Q&As are something I love doing on the blog. It's a great chance to connect with readers and explore topics that may not have crossed my mind prior.
And that is precisely the case with this year's Birthday Q&A.
Rebecca on Twitter chimed in wanting to know, "Which writers influence your writing more—contemporary or from back in the Regency day?"
There isn't exactly a straightforward answer to this one, but I'll try to explain this the best I can.
As writers, we absorb all sorts of media. Anything from books to television and movies, plays, and even video games can teach us a lot about storytelling and the elements of fiction, but we might not be aware of this.
That said, it feels that with books in particular, writers gravitate towards them for intentional guidance. They might base their reading choices on the genre they themselves write in, a trope they want to see examples of, or a skill they want to build up.
I find myself in this zone as of late.
After years of writing for academic purposes, it's been hard to figure out the "right" way to go about narration; "right" is in quotation marks here because there is typically no "right" way to do things in fiction apart from punctuation and whatnot.
Up until recently, my narration's been on the stiff side. There's a formality to it. I attributed this to what I thought made sense for a proper English cast and wanting my writing to have that classic feel. It seemed to fit the overall presence of the estates like Northanger Abbey and Pemberley that we so often associate with fiction set in the Regency Era. After all, how many romance leads out there are of the genteel class or even titled like an Earl or a Duke?
In retrospect, though, that stiffness in my narration also has to do with the way I was taught to write in school.
We had writing tests a few times per year while in elementary school. Early on, the focus was on storytelling, namely that we could follow a prompt like "You're at the park and find a magic rock. What happens next?" and that we understood basic concepts like having a beginning, middle, and end.
By the time the third grade rolled around, the focus became persuasive essays. Instead of a story prompt, we would be given a question to address like, "What is the best animal for a class pet?" or "Read these articles and pick a side of the debate."
There would be a rubric indicating what a good paper was and how to write it; there wasn't any wiggle room, only structure.
So even though there would be units surrounding books we were reading in class and book reports, the majority of these assignments through high school maintained a focus on the essay. Whenever we discussed an element of fiction like character foils or types of conflict, it felt like an acknowledgment of their existence without going into much detail about them.
I didn't have the opportunity to enroll in a writing class until I started college. Plenty of lessons in those courses shaped the way I approach writing, but at the same time it feels only rudimentary. There weren't many deep dives into the ins and outs and the whys of fiction. We barely scratched the surface. Narration, at least from the third-person POV that I use in my stories, wasn't covered much.
This is why I didn't recognize my narration was so stiff until I sent my WIP out to beta readers years after graduation. I wasn't able to pick up on my writing being stodgy because I was following the rules laid out since I was a child.
Because of this, I've been reading more contemporary fiction, especially within the romance genre.
Often in these novels, the narration dives into the characters' thoughts and feelings. It creates an intimacy between them and the reader, bringing the latter into the story. Meanwhile, I had been writing almost like a reporter relaying facts from the sidelines because that was the bulk of writing instruction I was given.
With essays, we were told to keep ourselves out of it. We were to present facts and evidence, but never insert our opinions or how we felt towards the prompt unless we could prove it through research. As a result, I was taking myself—and thus my reader—out of the story.
As mentioned above, I write in the third-person POV, a common choice for romance, meaning that my narration takes the form of an outside entity rather than a character directly experiencing the story. This was explained to me as being uninvolved, which again lines up with the academic side of things and writing from a distance.
Apart from it all.
Reading contemporary fiction has helped me redefine what third-person POV narration is to me and what it can bring to my writing.
It's helped me find my voice again.
But it's also worth noting that I'm writing in the twenty-first century.
Historical romance writers find themselves in a middle ground. We are writing characters living in what is to us a historical setting yet contemporary to them. We're tasked with bringing readers of today into yesteryear. With them, they bring modern-day sensibilities and expectations. Their tastes are likely different as far as reading goes.
Things have changed quite drastically between the 1810s and the 2020s. Writing about one while living in another is all about striking a balance between the two.
Writing a story set in the past for readers living in the present.
I still take influence from older works, in part since they're what my characters would be reading. I'll often mention those works in my own because it helps shape the setting. It also helps me figure out scene descriptions because they were an accurate account of that time. Reading works written in the past offers a glimpse into the everyday occurrences of life back then.
I like to call myself a Slice-of-Life writer, the sort who writes about the everyday and the ordinary while finding the extraordinary moments in them. How the simplest things can carry the most significance. That you don't have to look far for love and friendship.
Because those things are often what connects us.
One might even venture to say they are timeless.