Why is setting important to historical fiction?

Why do we read? We read to gain knowledge, find advice and counsel, build self-awareness, develop motivation and strength, be entertained, create hope, seek escape or regeneration. We read to understand who we are and what we might become. We read to quiet our souls. We read to comprehend humanity, to build empathy for the experiences of others, to understand community and friendship, to appreciate how to live and die.

Pew Research Center poll asked readers what they like most about reading. In that poll, 26% mentioned learning, gaining knowledge and discovering information, 15% chose escaping reality, becoming immersed in another world, and the enjoyment of imagination. 12% read primarily for entertainment value including “the drama of good stories, the suspense of watching a good plot unfold.” Others mentioned relaxation, quiet, spiritual and personal enrichment, and expanding their world view.

So where then does setting come into play? A story will clang if the setting doesn’t ring true. You might argue that without an authentic and richly imagined historical setting, readers will have difficulty achieving any of the above objectives of fiction.

In three separate surveys of reading habits and preferences (check the Reader Surveys tab on this blog), the top three reasons for reading historical fiction are: (1) to bring the past to life, appreciating how people lived and coped in very different times, (2) because it’s a great story, and (3) to understand and learn about historical periods without reading non-fiction.

How can authors bring the past to life without exploring modes of travel, the circumstances of daily life, or the religious beliefs of the time? How can readers learn about a particular time period without seeing the characters of the novel confronting the conflicts and challenges of that era? How can a character’s emotions be relevant for today without appreciating the values and customs or the restrictions of yesterday?

Setting considers all of these and so much more. Without an authentic living and breathing setting, a work of historical fiction fails.

This is the second post on setting. The first post Tips on Setting in Historical Fiction can be found here. Next we explore the many ingredients of setting.

Your thoughts and reactions are welcome! Please use the comments to add to this discussion.


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 www.mktod.com.

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5 Responses

  1. Great points! And the timing of your post was perfect. I was just writing my own blog for tomorrow’s post, and the topic was the importance of historical context to both fiction and nonfiction writing. Thank you for the confirmation of my points!

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