Getting to setting in The Importance of Pawns

Keira Morgan discovered the Renaissance when her grandmother gave her a book about England’s queens when she was five. At university, she studied Renaissance and Reformation history to the doctoral level. The Importance of Pawns is her first novel and you won’t be surprised to know that it’s set in her favourite time period. Today, Keira provides insights into the interplay between setting and character.

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When anyone asks about The Importance of Pawns, the first thing I say is, “It takes place in the 16th Century French court.” 

In other words, I situate the person in time and place. With this information about the setting, I announce that mine is an historical novel and I promise implicitly that the details will be authentic to the period.

So, what is setting and how important is it?

According to Masterclass, the setting is the most important part of a historical fiction novel. It should take place during an authentic period in history and be set in a real historical place. For example, New York City during the Great Depression or Paris, France during World War II. 

M. K. Tod has added to that description from her research. Setting includes:

  • atmosphere,
  • landscape,
  • landscape of the person and
  • internal landscape. 

Simply put, it is the place where the scene occurs. It includes details such as timing (day, hour, year), mood invoked, historical aspect, details that reveal personality, and the actions that preceded it. Each scene must do this. 

To illustrate, here is the setting from early in the first chapter of my novel. My readers need to be situated right away and I use a simple, often used device; I state the time, place, and principal character. If I want my reader to keep on, I must engage their emotions and intrigue them from the start. By showing Countess Louise as she engages with her physical and interpersonal landscape, I hope to capture these responses.

***

4 January 1514, Early afternoon

Château de Blois

Countess Louise d’Angoulême

When would that Agnez arrive? It was unsuitable that a woman of her rank should be kept waiting by a servant girl. She [Countess Louise] paced once more around the perimeter of her suite’s presence chamber, running her fingers over the thick Flemish tapestries that absorbed the chill from the stone walls. She reminded herself that she had done very well to parlay King Louis’s favor into this suite of three rooms, despite the overcrowding at the Christmas court. It had taken some effort on her part, but despite Queen Anne’s enmity, she had even charmed the king into furnishing the rooms. When she arrived early in December, she had come accompanied only by her bed and clothes chests. 

Chateau de Blois tapestry – Source Wikimedia

Louise threw herself into a folding leather chair in front of the hissing fire. The crowned L & A for Louis and Anne emblazoned on the fireplace hood drew her eyes. How the emblem irritated her! When her son was king, she would order those initials replaced immediately.

***

Since I came from an academic and bureaucratic background, learning to write fiction did not come easily to me. It will not surprise you that finalizing these two paragraphs took many rewrites. Finally, I realized that I must show Louise’s presence chamber through her eyes and voice when she was impatient and irritated. Only then could I create the atmosphere and choose the details that captured the scene without the dreaded telling

It required a lot of stripping away. I removed almost all the furnishings. At first, only the tapestries, expensive Flemish tapestries, and a leather chair remained. More than that, Louise had to do something with them. So, she ran her fingers over the Flemish tapestry (though now I wish she had ‘stroked the Flemish tapestry,’ but I defy any writer ever to be satisfied.) 

Later, I remembered that even for the richest, no-one travelled without a bed. Beds were hugely expensive, bulky items passed from generation to generation. When the court moved from one place to the next, it took its furniture with it and left the unused rooms in the Château empty. Even if the king could supply his heir’s mother with a few chairs and tapestries, he would not have beds or chests to spare. I wanted to add these details — without another of those dreaded flaws, the info dump.

By presenting everything from Louise’s perspective and introducing the enmity between her and the queen, I could show their conflict through implication and carefully chosen detail. For example, she feels satisfaction at having brought only the essentials — her bed and clothing chests. Her reasons aren’t made explicit, but over time her obsession with money will become clear. But this hint suggests something about her character. Another example is her reaction to the crowned L & A emblems on the fireplace hood. The reader learns something about the depth of her resentment by her intention to remove it ‘immediately’ when her son became king. 

Louise reveals her own sense of her importance because her son is heir to the throne. Moreover, she expects to be so influential that she will have the power to give such an order and have it obeyed. 

In these details of setting, I present past actions (both the fact that François is heir and the embellishment of the fireplace hood occurred well in the past) that create the present and will significantly affect the future.

Did I have all this consciously in mind when I wrote these two paragraphs? I admit I did not. I had not then read the observations on setting I’ve referred to at the opening of this post. But by then I’d learned about the importance of the apropos detail.

Louise was as real to me (or I knew her even better) than most people around me by then. So was Blois. So was the moment I was writing about. Those were the elements that made it possible to recognize what needed revising. For the future, I am now `consciously aware of the elements of setting that inform effective historical fiction writing.

Many thanks, Keira, for illuminating the role of setting. This brief scene tantalizes the reader to want more!

