Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Writing and historical thought: They didn't think like we did 100 years ago, a guest post by Stephanie Carroll

Stephanie Carroll, author of A White Room, is my guest at the blog today.  She's here with an essay about a concept that's vitally important for all historical novelists and their readers: the fact that people's ways of thinking have changed over time.

A White Room (Unhinged Books, May), set in Missouri in 1900, uses magical realism to evoke the plight of a young wife who feels entrapped by her unsatisfying marriage and suffocatingly close-knit community and who yearns to break free and create a fulfilling life for herself—if she dares. An e-galley arrived in my inbox while I was on a deadline for a review assignment, and I didn't intend to start it right away... but after reading the first few pages, I was completely caught up in the story and carried my Kindle around with me until I read to the end.  I enjoyed the small-town Midwestern setting, the twistingly unpredictable plot, the Gothic creepiness of Emeline and John's house, and the message it offered on women's self-empowerment.

Thanks to the author, we have a giveaway at the end, for US readers. Welcome, Stephanie!


Writing and Historical Thought:
They Didn't Think Like We Did 100 Years Ago
by Stephanie Carroll

I recently watched Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows when something struck me. Watson, played by Jude Law, says to Holmes, played by Robert Downey Jr., that he didn’t just want a wife, he wanted “a relationship.”

I paused at that. Wait a second. I don’t think the concept of “a relationship” as we know it today was around in the nineteenth century. Marriages were entered into for monetary reasons, to combine families, elevate rank, and for the need to survive. Further, in the past, people didn’t think of love the way we do now. Life wasn’t all about finding one’s true love. Love was something that grew in a marriage with time, if you were lucky.

“I know you’re scared, but Emma, this is what people do. You get married. You have children.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Yes, I do.” His face hardened. “If I lived out on my own and didn’t get married, I would starve to death, but not before traipsing around in trousers full of holes.”
I held back a giggle. “What?”
“I don’t know how to do any of the ‘secret’ stuff you and Mother do. If someone threw me in a kitchen with everything I needed and a set of detailed instructions, I’d cook my own hand.”
A White Room, page 32

Now, occasionally people would wed for affectionate reasons, and this was a growing trend at the time. Still, they didn’t have this concept of “a relationship,” which in Watson’s use clearly is a modern-day reference to a partnership that involves equal give-and-take to maintain a healthy dynamic. That’s a product of late twentieth-century psychology.

credit aqsahu via photopin cc
I’m not dissing Sherlock Holmes. I love those movies, and really those movies are commercial blockbusters, so that level of historical fine-tuning isn’t what the audience wants or expects. I’m just using that as an example of a modern-day concept that hasn’t always been that way.

Finding happiness is another idea that has changed over time. For many historical people, like in the Dark Ages for example, the idea that one strives for happiness in life—ha! Why do you think the original fairy tales often times ended with some gore? Life was hard, physical pain was the norm, a huge percentage of children didn’t live past five years of age, a simple bacterial infection could easily be fatal, and the average lifespan was far shorter.

I didn’t want to tell a poor woman she was pregnant.
I couldn’t imagine the news being anything other than bad, as the woman would either already have too many mouths to feed or be so thin and unhealthy that pregnancy would likely be a death sentence. Death was a risk with pregnancy even with the healthiest of women. Even upper-class women with the finest physicians were at risk of dying during childbirth.
—A White Room, page 261

Freedom, war, government, political correctness, religion, heaven, survival, the meaning of life, birth, sex, contraception, medicine, illness, the universe... and I could go on and on about topics that people thought differently about at different times.

While it’s not a big deal for a Robert Downey Jr. movie, for most historical fiction audiences that kind of accuracy is not only desired but expected. Readers will stop reading if pulled out of the story by something that makes them think: that wouldn’t have happened. Television and movies can get away with it because they keep moving regardless of the audience’s doubt. Books, on the other hand, can lose an audience completely if the reader has a reason to stop.

Historical fiction writers often focus on the tangible facts as opposed to the abstract, so historical thought can be a pitfall. However, it really doesn’t take much of a different approach as far as research goes. It’s just a matter of being aware that thought changes over time and applying the research appropriately.

Sure, we as writers or historians cannot possibly know the exact thoughts of historical people, but we do know enough to create historical characters that will satisfy the reader. Primary sources are extremely useful for this, like diaries and letters where people bare their souls. Newspaper will reveal the current events and discoveries that were on people’s minds. Secondary sources are also useful for learning general beliefs as well as societal and cultural norms.

“What’s that?” Lottie asked.
“It’s to kill germs,” I said.
“What are germs?”
“Germs—they make you sick.”
“Oh, yes,” Oliver said. “I heard ’bout ’em. They on everything, too. People get ’em off of telegraphs and from books and sich.”
“No.” Lottie clasped a hand to her chest, fingers splayed out.
—A White Room, page 188

Further, even though you cannot know the specific thoughts of historical people, you can be confident that there are some modes of thinking all people have regardless of the time period. Judging, self-righteousness, self-consciousness, guilt, embarrassment, generalizations (as in: I never win), exaggeration, and pity are all examples of inner thoughts we all have. It’s just the context that will change throughout history.

I observed her ring finger—bare. My Aunt Cheryl once told me that the only well-off women who weren’t married and worked were ugly, dumb, or otherwise defective. However, Miss McKenzie had a heart-shaped face with bright brown eyes, pronounced cheekbones, and pink lips.
—A White Room, page 203

Credit: brizzlebornandbred via photopin cc

The most difficult thing about writing historical thought is dealing with the fact that modern-day readers adhere to modern-day thought. Regardless of your accuracy, if your reader doesn’t believe something, it will have the same effect as a mistake. In my original manuscript, I had my main character wondering about what was going to happen on her wedding night. Almost every single reader said it was unbelievable for a woman of her age to know nothing of sex. It didn’t matter that it was a common occurrence that I’d read in Victorian letters – readers didn’t believe it.

