Among my goals for 2023 is to be more transparent about my writing process. So often we focus on sharing successes and concealing setbacks and false steps. It's hard to talk about things we got wrong, even in a part of the writing process that is centered around working through things that don't work.
That's why, this week, I want to share a little anecdote about something that happened during a recent editing session and a mistake I made—and what can be learned from it.
It's not an earth-shattering blunder or a revelation that will completely revamp the way I approach my writing, but I do want to talk about it because it's something all writers deal with.
I've been gradually working my way through editing my Regency romance titled Bound to the Heart for a bit now.
Chapter Three was a doozy in terms of how much work it needed. It's approximately the point where I stopped the last time I attempted revisions because my day job got in the way, meaning it was not going to be as polished as the first two chapters. It's a longer chapter—which was another thing I wanted to tackle—so it would take more time in general. There's a dynamic between two characters that's shifted slightly, so changes need to be made in order to reflect this new trajectory.
Going into this draft, I knew I wanted to break the chapter in half, with one section being from Eve's point of view and the other from Zach’s. With it being the chapter in which these eventual love interests meet, I decided it would be better to get their first impressions of each other at the same time rather than only have one and wait until the next chapter to reflect on the other's initial thoughts.
This of course means cutting the back half of the chapter and writing something of a first draft, taking what was already there but telling it from the other side. Even though it involved combing through old drafts to find nuggets useful for this revamped version and cringing at everything else, doing so made sense.
That's not what this post is about, however.
Saying I write historical fiction is nearly synonymous with saying I enjoy extensive research. And that's true! I love the undertaking of tracking down bits of information and incorporating my findings into my stories. So much so that past drafts of all of my WIPs feel rather textbookish.
But for all the research I do, I don't know everything. It's impossible to. And that's something I struggled to accept early on in my writing journey. Maybe because I started writing historical romance in high school and more seriously by the time got to college, steeping me in the confines and pressures of academics. Or my wicked perfectionist streak that has me feeling unsatisfied until everything feels right.
Whatever the case may be, accepting that I don't know everything there is to learn about the Regency has been a long process.
This was reinforced while I was editing Chapter Three of Bound to the Heart.
For context, the chapter is set at a ball and opens with Zach and his siblings arriving. His sister, who he is chaperoning for the Season, is excited to attend but also appears nervous.
Have a look at this exchange in its unedited state:
Sophia smoothed her jonquil gown as she observed the couples engage in a reel, vibrant satins and silks swirling around their blithe movements. She spoke of the ball with anticipation throughout the week, but the hours preceding it were consumed with fretting that every piece she owned would not be au courant by London's standards.
Noting her hesitation, Zach gestured to the group. "Do you wish to join them?"
Her eyebrows rose as she stifled a surprised laugh. "Mr. Fenton assured me you did not dance."
"Well, I do not under ordinary circumstances." He permitted a low chuckle with his shrug. "But I might be persuaded to change my mind this one time."
"I don't care who you dance with so long as it's not me," Henry cut in, shoving his hands in his pockets. "I got pulled into so many of your lessons with that starched dancing master I'd wager myself set up for the rest of my life."
So what's wrong with this?
Aside from the dialogue tags being a little clumsy and some areas doing a little too much telling, there's one blemish that's hard to ignore once you know it's there.
When marking up the printout of this chapter, a thought crept into my mind: could siblings dance together?
I made a note to look into it and moved on.
After all, Sophia's clearly anxious and Zach is offering himself as a partner as a way of making her feel comfortable. I don't have siblings, myself, but I've danced with my cousins and weddings and such, as I'm sure a lot of us have.
But that's now. And back then, in the 1810s, it was considered improper for siblings to be one another's dance partners at balls or formal gatherings.
Since dancing at balls and similar events were often opportunities for singles to meet and mingle and dancing was one of the few means by which a prospective couple could spend some one-on-one time, dancing with a sibling or another relative would have prevented this. I'm inferring that dancing with a sibling could be viewed as eliminating the opportunity for such a match but I'm not entirely sure of that.
But also, would you want your brother or sister to cut in and steal you away from a partner you really liked?
Dances in the Regency were also one of the few ways there could be physical contact, quite possibly in a subtle yet flirtatious way. A hand a little lower on a young lady's spine or a hand clasped just that little bit extra tightly. A touch lingering just a tad longer. Chances are, this isn't the interaction that would occur between siblings.
In other words, Zach and Sophia dancing together at a ball would be considered inappropriate.
I'd like to consider myself relatively well-versed when it comes to Regency Era etiquette after writing in this period seriously for a decade now. But, even with all of the balls and parties found in my stories, this slipped under my nose.
I didn't know the rule about siblings dancing together when I wrote it into the scene. It seemed like a cute moment, and referencing that Zach doesn't dance but can be persuaded for loved ones helped lay out his priorities (something that gets tested throughout Bound to the Heart).
