Setting is like an iceberg

So what exactly is setting as it relates to historical fiction? I’ll attempt to answer that, but I know that my answer will be incomplete. In addition, many of the items listed below also fit into the category of world building – I’m having trouble separating the two! We’ll explore world building later.

A few years ago, I wrote Time Travel – The Work of Historical Fiction where I listed all sorts of details I needed to explore to develop a novel set in 1870s Paris. Since then, other authors have written guest posts that have helped expand the notion of setting and I’ve done more digging on the topic. In this post, I’ve organized the components of setting into broad categories to make it more useful.

The Social Domain

  • social customs, arrangements and attitudes
  • norms and attitudes
  • expectations of the time and of different stations in life
  • what people valued
  • beliefs (cultural, religious, political, scientific, philosophic)
  • manners and mannerisms
  • morality and changing mores
  • class divisions; upward mobility
  • marriage
  • constraints of the time period
  • folklore and myth

Everyday Life – these vary with social class

  • types of clothing worn and fashion of the day; clothes people wear can actually change the way they behave; where people get their clothing
  • the popular books people were reading
  • the type of soap used, toiletries
  • shopping experience
  • jokes they told
  • what was considered an insult
  • fears
  • food and cooking, recipes, who does what
  • furniture and decor
  • housing and architecture, building materials, sources of heat and light
  • entertainment and diversions; popular music, pastimes and hobbies; where people go to meet friends, who else might frequent the places they visit
  • sounds, smells, tastes, touches; physical sensations, scent, touch, sounds
  • everyday life, everyday struggles; What did a typical day look like? Who did what? What was acceptable in society then, and what wasn’t?
  • family environment and household matters; family dynamic; family responsibilities and obligations
  • the cost of goods and the types of goods available
  • material culture
  • sex and attitudes about sex
  • news sources
  • education and class; literacy
  • medical practices of the day and medicines; psychological know-how; diseases; life spans; causes of death (and its customs)
  • transportation, conveyances and travel

Work life

  • the trades
  • typical occupations and professions
  • high, middle- and lower-class work
  • existing and emerging technologies
  • international trade

Politics, Religion, Government, major institutions

  • the political situation, political motivations,
  • governments and government institutions
  • important figures of the day, prominent people; if your historical characters are real people, you must know where they were and when and what occurred at these points in time
  • international alliances
  • military organization and role within society
  • educational institutions and norms
  • legal system, laws and regulations; the way the law worked (and who was oppressed and privileged by it and how)
  • rights of women
  • religious structures and religious norms
  • medical institutions (if any)

events and timelines – historical timelines and major events affecting your story

  • military actions and wars (recent and impending)
  • revolutions and uprisings
  • news of the day, important news stories
  • what those who were considered subversive were doing
  • the (sometimes massive) changes that were going on during the time; who was affected by change; how did they react?
  • scandals of the day
  • broad issues of the era
  • unusual weather events (famines, natural disasters)

Relevant landscape and geography

  • landscape and physical geography
  • flora and fauna
  • layouts of towns and cities
  • neighbourhoods and who lives where
  • weather and weather patterns
  • place names

So many elements to explore and understand! And you still have to write your story and ensure that the story isn’t burdened by all this detail. Who said writing is easy??

Let me leave you with an image based on the title of today’s post.


I welcome your input and feedback. Earlier posts on setting:


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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6 Responses

  1. Oh, how valuable, both the lists and the iceberg metaphor. Thank you so much. I am struggling with all these things–the small everyday detail and the wide background of events of the time–for a book set in 1900 Chicago and New Orleans. The minor details defy research!

  2. Unfortunately, I have read far too many historical novels where the below the iceberg elements were so far beneath the story as to be utterly invisible. Thus there were no details “in the story” that had the slightest degree of verisimilitude to the era in which it was supposed to be set.

    I can see a different metaphor, perhaps, where those iceberg elements, instead of being invisible, and the visible foundation of the story.

    I get it that often writers can’t resist stuffing all their research into the plot, where it clogs the plot, overwhelms the characters, and so forth. But to focus on the everyday details is impossible without rigorous background research.

    There’s the Golden Mean somewhere in the mix, but it takes practice and due diligence to find it, I think.

    You did that, Mary, with Time and Regret.

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