How to Start Writing Historical Fiction: Etiquette (Part 2)

I wouldn’t walk into a bar and start jumping on the tables. Perhaps in 3,000 years that might be considered normal (if so I’m glad I live now, I’m clumsy at the best of times) but equally, if I was born in the 18th or early 19th century, I wouldn’t have walked into a bar alone at all. Not without a male to accompany me.

Etiquette is all of the habits and actions that are deemed socially acceptable (and, on the flipside, socially unacceptable) and therefore they will make up a big chunk of your historical research.

You need to know what was normal, what wasn’t normal, and what was just on the cusp of acceptable. For example, jumping up and down on bus stops would normally be seen as the mark of a madman, but when England beat Sweden in the World Cup, it was totally normal (in London, at least). People thought it was funny, sure, but they didn’t think it was mind-bogglingly insane.

You need to make sure your characters stay true to their time period. 

So here are your research tips when it comes to etiquette:


How did people eat and drink?


Do a quick Google of “social etiquette in 1601” and you’ll find that people lived a lot differently to how we do today. For one, they might’ve thrown meat bones over their shoulders when they were done gnawing at them at dinner. But that was probably because they didn’t have carpet, they used rushes. They would’ve drunk wine for breakfast (and beer, sometimes) because water wasn’t safe (or nice) to drink.

So if you open a scene in 1601 and they’re having smoked salmon, scrambled eggs and builders tea, something has gone horribly wrong.

Food can be a great way to bring your period to life. It’s all about the finer details – the background that makes it believable. So check whether your characters would’ve used a knife and fork, just a knife, or simply their hands when it came to food. What would a royal have eaten? What would a yeoman have eaten? Was sugar common yet? Chocolate? These are all things to think about.

How did they address one another?

hi haters scrabble tiles on white surface

And would they have addressed one another? For example, a woman might not have approached a man without being formally introduced in the Tudor period. Fast forward a century and a half and a man would have been pressed to speak to the lady seated next to him at dinner, whether he knew her or not.

It’s important you know how your characters would interact with one another, whether holding hands was a symbol of engagement or low-level affection and how class and social status would make a play in their interactions between one another (in most centuries, a Prince would rarely make the time to speak to a pauper, unless it was on a Saint’s day.)

This also adds a layer of complexity to your dialogue scenes and can be a useful tool for creating tension.

What were the views on sex, marriage and divorce?

midsection of woman making heart shape with hands

Religion is always going to be a factor in historical writing and this will have wide-ranging ripples in your work. If the country is/was Catholic, then chances are divorce was impossible, and sex before marriage was considered a sin. If you’re setting your novel well back into cave-man times, then monogamy might have been viewed in much the same way.

Understanding the cultural take on sex, marriage (and divorce as an extension of the two) is vital to understanding how your characters (and perhaps the Romeo and Juliet of your story) should communicate with one another. Is their tryst in the gardens commonplace, frowned upon, or a mortal sin?

Like forms of address, this can be used to induce tension and provide conflict to your scenes.

What would they wear, and what would it mean?


Nowadays, pretty much anything is OK. I can just as easily walk down the street in a trouser suit as I can in a dress and no-one will bat an eyelid. Likewise, I could probably get away with a Borat swimsuit if I was so inclined (Swedes, like Londoners, don’t tend to acknowledge one another on public transport so they might not even notice.)

But back in the day your characters might have had to wear gloves to be deemed proper, or covered their hair, or their wrists, or their ankles. Perhaps they had to wear a corset, or they needed to remove their hat when they entered a building. Perhaps they needed to wear a sword at all times, as a symbol of power, or status?

Have a think about the different social classes and what they would have worn, but keep in mind this question of why- this will help shape your character’s psychology.

What was considered wild behaviour?

alcohol bottles celebration color

I feel like picking your nose has always been gross, but it probably would’ve been even more frowned upon in 1891 than it is today. Likewise, smoking in front of a woman was deemed ‘unseemly’ in Victorian England, whereas fast forward to wartime and everyone was smoking (because hey, it wasn’t bad for you back then, so why not!)

Make sure you know where the lines are, so that your rebellious characters can cross them and your straight-laced ones can berate them for it. Again, this helps build conflict but it can also help you charactertise your protagonist or one of your side characters. If smoking is frowned upon but they do it anyway, is it because they don’t know, or they don’t care? And what do the effects of each of these have on the other character’s perception of them as a person?

Hopefully this has given you some starting points for your own historical adventure. Check back in soon for Post 3 in my How to Research your Historical Novel series: The Big Picture

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