writing roses in historical fiction

Rosa_'Tuscany'_J1

Tuscany Superb – known and grown since 1837

Roses are beautiful: they’re soft, they’re scented, and they’re seductive.  They universally symbolise love.  They deserve a central place in every piece of fiction: there isn’t an heroine out there who won’t appreciate a gift of roses.  But please, I’m begging you: do not write *yellow* roses into pre-twentieth century fiction.  They’re as out of place there as the Model-T Ford.  Yellow roses as we know them are a recent invention: the first being the 1900 Soleil d’Or, the result of man-made crosses in the nursery of Joseph Pernet-Ducher, the ‘Wizard of Lyon.’

If your story is set in or before the nineteenth century, have your hero bestow pink roses on your heroine, or red roses.  If it’s early summer, the rose bushes (rose trees for those of you writing pre-nineteenth century) will be dripping with flowers, and their perfume will be intoxicating.  Have your heroine collect their petals and go into the stillroom (which BTW is more akin to a science lab than you may have thought) and have her distil rose water.  It’s not difficult – you can check it out here.  Don’t have her whip up a batch of rose beads in an afternoon: they take a tonne of petals and an absolute age to make.

Your pre-1800 heroine will be plumb out of luck if she’s hoping for roses in the spring or autumn – they called them June roses for a reason.  After 1800, the Monthly roses arrived from China, and these flowered from spring through to autumn, mainly in shades of pink.  The great thing, from a novellist’s point of view, is that our historical heroines weren’t too bothered about rose names: kudos to you if you name roses accurately, but if you refer simply to a pink Monthly rose, or to a scented French rose, you’re doing just fine.

And one last point, while my pendanticism is in full flight: your Georgian heroine will not be strolling about a rose garden.  She’ll be in the flower garden or the shrubbery, in which rose bushes will have been planted.  The formal roses-only garden was an invention of rose-exhibiting Victorians.

I’m sorry if I burst your bubble.  I’m sorry to have added one more item to your long list of things to check out as you write historical fiction.  But if you are already Googling the entymology of terms and words to check they are historically accurate, you’ll appreciate the heads up about this minefield.  Keep writing about roses, if for no other reason than rose growers and gardeners are avid readers, and love reading about their favourite flowers, but make your roses pink, not yellow.

CharlesdesMills

Rosa Charles de Mills photo by Amanda Slate

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creating characters with real names

AlexanderTurnbull

Alexander Turnbull

One of the great joys in life is naming children.  Writers extend that joy by naming their characters, and generally have more success as writers than as parents in controlling the outcome of that decision.  Children will at some stage hate the name you gave them – one of mine wished I had called her Lily, for crying out loud – but your characters have not that luxury: they are the products of our controlling imagination.

In writing the Adeline books, I have had to forgo the pleasure of naming almost all my characters.  Adeline is an exception, along with those she left behind in Scotland, so too are the Sexton and his wife, Donald and Jessie Maindonald, and two bit-players, Emily Yates and Catherine Gorn.  Every other character in the books – every other character, is a real person, or at least, was a real person.  Given that the books are set in 1877, none of the characters in my books still lives, nor does anyone who knew them directly – thank goodness.

There is a subtle difference in herding characters with real names about the pages, as opposed to herding entirely fictitious characters, as Jane Woodham has found.  They have an independence of mind.  They have all the motivation Lynette Noni could ask for, and they are willful.  Each seems determined to have their say, and wrest the story from my grip.  Through their influence, I have come to respect coincidences.

Dr Edward (Dr Edward Hulme) presented himself to me very early on, when I was searching for someone for Adeline to talk to.  Quite frankly, I could not have written a better character than he, nor dared stretch coincidence to encompass all that he was.  The Rev John (Reverend John Williams) also appeared, ready formed, as the natural leader of the Community. Stephen King once commented that writing a story is a process of archeological excavation, and I find myself in complete agreement.  Some days I feel as if I am merely channeling the story of my characters into print.

If, as a writer, you find yourself looking for inspiration, you could do worse than grab to a bunch of names from those long dead, and write their story.  We Kiwis have the Papers Past website to consult; our Aussie neighbours have Trove (Papers Past is immensely superior, but let’s not spat), and there must be similar sites of archived newspapers for those elsewhere.

Ka kite anō, Fiona.

PS.  Alexander Turnbull, above?  Not one of my characters (as yet), but there must be a story there for the finding.