One thing I’ve learned as I’ve studied various aspects of United States and English history is that human nature has not changed. Sure, the superficial stuff has changed. We drive cars instead of riding a horse to get from point A to point B. We use a toilet inside our home instead of chamber pots or outhouses. And so on.
Modern conveniences have changed the landscape in which we function in society, but the fact of the matter is this: modern conveniences doesn’t wipe out any aspect of human nature. Humans are the same. You can look at any time period and any country, and you’ll find this to be true.
Sure, the society would have its own set of rules. There are certain laws, customs, clothing, music, etc that separates one society (and its specific time period) from another. But if you remove all of those things, you are left with human nature.
And this is why I advise authors who are new to historical writing to embrace the fact that historical time periods are only wallpaper. (Rose Gordon was the first person I heard the term “wallpaper” from when describing how to write historical fiction. I want to give credit where credit is due. I don’t know if she heard it from another place or came up with the term herself.)
Most authors new to historical fiction get caught up in the wallpaper. They want to make sure they’re “historically authentic”. So they focus on what people wore, what type of transportation existed back then, furniture, etc. Now, there’s nothing wrong with doing research and finding out what things were like back then. I do that, and I think you should do it, too. But you don’t want to get stuck there. There’s a temptation to treat historical romance like a history lesson when it’s not supposed to be a lesson. The purpose of historical romance is to tell a good story about the characters. It’s not to impress people with your historical-know-how.
The characters should always be front and center stage of every scene. And I don’t care what we “think” life was like “back then”. The truth is, people were not different from how they are today. Thinking that everyone in the 1800s United States were all church going people who helped others out at a moment’s notice and told the truth at all times just isn’t true. Not everyone went to church, and those who did, didn’t always go to worship God. Thinking that all women waited until their wedding night to have sex isn’t true, either. There are records of men and women marrying in order to avoid out-of-wedlock births (we call these shotgun weddings), and there were women who raised children by themselves. Thinking that women never worked outside the home is also false. The idea that people stay married forever is another myth. Laura Ingalls Wilder had a sister who owned a homestead for a short period of time, and Laura’s daughter got a divorce. Laura also worked at a paper (after her marriage). Her daughter was also a journalist. I learned this when I took a tour of De Smet, South Dakota (which was one of the towns she grew up in). Laura was born in 1867, but people have told me, “No one did X, Y, and Z back then”.
I could go into more examples, but the post is already getting long. Suffice it to say that human nature is not restricted to a neat little box of “this NEVER happened back then” or “this ALWAYS happened back then”. Society might not have approved of certain thing, so those things weren’t common (or at least they weren’t discussed in public). But they did happen.
Regardless of your time period and your location, the human condition is complex. You have your heroes. You have your villains. And to be honest, picking out who the heroes and the villains are is subjective. You can’t be objective if you’re writing fiction because fiction demands you have a hero and a villain (even if that villain is nature, another person, or the hero himself). Every story must have conflict, and conflict depends on villains. Therefore, writers have to pinpoint a good guy and a bad guy.
So while it’s good to some research into the time period you’re doing, I wouldn’t suggest getting so wrapped up in it that you miss what really makes a story compelling, and that element is your main character (or main characters). While you will have an element of readers who obsess over historical details, most readers want an emotional connection with the hero. Therefore, it is my conclusion that the best thing you can do while writing historical fiction is to focus on the characters and the story they have to tell. If you can master the complexities of human nature, the wallpaper will fade away. The wallpaper won’t matter. What will matter is that the story resonated on an emotional level with the reader. And that is what good fiction is supposed to do.