Thursday, 7 January 2010

Escape from the Twenty-first Century – Michelle Lovric

We’re always talking about how much the READER loves to suspend disbelief, and about the READER’S craving to indulge in escapism.

But what about the WRITER’S own, deeply selfish motives for escaping the brash, brutal modern quotidian?

Here are seven candid reasons why I like to set my books in the past.

In the 18th century and early 19th century,

1. TRAVEL. One’s characters can gallop about on horseback or be thrown into fascinating company in post-carriages. Or proceed in gondolas with cabins curtained for mischief. Mobile phones do not ring on trains, and nor do attention-deficient businessmen while away long journeys braying the same inanities to ten colleagues, one after another. One’s characters can credibly leave babies in handbags on platforms, unchided, for there are no station security announcements. There is no Gatwick Airport, that cheerless sump of the imagination and of hope. In Venice, you can walk down the street without bumping into a 30-strong tour group with a guide shouting historical inaccuracies into a megaphone.

2. FOOD. There is no McDonalds. There is no nouvelle cuisine. No supermarkets with their ghastly corpse-light. No Finest, Taste the Difference or Everyday labelling on the food: it is visibly good, bad or maggotty. One’s characters can attend, even give sumptuous dinner parties. (And writing a dinner party beats shopping, cooking and cleaning up after a real one – in fact, beats it raw, dips it in egg and rolls it in sage-sprinkled sourdough breadcrumbs and fries it in extra-virgin oil made from olives picked by blind nuns in the shadow of an ancient convent).

3. WATER. One’s characters can go to the well for water, which also allows them hear all the gossip and simultaneously contract a dangerous disease with compelling symptoms. Thames Water did not exist, and nor did their automated dialling system for reporting a burst water main in your street: the one that keeps you holding on indefinitely, without ever speaking to a human being.

4. HEAT. Building regs did not disallow flues for open fires in listed buildings. There was no mains power to cut off. EDF did not exist, and nor did their Customer Service Department have a list of picturesque but conflicting mendacities to recite: Thames Water cut through your pipes/ Our engineers have not yet been assigned a time to attend due to the overwhelming demand/ the wire that is needed to fix the situation is on a truck that is snowbound in Yorkshire/ we had to send our engineers home because of Health and Safety – It is too cold for them to work. (‘What about the Health and Safety of your CLIENTS?’ One bleats, pathetically, nursing the elderly cat who is already wheezing with the cold, after 22 hours without power. But EDF Customer Services is trained in Obfuscation and Mendacity, not Irony.)

5. WORDS. One’s characters can talk in sentences. They know the subtle joy of the semi-colon. They can say, ‘Whereupon I mentioned the very salient fact that …’ instead of ‘I’m, like …’ Or ‘Are not the noble EDF engineers equipped with warm vestments so that these grand fellows may verily execute their appropriate labours in the service of your esteemed clients?’ instead of ‘What the …?’

6. WHAT TO WEAR. One may dispense with the dismal inevitability of thermal underwear, bobble hats jeans and crass designer labels instead indulging in Swiss spotted dimity, tarlatan, salmon-pink surah, crepe, poplin, batiste, pique and lawn, not to mention mousseline-de-laine, organdie, voile, gauze, jaconet and pompadour sateen.

7. (LEGAL) DRUGS. Instead of today’s brutal stuff, gruffly named and garishly packaged, you have the whole lovely lexicon of quack medicine to work with. Such as, Dr Worden’s Water for Weak Women, Dr Bowder’s Compound Syrup of Indian Turnip and Dr Wynkoop’s Katharismic Honduras, The Original Widow Welch’s Female Pills, Vogeler’s Curative Compound, Irristum, Fitch’s Kidney and Liver-Cooler, Pesqui’s Uranium Wine, Hoffman’s Harmless Headache Powders, Dr Brodum’s Nervous Cordial and Botanical Syrup, Dr William’s Pink Pills for Pale People, Chameleon Oil and Dr Vincent’s Anti-Stout Pills. All these were eagerly bought by a literate public (and feature in my next book, The Mourning Emporium).

So - is anyone out there going to tell me you can have as much or even more fun with Max Factor, cars, mobile phones and aeroplanes?

Michelle Lovric’s website

EDF’s website


Katherine Langrish said...

