Your characters are the heart of the story, so you want them to be right. What do they look like? What do they wear? What is their occupation? What manners and mores are typical for their times?
When you decide on what time frame you have set for them, and where, it will tell us who they are. Much of the past, stations in life defined people. In your research you have to get to know your characters well. You have to find how refined people lived and contrast that with the merchant and artisans. Also, you have to study the servant and country laborer and, finally, the poor and criminal class. Most countries and times have these varied groups of people. Even though you may not include all these groups into a story, it would help for a well-rounded vision, to know about each and their attitudes about others outside their circles.
Depending where your characters are placed, there are standard racial characteristics in different parts of the world. There weren’t many blue-eyed blondes that met Columbus’s men in the new world. However, places along waterways that for centuries had been used as ports of trade between nations, may have people of many nationalities living there. Countries who waged war for land would often incorporate the population into their empire and some would be moved to the capitols as slaves. Here again, it depends on time and place where you set your story on what racial groups would be living there.
In many ways, this is similar to the racial descriptions. Where you are in the world you can see in the native clothing styles. For the average person, if you lived in the far northern climes, for centuries you would have used furs to keep warm. Europeans, most Asians, the Middle East, and North Africa developed weaving cloth out of animal hair and plant fibers centuries back. The rest of the world used animal hides sewn together or plant material strung together in various ways.
Class had a lot to do with what people wore. Upper class had the refined clothing with imported materials, embroidery, beading and jewels worked in. It was usually dyed different colors from exotic plants and animals. Purple, for example, was regarded as a royal hue because it came from the ink of the squid, which was difficult to get. Merchant and artisan classes had less money for the rare, but their clothes were of high quality and professionally made by the guilds. The poor had hand spun and woven materials that were probably made by the women of the family from the animals and fiber plants they had. They would be natural color or dyed by plant matter.
There is a wealth of information on clothing from the mid-nineteenth through the twentieth centuries with the advent of photographs and movies. If you look on the web or in the library, there is much devoted on clothing.
The earliest jobs were probably hunter, toolmaker, food gatherer, textile, and cooking equipment maker. I’ve heard about the world’s oldest profession, but I think food and shelter would have come first.
As the ages went by, people learned how to smelt metal into useful objects. Instead of gathering wild plants, people started farming plants and animals for food and material. Carpenters and masons were building shelter and business structures. Then you have the intangible jobs of government, clergy, and scientists. Storytellers and musicians were the entertainment arts for a long time. Somewhere in that time, servants and slaves were doing the menial tasks for the wealthy.
Things really started to change when people started to make machines to do labor for them. First harnessing animal power, then wind and water made jobs faster and easier to do. The Industrial Revolution, around 1800, changed many things with its steam and combustion engines. With that came many different jobs that tied into the traditional, as well. You can find what was going on and how people were working in many different time frames by looking on the internet and in the library for life in the countries and eras you’re researching.
It’s true, what was acceptable in manners years ago has changed and will change again. I’m sure you’ve heard the statement, “acting like a caveman.” Before civilization came along, people lived in natural shelters, ate what they could find, wore little or no clothes, and men grabbed any females they desired. If they needed something they didn’t have, they would steal or kill for it.
As people started living in cooperative communities, the necessity for rules and the enforcement of them became important. Out of all that came the manner of treating your fellow human being. With few exceptions, men became the lawgivers and enforcers and because if that, for many centuries, women and children were treated like possessions. In the middle ages, women who were born in noble families were pawns to raise a family’s status. The oldest son would inherit everything while the younger ones were led to the military or clergy. Merchant and artisan classes were surprisingly freer than many in the nobility, as they could choose their course within the township and amass a fortune if they worked hard. Here again, men were the leaders of the guilds and women could only help their husbands in the businesses. This was the norm until women started coming into their own in the twentieth century when women started getting the vote in different countries and working independently in jobs other than owned by the family.
Many of the social manners started in the eighteenth century that we’re familiar with. Treating a lady with deference and respect lasted well into the twentieth century. You can find old rules in etiquette books from the time you’re working on to get some idea on how your characters treated each other. And remember, different countries had other social rules. So to be accurate you’ll have to check that out, as well.
by: Ilona Fridl
Ilona Fridl was born in the Los Angeles area of Southern California, where she lived the first twenty-one years of her life. In high school and college, she took Journalism and Creative Writing. She moved with her family to Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she met her husband, Mark. They started a locksmithing business and raised a daughter to adulthood. All the while, she dreamed about being a writer, but she hated typewriters. In the nineties, they purchased their first computer, and she never looked back. With some articles and short stories under her belt, she started her first novel. The eighth book is just being released by The Wild Rose Press. She is a member of Romance Writers of America, and a student of AllWriters in Waukesha, Wisconsin.