Tips on Setting in Historical Fiction

The most popular post on A Writer of History is about the 7 Elements of Historical Fiction: characters, dialogue, plot, conflict, theme, setting, and world building. Over the next few months, I plan to flesh out some of these elements beginning with setting.

Broadly speaking, setting is a time and place of the past. In more than one survey, readers of historical fiction state that bringing the past to life is the primary reason for reading historical fiction. Successful historical fiction will do just that — transport readers into the past. Creating an authentic and convincing setting is critical.

According to Mark Sullivan, author of Beneath a Scarlet Sky:The best historical novels transport the reader to another time and place so convincingly that it is like being swept away. If it’s done right, a historical novel can be an unforgettable experience, truly magical. There’s the sheer novelty of the setting and characters, and you can feel that the author understands her world cold. But that alone won’t do it. The best historical writers get in the minds of their characters in accordance with their times and then plumb the human emotions that are timeless.” More about characters later.

To do justice to the topic of setting, we’ll look at why setting is important to readers, the long list of ingredients that constitute setting, the research sources authors can tap into to explore the setting for their novels, and the reflections, perspectives and techniques used by various authors.

But first some context.

In a discussion hosted by the University of Cambridge, Dr. Sarah Burton talks about the journey fiction embodies “where the reader and writer have made a compact, where a point of view is shared, where common responses are exploited.” In that same discussion, Trevor Byrne, author of novels, short stories and essays, suggests that “fiction brings you to places, emotionally and imaginatively, which you never otherwise would have visited”, while Dr. Malachi McIntosh, a Fellow at King’s College, says that “fiction lets us press pause, rewind, zoom in, zoom out; it creates a space for us to think about ourselves and our world in novel ways.”

Add a historical setting to this journey that fiction embodies and the challenge is clear: the compact between writer and reader takes on the added complexity of making history and its people relevant to ourselves and our world.

In his book The Historical Novel, Jerome de Groot examines the development of the historical novel and its relationship to the wider cultural sphere. According to de Groot, history interests people more as the unfolding of moral and cultural developments than as the “mere enumeration of facts”. Historical fiction, with its focus on people—famous or fictional—offers an analysis of recognizable human character such that readers can “re-experience the social and human motives which led men [and women] to think, feel and act as they did in historical reality.”

Through insights into the minds of those living in the past—something historical fiction excels at—readers develop an awareness of how historical events impact on our contemporary world, building empathy for the past and a meaningful connection between then and now.

Let’s hear from a few more authors reflecting on historical fiction:

Judith Starkston, author of Hand of Fire, said: Developing an immersive world is hard work that has to feel seamless to the reader. And isn’t that one of the most profound transformations for fiction to accomplish—to place ourselves into another way of seeing the world and to try on how it feels to be another person?

In How I Write Historical Fiction, author Geoff Micks has this thought to add: Writers of historical fiction need to go even further, because it is their responsibility to train their readers from the very first page about how that world works differently from the one we live in today.

In The Role of Setting, Myfanwy Cook, author of Historical Fiction Writing – A Practical Guide and Toolkit,says that setting provides a stage on which the characters can act out their drama.

Next time we’ll have a look at why setting is important to historical fiction.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website


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