Still, I see it’s become something of a trend recently. The Writer this month features the British period miniseries Downton Abbey on its cover, entitled “True to the Period” and the excellent Nathan Bransford blog had a recent post What writers can learn from Downton Abbey.
Is it true? Can I justify my frightening obsession with British, multi-part period dramas not as a mere time-waster, but as a valuable learning experience? No way am I letting this opportunity pass me by. Me? Lazy in front of the TV? Heavens no! It’s research.
The Writer interviews the show’s creator and sole writer, Julian Fellowes, who talks about his writing process for the screenplays and the multiple revisions each script undergoes after producers, executives, actors, etc. etc. all weigh in. Fellowes has also written two novels, and he says novelists don’t realize how easy they have it, with only a novelist and editor collaborating on changes, rather than a cast of seemingly thousands.
Anyone who has seen Downton Abbey knows that the writer skilfully juggles multiple story lines and characters, a talent any writer will appreciate. I’m constantly struggling with this in my own work, so I marvel at how effortlessly this is done in the show. And I know that it must require a tremendous amount of hard work and careful planning behind the scenes.
In Downton Abbey, Fellowes manages to fully immerse his viewers in early 20th century life on an English Manor. The series opens in 1912, follows through World War I and the third season plays out in post-war England.
In his interview, I like how Fellowes points out that although you can write about situations or controversies that would not have been formally acknowledged at the time, you must have your characters react in a believable way for that era.
My undergraduate degree was in history and I was studying it at the height of the political correctness movement. It drove me crazy when some professors or – more commonly – graduate student teaching assistants wanted us to study history exclusively through the prism of revisionist eyes, making PC judgments about decisions made or opinions held on the basis of contemporary thinking.
I resisted it then and I resist it now in my literature. I’ve read many a historical novel that’s been ruined for me because the logic simply doesn’t make sense for the time period and I can’t suspend disbelief that a protagonist would have reacted in such a way at the time in which the story is set.
Like Fellowes, I believe it is truly important that a writer of historical fiction to fully understand the period and the beliefs of his or her chosen era.
Writers will also appreciate Fellowes’ advice that tenacity is the most important key to success. Keep improving on your work, keep writing, and be sure to not give up in the face of rejection. He also cautions about giving up too much of your style or voice to mimic others who have been successful.
Excellent words of advice for writers from the creator of the wildly successful Downton Abbey. Now if only I could write lines as brilliant as the ones he creates for Maggie Smith’s character.
What about you, writers? Any fellow Downton Abbey addicts out there?