Please welcome author Jayne Barnard to the blog today.
Gilded Age Genre Blending: 3 keys to hist/myst/fantasy concoctions
by Jayne Barnard
After decades of ceding the historical costume drama to British television, it’s high time for American production to back some territory. HBO’s lavish new series, The Gilded Age, is a late-1800s drama rooted among the fabulously wealthy NYC families that used to crowd their debutante daughters into Mrs. Astor’s 400-person ballroom. The debs dancing at glittering balls were the Kardashians of their day: followed, photographed, and interviewed. Their lavish weddings and cutting-edge wardrobes were guaranteed to sell magazines, their lives the envy of millions. You don’t need to know all the political and social and geographical forces to enjoy the show; you need only see characters whose actions and motives are understandable to you despite that foreign-to-you context.
As well as villains and victims, mysteries need to show the reader sleuths, suspects, red herrings, and character development that builds credible motivation. On top of the basic year or era, historical fiction should include politics, social structures, setting, and appropriate technology. SFF demands questing characters, adventurous plotting, and often a world that differs startlingly from our own. Each element adds to the word count.
Here are three keys to cutting word waste and blending genre elements smoothly:
- Don’t describe anything about the story-world except the bare essentials that readers will need to ground them in the unfolding action. Yes, we love our imaginary settings, but for blended genre stories we must concentrate on what’s different from the reader’s default contemporary mental image. Into the POV character’s thoughts, actions, and dialogue work in a few vital technological and geographic elements. Then trust readers to fill in that backdrop’s gaps for themselves. In my Maddie Hatter Adventures, my fashion reporter sleuth has a clockwork bird that can capture images and record conversations. Once the reader realizes the bird is a semi-sentient flying clockwork smartphone, they no longer need detailed explanations for other new technologies. They simply accept each one exists in that world.
- When introducing characters, focus on what makes the alien, orc, or historical personage different from the reader’s neighbour or coworker. Costume is key but so is the way they were raised, if different from contemporary American. Maddie Hatter grew up in a British ‘Steamlord’ family similar to the newly rich Vanderbilts of Gilded Age NYC, but her mother comes from an Old Nobility family in Britain and raised her as a young lady in that constrained mode. All this family complexity, more than her clothing or hair color, gives Maddie (and thus the reader) insight into the social hierarchies at play in GILDED GAUGE, a fantastical adventure set in an alternate 1899 NYC. Again, integrate. Don’t info-dump. You need to know it all to know which are the important bits; the reader doesn’t.
- Make one element of your mystery something that could only occur in that historical era or alternate reality. Two examples:
- In Nancy Springer’s delightful alternate-history detective tale, ENOLA HOLMES, the motive driving the young marquis could only work at that precise moment in English history: when a parliamentary battle was brewing over the future of the country. The marquis’s vote would decide whether the landed nobility continued to hold near-absolute power over the landless, and therefore voteless, workers, or whether workers would gain the right to be represented in Parliament. The novel and the later movie masterfully blend light fantasy & crime with a piece of real, impactful English history: the Third Reform Act (also known as the Representation of the People Act) was a real bill that passed in 1884, with the related Redistribution of Seats Act being passed in 1885.
- SFF crime stories that could happen down the block but are set on a space station will not be as widely engaging as those that require, nay, demand the fictional setting you’ve created for them. Star Trek Deep Space Nine took flack for being a soap opera set in space, but one S7 episode created a tense, psychologically suspenseful murder mystery in which the killing was both fully understandable to contemporary viewers/readers and committed with technology that only exists in that alternate future world.
This then is the essence of genre blending: integrate your world-building with the lead characters’ thoughts and actions; make the crime’s motivation specific to those characters with their era/alt-world upbringing; commit your crime—or solve it—with technology or other elements unique to that time/place/culture.
The Gilded Age gets the mystery treatment in the “Gilded Newport” novels by Alyssa Maxwell: these same NYC families, but at their multi-story marble mansions in Newport Beach, as seen through the cynical eye of a poor relation who writes for a newspaper. In the second of my Maddie Hatter Adventures, Gilded Age NYC and some historical personages overlap with Alyssa’s, and my heroine also writes for a newspaper. Maddie faces far more than fearful Society matrons and fashion faux pas, though: she must tackle impostors, kidnappers, and industrial spies seeking to steal a new millionaire’s unique clockwork gauge.
That blend of crime, historical, and fantasy elements in ‘Gilded Gauge’ won the Alberta Book of the Year (which usually goes to local history novels or literary fiction) and a Prix Aurora nomination for Canadian science fiction & fantasy, as well as hitting local bestseller lists four times and starting a new worldwide Steampunk sport: parasol dueling.
Whatever genres you’re blending, start with the foundation garments—those essential elements of each---and then add texture afterward, like beadwork and ribbons on a Gilded Age gown.
Jayne Barnard ©2022
Jayne Barnard’s novels won her the Canadian Crime Writing Award of Excellence and the Alberta Book of the Year. She’s been shortlisted for both the Prix Aurora and the UK Debut Dagger. With dozens of short stories sold, she’s won the Calgary Crime Association Award, the Bony Pete/Bloody Words award, and was 3x bridesmaid for the Great Canadian Story prize. She lives in a vine-covered cottage between two rivers, keeping cats and secrets.
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Peek into her Maddie Hatter Adventures at http://ow.ly/niW150F74tX