This newfound knowledge left me with a choice.
Some things can be reasonably explained, like Zach's being Sophia's chaperone to begin with. As an unmarried man, it is presumed that he would have his own objectives, which could range from seduction and flirtation to more serious courtship leading to matrimony. It was preferred that a young lady's mother or, in instances where her mother were not an option, another married woman such as an aunt would take up the mantle. However, with their parents being indisposed and Sophia being the older of the two Thayer sisters, and Zach being well-established in London already, the arrangements are made.
"Zach," I should mention, is short for Zachariah. It's a bit of a stretch, especially when his siblings have more commonly seen names like Henry and Peter, but that's one of the areas I've taken more creative liberties with than others. Most refer to him by his surname, anyway, and his parents address him as Zachariah so really only his siblings and the outside, unseen narrator use "Zach."
Other mistakes can be corrected with a slight modification. The first draft of Bound to the Heart is set during the Season itself, but upon looking at when Parliament was in session that particular year, I ended up moving it to just before the Season would be in full swing. This ended up working well, as wanting to be one of the first visitors in the city and vying to claim first dibs on any eligible bachelors for her daughter would be right in line with Mrs. Chavasse's character.
In some instances, though, all you can do is hit the Delete key.
That's what ended up happening this time around.
There is no plausible way for Zach and Sophia to be paired up for a dance at the ball. The Thayers are of a fairly upper-class family and would conduct themselves as such (though to perhaps to a lesser degree while away from their parents' eyes, as some spoilers can tell you). Unlike Henry, who at eighteen has just finished up at Eton and just wants to explore the city with the privileges early adulthood affords, Zach in particular is and always has been more scrupulous—though I can't see either of them going against the grain in this instance. Sophia, meanwhile, just wants to fit in with society and marry well, again making dancing with her brother unsuitable.
So I ended up cutting the entire passage altogether.
It had to be done, but it wasn't easy. Henry's bit of dialogue at the end of that snippet was a recent favorite. Nevertheless, it was a darling, and darlings need to be killed sometimes. That's just the way it goes.
Like I said at the top of this post, this isn't some realization that changed the way I write. It's a trivial oversight that, frankly, anyone can make.
And that's the reason for this post.
Writers are human and destined to make mistakes. That's the freedom of drafts and the beauty of edits.
Historical fiction, regardless of genre, feels like it comes with an expectation that writers need to be walking encyclopedias for their chosen era.
I've gained something of a reputation for the Regency knowledge I have. In the card accompanying my Christmas gift from her this year, my best friend called me the "Regency Queen" in reference to the Jane Austen-themed game she got me. A couple of fellow Regency writers have contacted me on social media asking if I knew anything about niche topics they were researching for their WIPs. When we read Tom Stoppard's Arcadia in a British Literature course in college, the professor admitted to the class that I probably knew more about that time period than she did. Friends and coworkers have asked me all kinds of questions about the Regency Era since Bridgerton made its debut on Netflix, hoping I'd be able to provide additional context for elements of the show.
But the thing is, I don't know everything. That's simply not possible for any writer.
And that's okay.
While we should be knowledgeable about the topics we cover and do the necessary research, there are going to be things we have to make educated guesses about. Things we don't think to look into as we write them into the story. Things that skirt past us without our realizing it or things we misinterpret in our research. It's bound to happen to all of us.
Writing is the art of learning and writers, therefore, are perpetual students not just of the craft but of the topics they write about. We're always evolving, gaining knowledge, and finding ourselves along the way.
One skill I've been working to improve with this draft in particular is being able to forgive myself for the missteps I've taken. Going easy on myself when something isn't right has been, well, easy.
When my gut second-guessed the notion of Zach and Sophia dancing together at the ball, I double-checked it to be safe. I'm glad I did because, as it turns out, I made a mistake.
Realizing the inaccuracy meant I could correct it. In the past, I probably would have been upset with myself for getting it wrong.
I didn't beat myself up over it this time. I laughed and told myself, "I done goofed." And then I explored how to fix it—which meant scrapping it entirely.
Disappointing, but not the end of the world. It took maybe fifteen minutes to bridge the gap it left. Now we go from that mention of Sophia's trepidation to Zach being about to offer a word of comfort, only to be stopped by needing to caution Henry about overindulging in alcohol when a waiter comes over with a tray of drinks. It still has that tone of Zach's priorities being tested, but without the dancing blunder.
The revision also has a silver lining.
I ended up taking Sophia's line about Fenton telling Zach doesn't dance and moving it to the point Zach shows up to dance with Eve, really driving home the point that Zach's interest in Eve is something different. That, from the jump, he has taken a noticeable liking to her—even if he doesn't realize it yet.
And as for Henry's line, I don't see it coming back to Bound to the Heart. But I have (admittedly vague) plans for Henry's future, and there's always the possibility of a murdered darling being resurrected down the road...
What would be "improper" about siblings dancing together at a ball?