Monday, March 23, 2015

Andrea Downing on Writing Contemporary and Historical Westerns

You're in for a real treat for you today. Award winner Western historical author Andrea Downing's latest book is--a contemporary.  I always wondered what it would be like to switch from historical to contemporary, and Adrea is sharing her vision of the evolution. Any you know what I learned? You still have to research!

The research and the path may be different for historical and contemporary novels, but the objective is always the same:  accuracy and veracity—and a novel readers will enjoy. 
When I got the idea for DANCES OF THE HEART after writing three historical western romances, it never occurred to me that I was heading into new territory—contemporary fiction!  You would think you needn't give a second thought to writing something that takes place in your own time period, that the words would just flow out of you, and all you need worry about was creating the setting, the characters, and goals, motivation and conflict. And, for the most part, you'd be right.  For the most part…  But if you live and breathe the nineteenth century the way I do, sometimes it's not quite as easy as it would seem. Take language, for instance.  While writing an historical you are constantly checking the etymological dictionary to try to avoid anachronisms.  No, they didn't talk about men's abs or accessorizing an outfit.  The trick is to recognize which words and expressions have to be checked.  In contemporary, you feel you don't have to check the language—but you'd be wrong.  Texans use different words than New Yorkers, southerners talk differently to northerners.   I've never heard a New Yorker say they were "fixin'" to do anything. 
With a contemporary novel, you don't have to worry about what clothing they're wearing because that's something you see every day.  No corset or union suits, no muffs or slouch hats, not a pelisse or separate collar in sight.  But there is still going to be a sense that individuals from different parts of the country dress slightly differently.  A New York woman's wardrobe will be (and believe me, I live here) nine-tenths black. On a trip to Charleston, SC, a few years ago, my daughter and I were amused to see the bounty of floral dresses in the shops.  Southern women seem to have a style of their own.  In fact, someone who lives in San Antonio recently told me they could spot the women down from Dallas because they all carried huge handbags.  A writer has to think of details like that. 
But the biggest difference comes in family dynamics and the rights and lives of women.  Back in the nineteenth century, a married woman had few rights.  Divorce was rare, and if a couple did divorce, most likely it was the woman who lost everything.  Men took a woman's finances on marriage, and women would lose the children in the event of divorce.  An independent woman was rare, and any independence she had was soon lost on marriage except, perhaps, to the most accommodating man.  The idea of a 'single parent' was unheard of, and the jobs available to women were limited.  If you write a western historical novel, you're virtually restricted to school marms and madams, unless you have your heroine disguise herself as a man.  Writing contemporary, you know immediately you've got a pretty independent heroine; her goals and motivation are going to be entirely different from a nineteenth century gal's.  Read any western historical romance and invariably the heroine is a woman seeking to keep her independence against all odds; read a contemporary and you'll find a slew of other problems the heroine must overcome. 
Finally, there's sex.  There's a poem by Phillip Larkin which begins, ""Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three/(which was rather late for me) -/Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban/And the Beatles' first LP…" While few authors of romantic fiction need an excuse to write a love scene, if they are keeping within the bounds of historical accuracy, a certain modesty of the heroine would be needed.  She certainly is not going to make a play for her man, nor is he likely to fling her across the kitchen table.  But some authors do write those scenes, and write them well and believably.  Now, of course, we live in a time when just about anything goes, short of a public display, and we have contraception—although I've noticed few authors include the application of a condom in love scenes. Our independent women are all on the pill and, in the world of fiction, no one is worried about the transmission of STDs.  An historical heroine would be very worried about conceiving, while the contemporary woman has no qualms about one night stands. 
So, is there less research for a contemporary novel?  For DANCES OF THE HEART I traveled down to Hill Country, Texas, just as I traveled to Loveland, Colorado, for my first book.  I had a Texan check my language and give me a few idioms to use just as I checked my historical language for previous books. Scene setting is the same no matter the book.  And an author wishes to get people and places right whatever the time period, whatever the setting.

The research and the path may be different for historical and contemporary novels, but the objective is always the same:  accuracy and veracity—and a novel readers will enjoy

 Successful, workaholic author Carrie Bennett lives through her writing, but can’t succeed at writing a man into her life. Furthermore, her equally successful but cynical daughter, Paige, proves inconsolable after the death of her fianc√©.
Hard-drinking rancher Ray Ryder can find humor in just about anything—except the loss of his oldest son. His younger son, Jake, recently returned from Iraq, now keeps a secret that could shatter his deceased brother’s good name.                                    
On one sultry night in Texas, relationships blossom when the four meet, starting a series of events that move from the dancehalls of Hill Country to the beach parties of East Hampton, and from the penthouses of New York to the backstreets of a Mexican border town. But the hurts of the past are hard to leave behind, especially when old adversaries threaten the fragile ties that bind family to family…and lover to lover.    


