The Eterna Files

It’s Not a Costume, It’s My Day Job

The Eterna Files by Leanna Renee Hieber
Written by Leanna Renee Hieber

I’m asked often if my being a professional actress helps me as a writer. It entirely does, in more ways than I likely understand about my own process at any one given moment. Being an actress is a holistic aspect of how I see the world and operate as an artistic professional.

One of the most often complimented aspects of my work is my ability to create atmosphere and ‘set the stage’ for my novels. This is most certainly due to a life on the boards. My penchant for diving deep into character, reveling in the intricacies of dialogue and inner monologue, comes from professional theatre and playwrighting training, novel writing coming to me as a professional venture after I’d established myself in the former.

I set my books in the late 19th century because it’s the era that birthed the entirety of our understanding of modernity and is thusly somewhat recognizable to us and yet, the Victorians are rife with conflict and hypocrisy that it is a source of dramatic tension and conflict in and of itself.

Leanna Renee Hieber as Lucy in Dracula
Leanna as Lucy in Dracula for the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, photo: Rich Sofranko

One of the most important factors in differentiating the daily life of a modern character from that of any historical character is their clothing. This is especially important for women, whose fashion has changed far more radically and comprehensively than basic men’s clothing through the years. We wear, on average far fewer layers (and pounds) of clothing in the 21st century than the 19th.

Another important gift the theatre gave my historical novels is a tactile reality and personal experience ‘existing’ in other time periods with which I can paint details. How we move in our clothes and interact with our world is something we take for granted, but as a writer, I can’t; not if I’m writing strong, empowered women who, while they may chafe against the restrictive society roles and mores around them, still remain influenced by and bound to the fashion of the age. Knowing what it is like to move, sit, prepare food, lift, climb stairs, walk, trot, run, seize, weep, and collapse in a restrictive corset, bodice, bustle, petticoat, hat, layers, gloves, and other accessories—all of which I’ve been personally subjected to in various historical plays and presentations I’ve acted in—is vitally important to taking the reader physically as well as visually and emotionally through what my characters are experiencing.

LRH_AuthorPhoto_CJohnstone
Photo: C. Johnstone

I write fantasy, so I hardly operate off the ‘write what you know’ principle, but knowing from personal experience some of those intimate details—like the precise unease of chafing corset bones against your skin—helps me consider my heroic ladies of The Eterna Files that much more impressive in all the crazed antics I set them to.

Overcoming restrictions is a big theme in my work. That a restrictive society further enclosed its women in cages of undergarments and elaborate systems of outerwear is too important a factor of world-building not to have at the core, and I hope it sets a vital tone for how readers can feel my work as well as read it.

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