Fantastic, Michelle! And - I should perhaps let slip to ABBA readers - written despite no electricity and difficulties practically amounting to LIVING in the 18th century and still managing to contact the 2Oth.

Such is the calibre of ABBA bloggers.

Carole Anne Carr said...

Certainly not me, Katherine. I write historical novels for children, and when I stray into the 18th/ early 19th century, my little characters are struggling to stay alive and to have enough to eat. Not a designer label in sight. :0)
Sometimes wonder why I limit myself in this way, but of course the novel finds you, not the other way round, I should think.
Envious of your spotted dimity! I was a great Georgette Heyer fan, good to hear that you are writing about this period.

Katherine Langrish said...

But I hasten to add, posted by me but not written by me - Michelle Lovric is the writer of today's post...

Jeannette Towey said...

Love this, Michelle, especially the description of supermarket corpse-light. Exactly the reason why I get my groceries delivered!

There's just one thing left out for me: there always seems to be alcohol as a drink because the water is so untrustworthy. I have an image of most of the past being carried out in a mildly fuzzy alcoholic haze. But perhaps that's just a reflection of my own interests?


MagicMadzik said...

How true! I only write for my own pleasure, but I feel every word of your post. I would add communication technology to the list, as a thing which I appreciate in real life but which is a nasty obstacle when writing a story. A plot which could last for three volumes might be over in one page if only the protagonists owned mobile phones, had access to the internet, and lived in a world where a plastic card is a valid substitute for money.

I like how news traveled before we became such a global village- slowly, unevenly, annotated by every messenger until the final recipient read a story as unlikely as any fairytale- but believed it, as it was the only source he had access to.

steeleweed said...

It is indeed fun to immerse the readers in a world totally alien to them, particularly when they don't know if you're really historically accurate. Was barley water a staple of 17th century England? I have no idea, but just imagine the fuss when they quote your fictional-but-realistic 'facts' to a historian - yes, I'm a trouble-maker).

You can also live vicariously through your characters, and I'm sure that accounts for a good deal of what I've read over the years.

adele said...

Quite agree...but it is only the very recent past that I feel is too modern. I'm okay up to about the 1960s! But yes, the past is where it's at, to be sure.
And many commiserations on your present plight. Well done for getting it together with Kath to put this post up. In matters medical and heating-related I'm glad I live in this century....

Stroppy Author said...

'Was barley water a staple of 17th century England? I have no idea, but just imagine the fuss when they quote your fictional-but-realistic 'facts' to a historian - yes, I'm a trouble-maker).'

We historical writers check these things, Steeleweed - no 'facts' are presented that are not believed to be true. OK, we know there weren't mermaids etc, but that's in the territory of willing suspension of disbelief. The everday details we spend days checking :-)

I agree entirely, Michelle, that the past is more beguiling. And for those of us with a gothic bent, you can do lots of horrible things to characters set in the past - it's not all nice food and fine clothes!

Leslie Wilson said...

I check my facts too, Steeleweed, obsessively, even to the point of, when I discovered that the ferry to Trelleborg from Sassnitz in north Germany didn't run for passengers after 1942, changing the whole of the end of my plot. I will say no more.
Michelle, this is a wonderful post. My characters are always living on the edge too, incidentally, in one way or another, but because I write about the wreckage of a quite wealthy society I manage to squeeze in some luxuries too, that stand out against the grimness in a way that pleases me - and some readers!!
Re drugs, I have an advert photocopied and put up on our downstairs loo wall, from the Illustrated London News from 1900, for Halls Tonic Wine, fortified with coca. A time when heroin, cannabis and opium were not only freely available but given out for medical purposes. Such fun. But it's the contrast with nowadays that gives those things their edge, I think!!!
Hope you're soon reading these comments with your own electricity.

Catherine Johnson said...

Lovely Michelle, and sorry to hear about your woes!

David said...

LOVE your candle-light written blog, Michelle - heroic!
Could we all put an itchy spell on your lying EDF employees? When we lived in Paris, we always called them: Electricherie de France.
I'm so happy Rose la Touche has come through purring. Give her a special stroke for me, please - we've been catless for far too long.
Enid xx

Book Maven said...

So glad to hear your power is now restored, Michelle, and that Rose la Touche is much happier.