Another difficult task is writing historical thought for readers who adhere to modern-day political correctness. This is something that every writer has to figure out for themselves as far as how important it is to his or her story to be accurate or to risk offense.

“It’s all right.” I reached out to touch his hand, giant and moist.
He flinched and pulled back. I knew it was unacceptable for a colored man to touch a white woman …
—A White Room, page 175

And finally, read up on the history of thought.

Yeah, I’m not just making this up – it’s an area of historical study!

And I’ve got the links to Amazon books to prove it!

A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living by Luc Ferry

Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud by Peter Watson

A History of Knowledge: Past, Present, and Future by Charles Van Doren

The History of Christian Thought by Jonathan Hill

Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought by Stephen A. Mitchell & M. J. Black

A History of Freedom of Thought by J. B. Bury and H. J. Blackham

A History of Western Political Thought by J. S. McClelland and Dr J S Mcclelland

About the Author

As a reporter and community editor, Stephanie Carroll earned first place awards from the National Newspaper Association and from the Nevada Press Association. Stephanie holds degrees in history and social science. She graduated summa cum laude from California State University, Fresno.

Her dark and magical writing is inspired by the classic authors Charlotte Perkins Gilman (The Yellow Wallpaper), Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden), and Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights).

Stephanie writes The Unhinged Historian blog, exploring the dark side of the Victorian Era and Gilded Age, and Unhinged & Empowered Navy Wives for conquering those little moments that make Navy Wives feel crazy. Stephanie lives in California, where her husband is stationed with the U.S. Navy. Her website is www.stephaniecarroll.net.

A White Room is her debut novel.

Find Stephanie Carroll

Stephanie Carroll’s Blogs

Advance Praise for A White Room 

“A novel of grit, independence, and determination ... An intelligent story, well told.”
—Renée Thompson, author of The Plume Hunter and The Bridge at Valentine

“The best historical fiction makes you forget it’s fiction and forget it’s historical. Reminiscent of The Yellow Wallpaper … the thoughtful, intricate story Carroll relates is absolutely mesmerizing.”
—Eileen Walsh, Ph.D. U.S. Women’s History, University of San Diego

About A White Room

At the close of the Victorian Era, society still expected middle-class women to be “the angels of the house,” even as a select few strived to become something more. In this time of change, Emeline Evans dreamed of becoming a nurse. But when her father dies unexpectedly, Emeline sacrifices her ambitions and rescues her family from destitution by marrying John Dorr, a reserved lawyer who can provide for her family.

John moves Emeline to the remote Missouri town of Labellum and into an unusual house where her sorrow and uneasiness edge toward madness. Furniture twists and turns before her eyes, people stare out at her from empty rooms, and the house itself conspires against her. The doctor diagnoses hysteria, but the treatment merely reinforces the house’s grip on her mind.

Emeline only finds solace after pursuing an opportunity to serve the poor as an unlicensed nurse. Yet in order to bring comfort to the needy she must secretly defy her husband, whose employer viciously hunts down and prosecutes unlicensed practitioners. Although women are no longer burned at the stake in 1900, disobedience is a symptom of psychological defect, and hysterical women must be controlled.

A novel of madness and secrets, A White Room presents a fantastical glimpse into the forgotten cult of domesticity, where one’s own home could become a prison and a woman has to be willing to risk everything to be free.

Available in Print $14.99 and
eBook $3.99 (Kindle, Nook, Sony, e-pub)

Amazon - Barnes & Noble - Sony - Kobo - Inktera - Smashwords - Apple’s iBooks


For a chance to win a copy of The White Room (US entries only), please fill out the following form.  Deadline Monday, August 5th.

This giveaway is now closed.


  1. Thank you so much Sarah for having me on your wonderful blog. I really hope the post is helpful and interesting to your readers, and I hope the giveaway winner enjoys the book as much as you did, and I am so happy that you did.

    Thank you for your awesome endorsement. The best compliment a writer can get is that his or her book was powerful enough to enthrall the reader. Thank you so much for taking the time to read "A White Room" and for sharing it with your readers today.

    Stephanie Carroll

    1. My pleasure, Stephanie - thanks again for the excellent post and the giveaway, and best wishes for success with A White Room. The read was also timely for me since my library's hosting a exhibit on "The Yellow Wallpaper" this fall, complete with a large-scale replica of the narrator's bedroom, so it really got me in the right mood!

  2. wonderful guest post! I so admire historical novelists who can give modern readers like me the 'equality' I want (relationships that have give and take, equal partners) but is conveyed in a way that is real to the era of the setting. It takes skill to do that!

  3. An excellent essay on these topics about which anyone who wants to call herself and historical novelist surely must think long every day!

    Love, C.

  4. Best. Bibliography. Ever.

    And I enjoyed the historical awareness here, but....

    I just don't think anyone over the age of 12 has ever "giggled." Or maybe I just hope not. It's a literary conceit, neh?

    1. It is a very cool bibliography.

      I spend my days working with college students, and they do a fair amount of giggling. Especially when in large groups!

    2. Hi Shelley,

      That is really very interesting that you picked this up. The scene that excerpt is taken from is a conversation between Emeline and her brother who was her confidant growing up. In the scene they are both acting a little childish the way close siblings do when they get together - teasing one another and whatnot. They are slowly coming out of that nostalgia as they are talking seriously about her betrothal.

      The words I chose to describe their actions and responses kind of reflect this and help create the mood of childhood fondness and memory. I've never seen anyone pick up on it like that! I'm impressed!

      Stephanie Carroll

  5. Hi Stephanie,
    Congratulations on your new book. Can't wait to read it!