living room. My husband scratches his head and stares at the scattered parts.

“Did you get a lot done?” he asks.

“Oh, yeah, I did. Thanks.”

His jaw’s working. I know that look. He’s trying to decide if he wants to ask. Before he can, the kids squeal and giggle, pointing at the shame-faced cat as she darts for a safer hiding place.

A door-to-door vacuum salesman. That has potential.

I whip the laptop back open, hunching behind it to muffle my words. “The vacuum’s clogged.”

 

(Flash fiction is a story under 1000 words complete with fully-developed plot and characters. They can be a fun change of pace to deal with writer’s block or burn out on bigger projects. As this is a work of fiction, no cats were denuded in the making of this story. 🙂 )

Using Google Ngram Viewer for historical fiction and historical fantasy

Google Ngram Viewer is one of the writing tools I turn to often when writing a story with a historical setting. This tool searches Google’s vast collection of online books (5 million plus) for the words or phrases you enter and graphs the frequency that the word appears in print. Since it’s searching printed books, it’s pretty sparse when dealing with the Renaissance or Early Modern era, but if you’re into the Regency and Victorian periods, it’s a great help. It does have some options for foreign language books as well.

For instance, during the Victorian period, the cravat of Regency fame evolved into a close relative of our modern necktie. When I’m describing my male character’s clothing, though, I don’t want to say necktie, because that will give my modern readers the wrong mental image (especially if they picture colorful modern ties). On the other hand, I don’t want to call it a cravat if that’s not what the Victorians would have said. So, I went to Google’s Ngram Viewer:

https://books.google.com/ngrams

I entered “cravat” and “necktie,” separated by commas, so they would appear on the same graph. It told me the word “necktie” first appeared in print in the late 1850s, but “cravat” continued to dominate literature until after 1900.

There are some things to be aware of with Google Ngram Viewer. “Cravat” still appears frequently in modern books, almost as often as “necktie.” Why? Because we love Regency and Victorian novels. Not many people would say cravat now–most of us would even say tie instead of necktie–but the word still appears in print because of historical fiction. Still, given the dominance of “cravat” in literature through the end of the Victorian period, I feel pretty safe assuming it was still being used to refer to contemporary Victorian fashion. (Also, it was the word I wanted to use to keep my historical flavor, so I’m prejudiced in its favor.)

Another thing to remember with Google Ngram Viewer is it doesn’t understand the evolution of a word’s meaning; it just tells you if a word was used in print. So, the word “lover” appears more frequently in Victorian literature than in modern, according to the Ngram Viewer. Don’t let this overthrow your ideas of Victorian propriety–they used “lover” to mean a suitor or romantic interest, not necessarily to imply physical intimacy as it would today. In Pride and Prejudice, when Mr. Bennett says Wickham, “… simpers, and smirks, andmakes love to us all,” he certainly doesn’t mean it in the modern sense! This is where a good dictionary that includes archaic meanings comes in handy for the writer, and where readers might need context clues to make sure they understand how you’re using the word (and some words you just can’t use–they’ve acquired too much baggage over the years).

Google Ngram Viewer won’t solve all your historical word choice dilemmas, but it can help you determine if a word is appropriate for setting the right tone for your historical fiction or fantasy. It’s also a fun way to waste time when you’re supposed to be writing, and you can call it research.

What’s in a name?

I need to know what my Elizabethan characters should call each other.

I feel pretty well-versed in Regency and Victorian name etiquette. For the most part, with Victorian forms of address, someone was Mr., Mrs., or Miss to the opposite sex unless the speaker was closely related or engaged to them. Men almost never used first names with one another (unless they were a “Sir,” and then it was “Sir John” or “Sir Walter”–isn’t that odd?). Mr. Smith and Mr. Wallace became Smith and Wallace if they were good friends. Female friends might “propose” to one another, declaring themselves close enough friends to use first (“Christian”) names. Otherwise they were Miss [Surname] or sometimes, in the case of younger sisters, Miss [First Name]. Male servants were often called by their last names, female servants by their first unless they were older or high up in the servant ranking. Sometimes the mistress of a house would “rename” a servant, so Augustine might be called James and Georgette could become Jane if it fit the mistress’s whim or sense of propriety (not wanting servants to get “above themselves”).

That’s not too hard, right?

The trouble I’m running into is figuring out Elizabethan name etiquette. I’m not interested in Elizabethan forms of address for courtiers at the moment–they’re a whole different matter. But when did your average, relatively well-to-do Elizabethan man or woman call people by their first names? I have an MA in this period of British history, and I’ve never come across an explanation of the social rules of Elizabethan names. I read a stack of “Life in Elizabethan England” type books, and none of them offer the details I’m looking for, so I turned to primary sources–poems and plays from Renaissance England–to see what I could glean.

Men and women were generally called “Master [Surname]” or “Mistress [Surname].” Sometimes a women might be called “Mistress [First name]”, maybe especially by men who were close to her or to her family. I’m still trying to work out the details of when that was acceptable.

Family members used first names with each other, though men often called their wives “wife,” “lady,” or (less kindly) “wench.” The wives commonly called their husbands “sir.” This is an interesting insight into how important ranking was to the Elizabethan mind–the husband was (in theory) firmly ensconced as the head of the house, the wife likewise just below him in her role as mistress of the house, overseeing servants and daily work. Rank and role were central to identity, maybe more so than given names.

Elizabethans usually used “Master” and “sir” (or “Mistress”) toward their social superiors who didn’t have formal titles, used surnames and occasionally first names with their friends and equals of the same sex, and used first names or even pet names when addressing servants. Servants, however, seemed to use first names among themselves, regardless of gender. Maybe because they shared a similar social sphere (though of course there were ranks even among servants).

Does this mean a man and woman who are courting might call each other by their first names? What if they’re lifelong friends of equal social standing? Does using first names imply betrothal as it did with Victorians? The courting couples in the contemporary Renaissance plays I’ve read so far don’t use names much when they speak to each other, and the women don’t do a lot of talking. In Thomas Seymour’s A Woman Killed with Kindness, a man and woman carrying on a illicit affair still call each other “Master X” and “Mistress Y”, but that might be a devise to remind the audience that their relationship is adulterous.

If I can’t find a better answer, I’ll err on the side of Victorian-like formality, but I’m a firm believer that these little details set the flavor of the story, and I want to get them right. If anyone out there knows the answer, I’d love to hear it, and if I find one myself, I’ll post an update.