“You know how to Texas Two-Step?” he asked.

 “No,” she said, laughter just below the surface.

 “Well, sweetheart, you have come to the right place. Or at least got yourself the right man. By the time I finish with you, you’ll be the best dang stepper on the floor.”
Carrie looked around. “There isn’t anyone else on the floor at the moment, Ray.”

“Well, heck, I know that. That’s perfect for learning.”

As soon as his hand closed around hers, the leather of his palm a strange glove over her own fingers, a sudden frisson of connection ran through her she hadn’t known in a very long while. He moved her to face him squarely on, a small smile tipping the edges of his mouth, the dark, impenetrable eyes shining with his captured prize.

“Just follow me,” he said as his right hand went to her back. A cover of a Vince Gill ballad started, the mournful tune setting a moderate tempo. “Perfect.” He held her right hand high and applied slight pressure to move her backwards. “Fast fast slow slow, fast fast slow slow.”

Carrie felt a light bulb go on. She got it. It was good. It was fun. And she relaxed in his embrace. He was an excellent teacher, a fabulous leader on the dance floor. Would wonders never cease?

 “You’re doing well. You’re doing fine,” he assured her. “We’re gonna try a little promenade now, and then a twirl, so get ready.”

Carrie couldn’t stop herself from smiling, anticipation bubbling for just a second. And then out of the corner of her eye she caught Ty watching them, beer half-raised in salute and a smirk plastered on his face. A moment’s hesitation and she missed the step.

“What happened there?” asked Ray, oblivious to the effect the on-looker had on her.

Other couples were finally joining them on the dance floor, but despite the company, Carrie’s discomfort increased. “That boy, that Ty,” she told him. “He was watching us. It made me feel…uneasy.”

Ray scanned the sidelines, but Ty had gone, nowhere to be seen. “Oh, don’t pay him any mind. He’s harmless enough.”


  1. Great insight on switching from historical to contemporary, Andrea. Thanks for being here.

    1. And thank you so much for having me Barb. I only hope your readers enjoy my post as well.

  2. Hi, Andrea and Barbara! I've never had the urge to write a historical because of what you've outlined. I admire you for being able to make the switch. There's a lot to keep in mind in the here and now!

    1. Hi Vicki. I agree that the switch would be challenging. That's why I'll stay with historical :) Thanks for stopping by

    2. Quite honestly, Vicki, I never thought of the challenges beforehand. When the story came to me, I just set out to write it. I think it's a case of 'when the muse calls, you answer it' Of course, my Muse is The West and I guess it doesn't matter quite so much whether it's the contemporary west or the historical west. I just hope I keep my readers in both sub genres.

  3. Andrea, thanks for sharing this. I'm planning to make the switch to contemporary sometime in the future. I have ideas I'd like to explore and I'd really like my characters to be able to say "Okay."
    I agree that research still needs to be done no matter what area you write in and am always surprised when authors tell me they don't do much research.
    Thanks again. Great post.

    1. Interesting that you're considering switching, Marlow. But don't forget historical completely! I do enjoy your historicals, as I do Andrea's.

    2. I'm with you on that, about research. As for the dreaded 'Okay'--yeah, it's a blight! It actually came into existence quite early in the scheme of things, around 1840s for President Van Buren's 2nd campaign. What I face, then, is the question whether cowboys out west would have picked up the 'affectation' as it would have been, to use in 1880s CO or WY. I voted NO!

  4. Great points, Andrea! I write historical, set during and just after the American Civil War. But I've been toying with trying contemporary.

    Enjoyed the excerpt!

    1. Susan, I found Andrea's information to be very insightful.Sometimes I don't think we realize that maybe we do need a bit of research if we're doing contemporary. Good luck with you switch, if you decide to pursue it.

    2. Good luck, Susan! I hope I've helped a bit ;-)

  5. Andrea, I'm impressed by your ability to seamlessly move between contemporary and historical genres. While I love reading historical novels, I don't think I'll ever write one. All that daunting!!

    1. Yup, there is a bit more research for historicals, especially if you want to get things right. I get very fed up, as I've often said, with authors who don't take the time to get the language correct particularly. We all make mistakes but if you want to write historical novels, you're in for research and that's that. I read one book which mentioned a song that didn't come in for another 40 or so years after the time period of the book. I mean, what would it take to check that? Not a lot.

  6. Thanks again for having me here, Barb. I've enjoyed the discussion immensely