Adventures in Contemporaryland

First, a bit of blatant self-promotion that is actually relevant to what I’m talking about today: I’m making a debut as a Harlequin Spice author in the summer (Tell Me More), under my own name since at my advanced age I have no innocence/innocents to protect (and before that, kicking and screaming, drag it out of me, then, Mr. Bishop and the Actress is being released next month. More on that later. Of course).

So I’m writing contemporaries for Spice which means I have to write in American, which is tricky. But what I found even worse was not having the gorgeous array of props and costumes you have at hand when writing historicals. Take this lousy passage:

The Duke leaned against the marble mantelpiece and raised his quizzing glass while taking a sip from the glass of brandy. [Internal Ed: careful, you know where this is heading] The sunlight from the open shutters turned his hair, carefully arranged in the latest windswept to burnished gold. He brushed at a tiny speck of dust on his skintight pantaloons [Internal Ed: oh crap, he does have three hands]. “My dear,” he drawled, “I assure you marriage was the last thing on my mind.” [Internal Ed: what!? Who’s he talking to, anyway?]

Now, translate this into a contemporary:

The [Internal Ed: the what? Cop? I don’t do cops. OK. The mayor? Nah. Come back to it later] leaned against his car [Internal Ed: we’re outside, then? OK] and pushed his dark glasses further up his nose [Internal Ed: I can live with it but it doesn’t imply anything to do with his status, only that he can’t buy dark glasses that fit] while taking a sip [Internal Ed: sip? Are you sure? Gulp?] from his beer [Internal Ed: remember your responsibility to your readers! Is he going to drink and drive?]. The sunlight turned his mussed hair to burnished gold. [Internal Ed: zzzzz] He brushed at a tiny speck of dust on his skintight jeans [Internal Ed: see three hands, above, also sounds a bit gay and not in a good way, but then so does the Duke]. “Honey,” he drawled, “I ain’t talkin’ about a weddin’.” [What? Has this guy ever been inside a library in his life?]

And so it goes.

On the other hand, instead of this:

Heart pounding, she sat at her writing desk and sharpened a knife. On a clean sheet of paper she hastily wrote a note, scattered sand over it, and folded and sealed it. Reaching for the bell pull, she summoned the footman to deliver it to the Duke’s house, warning him that he must return with his grace’s answer immediately.

You have this:

She texted him.

And instead of this:

For three long days and nights the carriage lurched across rutted roads, stopping only for brief pauses to change the horses while the weary passengers took what refreshment they could, and several times alighting to help push the vehicle out of the filthy mud in the torrential rain [Internal ed: enough already]

You have this:

One hour and one packet of roasted nuts later, the plane landed. [Internal ed: long enough for her to join the mile-high club, surely? Call yourself a writer?]

What do you miss when you read contemporaries? What sort of details and how much do you like in historicals?

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11 years ago

I think I miss the balls and the teas the most. I love when a bunch of old biddies get together and gossip over tea. I also like to know what people are wearing and I like to know about gowns more than she was in a t-shirt and jeans. Also I love some of the words and phrases of the Regency. My favorite is “in my salad days” or “tripping the light fantastic”.

I am writing a contemporary which I know you all know. Since it’s an update of Northanger Abbey I wanted to have a little nod to JA and the Regency. So I wrote in a costume ball where the hero and heroine go as Regency characters….not from a JA novel because I thought that would be a little too much of a nod.

My biggest problem now is trying to remember what my character knows and what she doesn’t know. She’s a scholar (Ph. D. student) and she has a friend, who she met online. This friend has tons of money and a wardrobe to match that money. At first I had my character notice her friends bag as a balenciaga then I realized she would never know the designer’s name, but she would recognize that it looked like it cost a semester’s worth of tuition.

11 years ago

Well, she texted him, then updated her status on Twitter (OMG. I am STILL waiting for him to answer me!!!)
which also posted to facebook where she got distracted by her BFF’s status change from Single to In a Relationship.

While she waited she checked in at Foursquare and YES!! She was now the mayor of the corner coffee shop!

Diane Gaston
11 years ago

That does it. I am not about to try a contemporary anytime soon. Especially because I hardly know what Carolyn is talking about!