The Importance of Pawns by Keira Morgan ~~ Danger lurks beneath the glitter of the sixteenth century French court. The queen lies dying; the king has but months to live. Their two daughters, Claude and young Renée are heiresses to the rich duchy of Brittany. Countess Louise, their guardian, schemes to steal their inheritance.

For years she has envied the dying Queen Anne, the girls’ mother. She plots to marry wealthy Claude to her son. Her unexpected guardianship presents a golden opportunity, but only if she can remove their protectress Baronne Michelle, who loves the princesses and safeguards their interests. 

As political tensions rise, the futures of Princess Renée and the Baronne hang in the balance, threatened by Countess Louise’s designs. Will timid Claude untangle the treacherous intrigues Countess Louise is weaving? Can she outflank the wily countess to protect young Princess Renée? And can she find the courage to defend those she loves?

Based on historical events and characters, this timeless story will rivet you until the last page. It is a tale of envy, power and intrigue pitted against loyalty and the strength of women’s friendships. 

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Embers of a Lesser-Known French Revolution

The New York Times posted an interesting article about the Paris Commune last Thursday. Those of you who know that my novel Paris In Ruins is set in that time period – how could you miss that bit of information? – will know that 1871 was a tumultuous time pitting citizen against citizen on the streets of Paris. Apparently, there are Parisians who think that particular revolution should never have been quashed.

A couple of quotes to entice you to read the article.

..as France has been rocked by a series of social movements in recent years, the story of the Paris Commune has made a comeback, with protesters making connections between today’s struggles and those of a century and a half ago.

New York Times April 29, 2021
Announcing a funeral for communards killed by the French army

It is a historical event that backs up new grass-roots demands in terms of reclaiming social, political and economic power.

New York Times April 29, 2021

The Commune was long invoked as a model of class warfare … until the memory began to fade in the 1980s, along with communist ideology.

New York Times April 29, 2021
Rue de Rivoli

Catherine Kremar, a 70-year-old seasoned leftist activist, smiled as she watched the protest around her. “Revolutionary Paris is not dead,” she said.

New York Times April 29, 2021

It seems the desire for a more equal society does not fade away. At least in France.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

The World of 1870 Paris

While launching Paris In Ruins, a number of authors and bloggers hosted guest articles featuring the world of 1870 Paris.

On the Washington Independent Review of Books, editor-in-chief Holly Smith invited me to write about The Enduring Allure of Paris.

Paris—a city ingrained in our imaginations. A city that is both grand and lived in, a city of massive cathedrals and quiet neighborhoods, a city full of mystery and romance. The city of love, the city of light. Why have writers flocked to Paris for hundreds of years? A brief dip into history sets the stage. In the middle ages, the Catholic church established schools attached to major monasteries to train scholars not only for the church, but also to serve in government. Read more …

On Sarah Johnson’s well-known blog Reading the Past, I wrote about the Delights of a Research Trip to Paris.

Paris In Ruins is set during the Franco-Prussian War, the Siege of Paris, and the Paris Commune. I arrived at these momentous events not by design but by calculating when two characters from an earlier novel, Lies Told In Silence, would be roughly twenty years old. I had imagined a novel about friendship between these very different women with a dash of romance and perhaps some tangled family dynamics. However, when I discovered a war, a siege, and a bloody insurrection, the plot took on much more drama. For more …

Author Elizabeth St. John and book blogger Davida Chazan hosted an article about Sarah Bernhardt’s involvement in the Siege of Paris.

In My Double Life, Bernhardt mentions her decision to establish a hospital (ambulance): “The Odéon Theatre had closed its doors, but I moved heaven and earth to get permission to organise an ambulance in that theatre, and, thanks to Emile de Girardin and Duquesnel, my wish was gratified. I went to the War Office and made my declaration and my request, and my offers were accepted for a military ambulance. The next difficulty was that I wanted food. I wrote a line to the Prefect of Police. A military courier arrived very soon, with a note from the Prefect containing the following lines … read more …

Rats, Trees and Breadlines was an article I wrote for author Judith Starkston’s blog

Imagine knowing that an army of more than 400,000 soldiers was approaching your city. How would you feel? What preparations would you make? Would you worry about your children, the men you loved who’d enlisted to defend the city, your friends and family? Would you wonder how you would feed your family and whether or not your job was secure? With winter only a few months away, would you be concerned about having enough wood or coal to keep your fires burning? Read more …

The spark of inspiration – or how Paris In Ruins came about – was hosted by authors Elisabeth Storrs and Char Newcomb.

Writers are not always masters of their own stories. There are editors to please, early readers who help tune the story, husbands and friends who offer suggestions—the list goes on. Each new story begins with a glimmer of an idea, that spark that ultimately leads to a finished novel. The challenge is to feed that spark and breathe life into the fire as the writing process unfolds. For that we need inspiration on an almost daily basis. Read more …

I hope you enjoy reading more about turbulent world of 1870 Paris. I’m deeply grateful to these individuals who supported the launch of Paris In Ruins.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.