Don’t Let Regency Intimidate

The following appears on page one, chapter one, of Connie Brockway’s The Golden Season: “Ecru-fluted silk trimmed the emerald green pelisse covering her elegant and well-curved figure, while her shimmering burnt-caramel colored curls peeked out from beneath a spring bonnet bedecked with feathers, fronds, and flowers.”

Such a well-timed and apt description throws a reader pell-mell down the Regency well and, with a bit of determination, a writer can keep a reader immersed. Notice I said ‘bit.’

I do not yet consider myself an expert on the Regency era. I cannot name every Napoleonic battle and I cannot name which British crops were exported during those years. But I don’t let that stop me from writing about my favorite era. After all, a romance novel isn’t a history book. It merely requires a smattering of well-placed, Regency-based descriptions. The plot, the sexy hero and the feisty heroine are the true hooks. The Regency details work to keep the story three-dimensional and believable.

Often, the challenge is more about what wording to avoid. No reader wants to be tossed from century to century as they read. Such jolts might cause a reader to stop reading mid-story. For instance, a Regency hero would never use the “F” word. Instead, he’d say “bloody hell” when properly miffed. A heroine would never say, “Sure!” in response to a desirable dance request. Rather, she would say something along the lines of, “I would be delighted, my lord.” A Regency lady does not wear an overcoat. For her, it’s a pelisse, cloak, or spencer—none of which keep her very warm. And while a Lady’s blush can be seen on her neck, a Lord’s flush would not be visible there, since his cravat thoroughly covers his neck.

So, how does one go about “Regencifying” their story enough to make it believable?

One of the most important things to do is to read a lot of good Regency. Jane Austen doesn’t describe clothing very often, but her Regency dialog is—of course—the real thing. Georgette Heyer might as well have lived in the era. Her Regency romances were published more than a hundred years after Austen’s, but she is an expert on the times, and her books make for excellent research.

Take notes while you read. Write down the stunning clothing descriptions and vehicle technicalities—not to copy them, but to learn from them. And if you pay enough attention, you won’t make the mistake of writing about a wager made on a barouche race (although that might be something a man trying to grab a lot of attention might do). If you’re a more visual person, watch movies instead of opening the books. Jot down your notes while watching Emma, Pride and Prejudice, or Persuasion (all easily borrowed at the local library).

Keep organized lists of words like cloak-bag, rake (not the lawn tool), and ton (not the weight measurement). Also write down key phrases like “a child in short petticoats” and “bowed himself out with a flourish” and “every article of furniture in the room, from the sideboard to the fender.” Make notes about who rides in what, what piece of furniture goes where, and who wears what. Then you can easily insert selected details into your stories as needed, to keep the Regency flavor intact.

Internet research, both fun and frustrating, is a priceless resource. If you’re looking for broad information, the surfing process is wonderful. Particular details are sometimes a more challenging find. Web sites about English titles of nobility quickly taught me that a Duke outranks an Earl and an Earl outranks a Baron. But when I wanted a specific question answered: “Are a son and a father ever called the same name while both are alive, since sons are often called ‘Lord’ out of courtesy?” I had to dig. The answer, by the way, is no. Only the father would be called, for example, Lord Berkeley; anyone referencing the son would add the son’s first name: Lord Robert Berkeley. The peerage is tedious, but it’s a must-know if you’re going to write Regency, so you simply have to grit your teeth and learn it.

Newgate Prison features prominently in my first novel, Love Trumps Logic, but those scenes initially stalled my writing, since I couldn’t visualize what I was writing about. But a Google search of ‘Newgate Prison,’ led me to an actual layout of the jail in the early 1800s. I dug deeper and found a site that taught me the difference between keepers and turnkeys, constables and thief takers, putting an end to my writer’s block.

Since you cannot plagiarize the clothes descriptions you’ve catalogued, a bit of Internet research comes in handy, determining which fabrics and accessories were used.  Muslin, satin, wool, lace, and velvet are all acceptable, but you won’t find nylon or denim in the Regency period. Buttons were often made of pearl or bone, never plastic. Also, the unmarried young ladies were expected to wear pastels or white. The darker colors were considered more sophisticated and were off-limits to the debutantes. Such tidbits about clothing I found at http://www.rakehell.com.

For those who are members of Romance Writers of America, another Web site for Regency information is http://www.thebeaumonde.com. Join for $35, renew yearly at $30.

A source that I reference often is a book, English Through the Ages, by William Brohaugh. This book gives dates of the first recorded use of more than 50,000 words. Wondering if a word was used back in Regency days? Look it up. If the index directs you to a page that falls after page 208, then the word is too new. I wish I could say that it works as well in reverse, that if you’re trying to find good Regency words to describe ladies underwear it will easily guide you, but it doesn’t. If you have the time, though, it’s a fascinating way to get comfortable with words that are acceptable and might add interest to your story. Some words might surprise: ‘MC’ was first recorded in 1790, and ‘kudos’ was in use by 1800. Thingamabob was in use by 1770, thingummy by 1800 and thingamajig by 1830 (so the last one should not be found in a Regency book).

Another book that’s useful to have is James Trager’s The People’s Chronology: A Year-by-Year Record of Human Events from Prehistory to the Present. Research the book to find events that happened during the Regency period. Insert some of them into your Regency novel to make it that much stronger. Certain tidbits can even inspire plot points. For instance, in 1818, a London surgeon performed the first successful human blood transfusion using a syringe. Such knowledge could perhaps make for an interesting duel outcome.

The most important thing is to write what you love. I couldn’t spend so much time researching the Regency era if I wasn’t fascinated by it.

Lucy Balch

Love Trumps Logic

5 Comments

Filed under writing

5 responses to “Don’t Let Regency Intimidate

  1. I remember deciding as a kid that I could only write historical fiction if it was really really far back as otherwise I’d find the research so hard. Then I found sci-fi…

    I like your comment about words. Being English, one thing that sometimes throws me out of a good Regency romance is the use of “bloody” where it doesn’t match current usage. I’d love to know if the way we use it has changed.

    • Lucy

      Sheila, I’ve always thought “bloody” stood for a good old-fashioned way to say f…ing (meaning, “I hate that”), or just plain old f… (meaning “oh, no!,”– if you’re saying “bloody hell.”) Is that different from how you use it? Is that considered current usage? Love to know first hand from a Brit 🙂
      Lucy

  2. I’ve thrown many a published romance into the circular file for exactly these trespasses. There are more and more sophisticated readers every year, and they won’t accept that kind of carelessness.

    This is an excellent introduction to the subject of writing in this popular genre.Thoughtful, and clearly written and full of great advice
    !

    “You go Lucy!” 🙂

  3. christinehusom

    I am impressed with your research and tips! You book sounds great, and it was a very interesting time in history. Keep writing 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.