On the other hand, your characters can hop into bed without the author going into contortions to motivate it in historically accurate ways.

Susanna Fraser
11 years ago

Hee! That’s part of why I rarely read contemporaries unless they have paranormal elements or are set somewhere wildly different from my everyday big city American world. (I love Kathleen Eagle’s books set in modern Indian Country, for example.) And I’ve never even imagined trying to write one. Unless the baseball time travel story that occasionally pokes its way up to the front of my imagination counts.

Good luck with your Spices–you’re a braver woman than I am. 😉

Alyssia Kirkhart
11 years ago

Janet, this totally cracked me up! But, oh, I cannot WAIT for your contemporary release!! Folks, if you haven’t read The Rules of Gentility, Improper Relations, and A Most Lamentable Comedy, shame on you! And Janet, please, from time to time, shoot us out a new historical. Because you’re so very good at it, and you keep us Regency authors on our toes to strive for fun and wit while we’re writing about quizzing glasses, fashionable promenades in Hyde Park, and — gasp! — “innocent” strolls with notorious rakehells in dimly lit gardens, and without a chaperon! Most shocking! 🙂 ~

Janet Mullany
11 years ago

One tricky thing is that the time from writing to publication can sometimes be so long that technology has overtaken your characters. I added references to FB and texting when I revised Tell Me More.

It is such a relief to have your characters sit in injured silence for only an hour as they travel from A to B (and if necessary with iPod buds firmly in ears). But I miss the clothes, altho it is MUCH easier to get them naked fast and dressed again fast. No lacing unless it’s special circumstances.

Thanks Alyssia, I hope I get another contract; I hope I get some ideas soon!

Louisa Cornell
11 years ago

Go, Janet !! I’ll bet you have a ball writing contemps. Your wit is suited to all time periods, but I can’t wait to see what you do with a modern setting!

I think it is the entire package of a historical that attracts me. The scenery, the stately homes, the social mores, the clothes and most of all the language. I LOVE words and language and speech during the Regency (or any period prior to the 1920’s) was so elegant and musical. I just love to read it or even better to have Richard Armitage read it to me !

11 years ago

I’ll read a Janet Mullany book whether it’s set in Regency England, modern America, or on Mars. Your books are smart, funny, and your heroes and heroines are always perfectly matched. I never have the “s/he’s great but I don’t see what s/he sees in him/her” reaction.

As for historicals vs contemporaries, I mostly read the former. I enjoy going to a different time and place to see how they dealt with the contraints their society and technology (or lack thereof) placed on them, and it doesn’t hurt if the clothes are pretty. Contemporaries may be difficult because at times I can’t suspend disbelief because I know too much. I remember one where the heroine’s first boyfriend was supposed to be a big-time financier and was something of a wimp. I work in finance, and you definitely don’t get to the top without more than your share of arrogance. Wimps need not apply, so the book had a huge mark against it in terms of believability, which significantly affected my view of the book as a whole. That happens sometimes in historicals, but it is far less likely to occur.

PS: In terms of technology, the current exhibit of Elvis photos at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington shows him on a train listening to his most recent record on a portable record player — no iPod, no ear buds in sight (and wouldn’t be for another 50 years).

PPS: @ Rachel — I think the phrase “salad days” is from Shakespeare so was old even in the Regency.

11 years ago

Love your comparisons. The past certainly looses something in translation to the present.

In contemporaries, I miss the feeling of structure in society. Yes there are the characters from the other side of the tracks and those that come from money, but these are things that can change or be overcome.

In historicals,, for the most part you are who you were born to be. Good or bad, a Duke is still a Duke and a chambermaid is still a chambermaid and so they shall remain. The exception to that would be historicals set in America. There was a class system, but for the most part, especially in the West, you were who you proved yourself to be. Wealth gave you an advantage, but lack of it didn’t mean you couldn’t work hard and make something of yourself.

I am a detail person. I want accuracy in the history and the details of the story. The more little details of daily life, politics, fashion, etc. that are included , the more I like it.

Good luck with your new endeavor. I hope you enjoy writing the contemporaries. Try to stay away from three handed characters.

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