Hats

There was a time when people wore hats whenever they were out of the house. In fact, before that, they often wore them inside the house too, especially if they were women. Married women wore little frilly caps on their heads, as a mark of their status, or perhaps to show they were ‘off-limits’? You’ll have seen those in the period dramas we often enjoy on TV.

In addition, for centuries, there was a biblical requirement for women to cover their heads in church. This is still true today of various religions, both for males and females, but in everyday life hats are pretty rare. The first man to wear a top hat in London was fined for a breach of the peace, when a woman fainted from the shock of seeing this new head-wear. I’d have loved to be a fly on the wall when she was carried home in an ambulance or the arms of some burly cab-driver. What did she say when her hubster, returning from his office in the city, said, ‘So dearest, how was your day?’

This is why I felt the impact of the headline about Agatha Christie’s disappearance, when I wrote about it in a blog post a few months ago. (If you missed it, you can read that post here.) One of the bylines carried by The Surrey Times on December 4th 1926  ran, ‘Hatless and Coatless at 6am’. That said it all, because in those days, a respectable woman would no more leave the house without a hat, than without her underwear.

I mourn the passing of the hat. These days, most of us only wear a hat on a very specific kind of occasion. We can still obtain hats, but they aren’t as much fun as they once were. Department stores offer in the main, ‘Mother-of-the-bride’ type fascinators and picture hats. We have sun hats, beanies or bobble hats, we have baseball caps, and…? It’s not a big range. This is why I love writing about glamorous people living in the past. I think the 1930s would have suited me. Apart from not being able to text my nearest and dearest with such comments as ‘OMG that pill-box hat with veil and feathers is totes the biz. #needitnow’.

It’s also another reason why I love the internet – there is so much hat-porn to browse, it’s just not true. If you are interested in vintage costume and accessories, (I’m looking at you, Lin) try the sites below for a trip through what we used to wear. I’ve never possessed a toque. Or a picture hat. Or… *sigh* …so many hats, so little time. If anyone in the fashion industry is reading this, please bring back mandatory hat-wearing, I’m begging you. Meanwhile, here are a few notable hat-wearing events from my own family:

Hats for work/status

 

Ceremonial hats

 

Hats for function

 

Celebratory/event hats

 

Hats for occasions

 

Hats for fun/frolics – we need to bring these back!

 

A few sites of interest regarding costume and accessories, great for research, or just passing the time:

https://stockportoldtown.co.uk/visit/hatworks/

https://www.fashionmuseum.co.uk/

https://www.ftmlondon.org

https://www.thehouseoffoxy.com/

https://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/fashion

http://debyclark.blogspot.com/2013/04/1930s-fashion-history-inspiration-beach.html

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Quick tips for historical fiction writers

Historical fiction is perennially popular. Readers love to read about people from different eras, with different expectations and experiences than we have today. The different approaches to mystery-solving or to marriage and romance offers an irresistible appeal. But there are a few things to keep in mind if you’re writing anything set in the recent, or even the distant past. Here are my five tips for writing historical fiction.

  1. Try to remember you are writing to entertain, it is not the main goal of historical fiction to educate, although that may be a part. When you’ve worked hard to carry out research, it is so tempting to cram it all in, making sure none of your effort goes to waste, but that will not result in a rewarding story for your readers. Pick a few key elements that are relevant to your plot, such as mode of transport, or social events, or maybe build your plot around a real event in history. Don’t write a lecture.
  2. Be accurate, but don’t be a pedant. True, it’s important to have a high degree of historical accuracy to avoid knowledgeable readers getting irritated by your mistakes, but if you are pedantic, you may create too alien a world, meaning you will spend a lot of time explaining the era to your reader. This, obviously, will impact on their enjoyment of the story.
  3. Language. Language is living and evolving, and if you write novels set in the past, the language they used then will certainly be different to the language we use today. However, remember that you are writing for a modern audience who may not understand if you stick too closely to the language of your era. To avoid a sense of incongruity, use a few key idioms from your research, and in general, simplify the language you use, especially in dialogue, making speech a little more formal than is normal for ‘now’. Also, take care to avoid very modern phrases and ideas. You can’t have women from Victorian England described as ‘Babes’, unless your book is about time travel!
  4. The same goes for costume, food, pastimes and attitudes. You can have your protagonist as a very forward-thinking person who bucks the trend, but in most cases they will have the same attitudes and beliefs as the majority of their era. Read books that were written in your chosen time period where possible, to get a feel for the norms and manners of the day.
  5. Check that what you think you know is true. We unwittingly absorb so much from inaccurate or Hollywoodised movies and books, that it’s easy to carry over their misconceptions into your work. We understand that communication was slower, for example, due to the relative lack of technology, but even in the mid-nineteenth century, in Britain, a letter could be expected to be received and replied to, within a week of posting. And transport may have been different, but speed was still possible. I once edited a ‘Regency’-era novel in which the healthy young male protagonist took three weeks to travel from London to Calais, a distance of a little over twenty miles. He could have walked it in a couple of days, even allowing for the sea-crossing, and there were plenty of fast stagecoaches to take one from London to the coast. So do make sure you check vital plot devices for accuracy or you will earn some one-star review from readers who are experts on the era and are frustrated by your mistakes.

Glaring inaccuracies will grate on a reader and spoil their pleasure in reading your carefully-crafted novel, so do your homework, but just don’t use it all in your book. At least it will come in useful for the next book in your series!

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Know your stuff – for historical writing

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Huge numbers of people still love to read fiction set in the past. Consequently, many modern authors seek to write works set in bygone eras. The first thing you notice when you read books written by Jane Austen for example, is the difference in language. If I compare a contemporary novel to Pride and Prejudice, for example, then yes, clearly they are both written in the same language, and use hundreds, if not thousands, of the same words. But they don’t always use them in the same way.

Language is a living thing, and it changes and evolves, just like us. Our attitudes change, and as the years go by, we learn, we develop, we change. And as we change, the language we use also changes.

For a writer it can be difficult to find the right words to express what you want to say. If your writing is set in the past it can be really tough. You want your prose to read like it could have been written by Austen, but you don’t want it to be dull, dense or overly complicated for twenty-first century readers who are less used to reading a style full of long sentences and descriptive passages.

My advice is, keep it simple. Write in a slightly more formal, grammatically correct style than you usually do, but don’t overdo it. Keep your sentence structure modern in the sense of being shorter, clearer and to the point, and avoid being too ‘wordy’. Then examine your writing for modern phrases and sayings, or modern concepts and allusions that have sneaked into your work. Make sure your work is carefully positioned in the world you are writing about. Don’t use words, phrases and ideas that would have been alien to your chosen era. To use Jane Austen again to illustrate an example, don’t refer to objects and things as stuff; stuff was another word for fabric or material. Many words have changed their meaning so make sure you use language consciously.

If you’re not sure about something, and research and interest groups haven’t helped you, then my suggestion would be to leave it out if you possibly can. Never underestimate the knowledge of your reader – if you have introduced an anachronism – something from the wrong time period – you can bet your reader will notice!

For research and guidance, check out these sites:

A glossary of Regency terms: http://www.linoreburkard.com/resources_glossary.html#t

The London season: http://www.logicmgmt.com/1876/season.htm

A great writing blog: https://maggiemackeever.wordpress.com/2008/08/28/writing-regency/

An introduction to the world of Jane Austen’s novels: https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2007/10/01/jane-austens-language/

 

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