Friday, March 9, 2012

Friday's Focus: Contemporary Sensibilities

In my last post, I talked about the revisions I was making on my historical novel with respect to the issues mentioned by the publisher and her editors. One of those issues was "contemporary sensibilities." The editors said my main character's dialogue was "too adult and had contemporary sensibilities." Bringing his dialogue down somewhat to reflect his age ( 13), and still keep him in character for the pre-Civil War era was a challenge. Kids of that era grew up much faster than our kids today, and their speech reflected that. However, after working on it for a while, I think I've managed to satisfy the editors, although I'm still going to be looking over his dialogue again before I resubmit.

But the "contemporary sensibilities" threw me. At first I thought, What, Ben isn't supposed to have the same feelings and emotions that kids today have?  Umm...well, actually, no. It took me some time to figure that one out. First of all, what does the word "sensibility" mean? The dictionary definition is:
Sensibility: 1) the capacity for being affected emotionally or intellectually, either pleasantly or unpleasantly; 2) capacity to respond perceptively to intellectual, moral, or aesthetic values; 3) sensitivity to stimulus or other things/events that make you react in a certain way.

I had to think about that. What many of us writers do... if not all of us at one time or another... is to ascribe to our characters thoughts, beliefs, actions, and behaviors that come more from our own knowledge and life experiences than what those particular characters would be exposed to. So is that what I did with Ben? The truth is, no, I didn't. But what I DID do, was not give enough of his back story so that the reader, most probably a MG kid, would understand where Ben's beliefs and attitudes came from, and why he felt about slavery as he did. Because of that, the editors felt I had instilled "contemporary" sensibilities in him.

So let's talk about that. Take the "N" word for example: in the days of slavery, up through and even far beyond the Civil War, the word "nigger" was commonly used. It and "colored" were the appellations given to the black community of both slaves and free blacks. It was not a slur, it was not derogatory at that time, it was used in everyday speech. Today it is a terrible slur, it is a word most people of ANY color sincerely wish would disappear from our vocabularies and dictionaries. If offends out "contemporary sensibilities," as does the very idea of what slavery meant, and what it cost the American people in terms of lives lost in order to eradicate that institution from our society.

The N word does not appear in my story... I would never use it, even if it were normal speech for that era. However, Ben's deep-rooted hatred of slavery had to come from somewhere. He had to have learned somewhere in his life that slavery was wrong, but being in Kentucky, on a plantation that owned slaves, where could his belief have come from? That was what I failed to adequately explain, so that it seemed to the editors his beliefs came from a 'contemporary sensibility' that someone of his age, living in the South in that time period, would not have had. In other words, he would not have had the capacity, the sensitivity, to respond emotionally, and finally, physically, as he did to a cultural condition that he had grown up in during that particular era.

That's where his back story came in. Not pages and pages of it, but sprinkled here and there throughout the early chapters. Ben spent the first 10 years of his life in New York City, where he learned from school and from daily life that slavery was wrong, that it was a sin for one human to "own" another. This was the culture he grew up in. However, his parents and older brothers HAD grown up in Kentucky, they had accepted slavery and owning slaves ( who were not considered "human" like whites, therefore it was okay to own them like pieces of furniture). When his family returned to Kentucky, Ben learned for the very first time what slavery was really all about. But even at 10, he hated it, could not understand why it was acceptable in one part of the country and denounced in another part.

His background is what gave him his first attitudes and beliefs about the concept of slavery and why it was wrong. When he moved to the plantation, his grandmother, widow of the man who had owned it, was an Abolitionist, and her beliefs enforced what he had grown up with. All of this back story was crucial to Ben's attitudes, beliefs, and values...his "sensibilities" of the times. But I had not given enough of his back story for the editors to understand why he believed as he did, and of course, younger readers would not understand, either.

It was not easy to go back and insert bits and pieces of his back story so the reader would understand why Ben felt so very differently from his parents and older brothers. But, thanks to my editors, I realized what a crucial part of the "front" story it was, and why it needed to be there to eliminate the issue of "contemporary sensibilities."

I hope I have described this intelligently, and given you all an idea of what we do... and don't do... without even realizing it. Contemporary sensibilities have to reflect the sensibilities of the time frame in which you are writing, and not be an indication of the morals, ethics, and values your characters would not yet have been exposed to.

One more thing to remember: the time frame you are writing in does NOT have to be historical for you to ascribe "contemporary sensibilities" to your characters. Ethics, values, morals, and the situations reflecting those aspects of society change all the time, so just make sure your charcters are thinking, feeling, and reacting to the experiences they would have had in their time frame, even if it was only 5 or 10 years ago.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.


  1. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I'm not writing my story, but my MC's story, so even if there are specific words I don't like or agree with, I know I'd have to use them in the context if they are exclusive to the particular setting. Contemporary sensibilities ~ this is the first time I'm hearing the proper term for this issue. :) Thanks!

    1. Claudine, I think we all fall into that trap from time to time in our writing, of putting our own thoughts/feelings and so on into our story. It's easier to do than you think!

  2. It sounds like you did a great job revising, Mikki! Thanks for sharing all of this. It's great information.

    1. Thanks,Kelly. I hope it was useful. Figuring out what the editors meant by "passive voice" and "contemporary sensibilities" took some time,but seeing how easy it was to use those elements without realizing it was invaluable to me.