Sometimes you learn things or are prompted to think about things in a different way in unexpected places. I’ve been involved with a women’s Bible study in a local town for several years. These groups are the backbones, not only of the church, but also of local communities. Spiritual reasons aside, they are a place where women go to be with other women, to have a cup of tea and a treat, and to take a moment to think outside the parameters of their everyday lives.
For some of the members of this group, this is the one time they have away from husbands and sons, from the demands of caring for others. Our group ranges in age from mid-thirties to late seventies and covers much of the spectrum of modern relationships (though largely within the parameters of a conservative religious group).
A few months ago, we spent some time talking about life goals and whether what we wanted out of life was what we had received so far. If not, the task was to think about what we wanted and to set goals. To “younger” members of the group, this seemed a normal procedure, part of our lives of self-examination and expectation. To older members of the group, it seemed a pointless exercise.
“What do you mean “set goals”? We just get through each day at a time.”
“I got up in the morning, milked the cows, looked after the children, cooked meals, milked the cows, did the farm accounts and went to bed so that I could get up to do it all again in the morning.”
The whole notion of having a life direction and making efforts to steer one’s life in that direction seemed preposterous to these women. The idea of making decisions for one’s own wellbeing or even planning offspring seemed equally absurd. In many ways, you just dealt with what happened to you.
This kind of cultural difference is important when writing a historical novel. I have to avoid imposing my contemporary attitudes on the characters. While farming women in the nineteenth century were strong, independent, courageous, and in many cases forceful and authoritarian, many appeared to be reacting to circumstances rather than directing their own lives.
Perhaps theirs’ was a more realistic understanding of life rather than our perception that we can make entirely independent choices. Either way, I need to write in a way contemporary to my characters’ time, not my own.