I think I was 13 when I discovered, more or less all at once, Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart, Jane Aiken Hodge, and “romantic suspense,” a broad category that included different sorts of books but generally featured a woman in a diaphanous gown, framed against a brooding manse. There might not even be a brooding manse in the book, but on the cover… (at the same period, SF often had a rocket ship on the cover regardless of actual rocketry in the book). Gradually I fell away from romantic suspense, and from the less able of Heyer’s imitators (I think I was 15 by the time I could tell whether a writer had done their research solely by reading Heyer). But among the other things I found in those books was a fondness for a certain kind of world building that involved manners and rules; societies in which knowing the rules meant you could survive or even game the system.
At about the same time I discovered Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë (and later George Elliot and Thomas Hardy), all of whom are very aware of how playing by the rules–or bending them to your will–could change a character’s life. Breaking the rules very often led to tragedy; bending them, to comedy or drama. And when I started reading biographies of women in the 16th-19th centuries I understood that this wasn’t just fiction.
Bear in mind, I first read this stuff in the late 60s and early 70s, when notion of etiquette and form was at a low ebb. Manners weren’t “authentic.” Which meant one was left to negotiate the world with none of the guidelines that manners provide. And I, well aware of my cluelessness, loved guidelines: they were exotic and spoke of grace.
Thus, when I started to write, I wrote Regencies, which gave me a chance to play with gaming the rules. A few decades later I’m still doing it, often in real world, or near real world settings, but sometimes in my own playground, a city called Meviel.
I came up with Meviel for a story I wrote for one of Deborah J. Ross’s anthologies. It owes a little something to Ellen Kushner’s Riverside, something to Jacqueline Carey’s Terre d’Ange, and a bit to Martha Wells’s Ile-Rien, but a lot of it is simply me, playing in a not-quite Georgian society with very specific rules and requirements, particularly for the behavior of women. Between being one myself, and having two daughters who daily navigate what it means to be a woman in 21st century America, it’s a subject I find inexhaustibly interesting. And Meviel, with its focus on manners and custom, gives me a good laboratory to play with class and gender in ways I find very satisfying.
Plus: swordfighting. For about five years I studied stage combat, and performed as an actor-combatant (rapier, rapier-dagger, broadsword, quarterstaff, and hand-to-hand). I stopped when I had kids–eight months pregnant, your form goes to pot, and doing a forward roll with a rapier in your hand becomes actively hazardous. But with a rapier in my hand I became–or could pretend I became–someone exotic and powerful. For that matter, wielding etiquette made me, or the characters I wrote about, exotic and powerful.
So: the great city of Meviel, capital of a small nation by the same name. There’s a harbor (where you’ll find harbor rats and pirates and other low-lives); the raucous Dedenor district, full of footpads and pick-pockets; a university of bearded scholars; and the Vocarle district, where the wealthy and titled live. A society where luck is a family asset, passed down from generation to generation (unless one is careless enough to lose it), and where almost anything can be managed if the etiquette is correct. And if it’s not, well… keep your sword edged and ready.