I love description. I love beautiful words and sentences and I feel that they bring a particular texture or quality to my writing that is unique to me. I also use language to add texture to my work, selecting words that come from the appropriate time period or adopting the formal lilt of dialogue that I envision a character from a particular time frame and social status would have. But there is more to be considered than just the language.
Have you ever worn a hoop dress? Carried a Remington? Rode a horse in a dress or skirt? Worn a genuine 19th century corset? Chances are, probably not. But maybe! I certainly haven’t. And that’s not a bad thing. But if I had, I would have been able to bring a new layer of experience to my storytelling.
You can do all the research in the world, but nothing beats the texture that firsthand experience can bring to your writing. Thus, the devil’s in the details.
These texture details go far beyond traditional research. Texture can add a lot of interesting elements to your writing, even beyond regular description that you are accustomed to adding to your work. Sure you can talk about what someone looks like and how they wore their hair. But do you know what it felt like to be enfolded in a corset all day or to have someone pin your hair in a certain style? What sound did their fingers make when they brushed against a certain kind of fabric or a billowy skirt? I can’t know those things because I didn’t live it. But, now that I am aware of them, I can at least try to find out. And if I can’t learn, I can imagine or envision it. I just needed to get my mind thinking in that direction.
But that’s also the great thing about the internet. Sure finding ways to have these sorts of experiences to enhance your writing is difficult. But you might be able to find someone out there who actually knows what these things were like first hand.
One day, I was working on some late Victorian era research when I came across a woman named Ruth Goodman. Ruth is a social and domestic historian and a woman who lives a 19th century Victorian lifestyle in modern England. She’s brushed her teeth with soot, burned herself trying to cook on a Victorian stove and more. The value of these types of experiences to a historical fiction writer, or a writer of any genre, is unparalleled and I did my own little happy dance when I found her.
The thing that really caught my attention about Ruth was one particular article I came across wherein she describes how she uses her dress to determine proximity. (Sadly I haven’t been able to find that article to link for you here. But I’ll keep looking.) In various times during the Victorian era, large skirts were the style. Ruth states that she had to get used to standing further away from objects because her big skirts would brush against them or get in the way. The same would go for people. Ruth says in the article that she became acutely aware of how close someone was standing to her because of the contact that they made with her skirt, which, of course, she felt when the hoop was pushed askew etc.
In all of my research about the Victorian era and reading texts written during that time frame, this is not a concept that ever came to mind and I think it’s pure genius. Ruth would likely not have been aware of these issues had she not actually worn attire from or inspired by the 19th century. This article from the New York Times has a lot of great details about Ruth’s experiences living at 19th century lifestyle. Ruth also has a book titled “How to be a Victorian: A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Victorian Life” which is on my Christmas wish list so that I can get better acquainted with the characters for my novella and their 19th century experiences.
Thinking about my novella, I can use all of Ruth’s experiences to enhance the voice of Eleanor Westfall, my main female character. I can also use Ruth’s experiences to enhance the voice of Eleanor’s maid, Hazel.
Being able to enhance my own work is exciting. But, even more so is the fact that these experience are not truly lost. History is renowned for snuffing out the voices of women so it’s quite difficult to get an idea of what their lives were like in a number of eras throughout time. The Victorian era is not necessarily one of those eras. But the tiny domestic details that someone from that time period might not have thought important were erased from our collective experience as fashion and other industries changed.
The details I am able to glean from Ruth’s lifestyle are invaluable to enhancing my writing and I’m so excited to read her book and learn more. Even more than that though, I have learned a whole new variety of details that I should be on the look out for to enhance my writing and thus the experience of the reader as I jump through time periods or create new worlds. The devil’s in the details.
Feature Image Photo Credit: Late Victorian Era Fashion Plate – April 1889 Peterson’s Magazine