Monday, March 21, 2011

A Quiet Word with Kathleen Coddington

Your presentation, DRESSING YOUR CHARACTERS, at this year’s Write Stuff conference talks about using clothing, props and accessories to help create engaging characters. Which fashion era is your personal favorite, and why?
When I was fourteen, I saw Gone with the Wind and became hooked on Civil War history.  Fortunately, my husband, Neil, shares my passion. For the past 12 years we have been Civil War reenactors with the 88th PA Volunteer Infantry, so it’s easy to guess that fashions from the mid-Victorian era are among my favorites.  Medieval and Renaissance fashions run a close second.  Add to all of this my childhood exposure to Hollywood historical costume dramas like Spartacus, El Cid and Robin Hood and the connection between my love of history and love of historical costume becomes obvious.
Would you give us a couple of examples of how you’ve used a fashion accessory to show a character’s personality?
I toyed with using an accessory in my first book, Witch Ball.  The male protagonist, Nathaniel, carried an Indian arrowhead and rubbed it whenever he was thinking deeply about something or stressed.  Unbeknownst to him at the beginning of the story, he had the same habit in an earlier incarnation.

In my medieval romance, Threads of Love, I took the concept of clothing and character to a deeper level in the development of a secondary character. Serving as a mentor to the two main characters, Lady Marian is an eccentric older woman who dresses in garish colors and is accompanied by an ancient servant, a bear cub and small hawk.  Her outlandish dress and behavior accentuate her bold, forthright and outspoken personality which is the opposite of the typical medieval view of woman hood.

What common problems do writers face when referring to fashion in their work?
Two problems that come to mind are way too much description and anachronisms.  As much as an author may love something—fashion, the quaint setting of the small French village, the arcane laws of Scotland in the 1700s, the true purpose of the book is to tell an engaging, satisfying story not to give a lecture.  Clothing and setting need to be woven into the story in small pieces.

Despite hours of research, anachronisms can still creep into a story.  Nothing jolts me out of a book faster than coming across a character saying, wearing or using an item I know does not belong in that time period.  Editors have reported receiving manuscripts that mention zippers in ancient Egypt, cell phones during the Regency period and clip on earrings during the Elizabethan era.  Readers of historical fiction are a savvy group, so it’s important to do your homework.  Believe me they will let you know when you got something wrong.

Outlandish clothes can certainly make a character memorable, but can a writer ever go too far?
I think it depends on the book and the character.  In general, over the top is fine as long as it fits the tone, style and theme of the book.  Clothing should enhance the characterization, not take it over.

At what point in the creation process do your newly created character’s personal fashion tastes usually come to the fore?
I introduce, at least a hint of it, right in the beginning.  I think this especially important if you want to show character growth at the end of the book by having the character’s style of dress change.  Once clothing, style of dress or a prop is introduced as part of the characterization, that thread must be carried all the way to the end of the story.

Would you give us an example where a well-known author made good use of clothing to show a character?
Certainly one of the most famous examples, both in the book and on film, is Margaret Mitchell’s scene of Scarlett getting dressed for the barbeque at Twelve Oaks in Gone with the Wind.  On the surface it’s an entertaining look at mid-19th century underwear, but the real purpose of the scene is to reveal to the reader that Scarlett O’Hara is no lady, at least not by the standard definition of a lady during that time period.

In the Scarlet Pimpernel by the Baroness Orczy, the characterization of the protagonist revolves around his foppish clothing and manners, a deliberate affectation on his part so that everyone, including his wife will underestimate him.  He uses his attire to create a persona that he can hide behind while going about the dangerous work of saving French aristocrats from the guillotine.

Candace Bushnell’s Sex in the City in which the main character has a love affair with shoes is a more contemporary use of the concept.

Kathleen Coddington has been writing romance for over 15 years. She has four books published by Ellora’s Cave 1 paranormal and two historical romances under their Blush Line and a futuristic erotic romance under their Aeon Line.  She has also published several articles about the fashions of the mid-19th century and teaches novel writing at Northampton County Community College.  She is a member of RWA, Pocono Lehigh Romance Writers and the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group.  A retired school librarian, Kathleen is a member of two Civil War reenacting units and is a frequent lecturer at schools, women’s groups and historical societies.

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