Setting – Authors’ perspectives and techniques

This is the last post dealing with setting – one of the seven elements of historical fiction. Over the years, authors have shared thoughts on transporting readers in time and place. I’ve pulled together a number of their perspectives in today’s post.

Katharine McMahon offers an introductory comment: research underpins the vividness of the story telling, but an emotional connection to the past is critical to successfully write historical fiction. The reader and I both know that I’m going to interweave the two – fact and fiction – as seamlessly as I would if I were writing a contemporary novel.

As does Judith Starkston: 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?

Let’s hear from other authors ~~

Research: Jane Johnson’s approach to research: I need to immerse myself in the research – each novel usually requires a year of research – before I write the book. It’s partly a matter of confidence – knowing what I’m talking about! – partly the need to feed the compost heap from which the story emerges. All those facts, all that information needs to be piled up and then to mulch down to a rich material that will allow the story to grow straight and true (or twisted and strange!) but with its own integrity and power. I don’t want to have to fact-check three times in every sentence, or even every page: it breaks up the flow. I always go back to primary sources first, since I’ve learned only too well that even academics wing it sometimes and I’ve caught a number of so-called experts out in fudges and errors. I want the work to be accurate and to reflect as truthfully as possible the times I’m trying to portray. The story and characters are of course paramount, but if you’re going to write fiction which purports to be ‘historical’ I think you owe it to the period and to the readers to get it as right as anyone can. I want to offer readers verisimilitude and good value: and I don’t want anyone to suddenly stop and say ‘hang on, I don’t think that’s right’ – that’s the easiest way to lose the trust between an author and a reader. https://wp.me/p29Qar-hC

Perspective: R.N. Morris — I think you have to convince people that you have actually been there, into the past in a time machine, and that you’re writing from direct observation. That’s not the same as showing that you’ve done the research. You have to do the research, of course, but you have to process it and write it as though it’s from first hand observation. https://wp.me/p29Qar-kG

Technique: Blythe Gifford — As I get into the story, I’m always searching for the sensory details that will allow me to walk around in that world and experience it.  I have a map and a calendar at hand to keep me grounded, and in some ways, I find images better research than words.  But the physical sensations, scent, touch, sounds, really put me in touch with my characters.  The “everydayness” of real historical life is, of course, the most difficult thing to pin down, particularly before literacy was wide-spread.  https://wp.me/p29Qar-lK

Technique: Anne Easter Smith — if your historical characters are real people, you must know where they were and when and what occurred at these points in time; Anne Easter Smith offers her approach: First of all I get down on the floor with a big flip chart and make a graph with my main characters along the top and a monthly/yearly timeline down the side. Then I go to my favorite–and trusted–books on the period, turning to the index and finding my character (or her leading man, because as we know history is about men and written mostly by men!) I systematically go through every entry marking on my chart where she (or he) was at any specific time and what they were doing there. Once I have a goodly number of entries and have finished Part One of the book, I write down a list of all the places I have not been to and begin to plan The Research Trip. I need to walk the walk and see what my characters would have seen. Once I’m home again with a bag full of photos, brochures, maps and notes then I feel ready to start writing. https://wp.me/p29Qar-m9

Technique: Helen Bryan — Research is the easy part. In the main, this consists of burying myself in the British Library, to read about whatever period I plan to write about, and making notes by hand. While I can’t imagine writing on anything but a word processor, handwriting research notes tends to fix information in my brain, and significantly, at this stage the landscape of the novel starts to take shape.

Another good thing about research is that it’s possible to do it almost indefinitely without actually writing anything, while looking impressively busy. However, research isn’t limited to books. Useful information for a writer can crop up anytime, anywhere – newspaper stories, a snatch of conversation overheard in the street, a color, the weather, a landscape, any small detail that will pull a reader into the story. In particular, I am always on red alert for names. Characters must have exactly the right name, and only then do they begin to be real for me.  That’s when I begin writing, fitting them into that landscape. https://wp.me/p29Qar-mf

Technique: Indu Sundaresan — For The Twentieth Wife (and a few other novels following) my notes are in big binders, categorized as ‘food,’ ‘clothing,’ ‘transportation,’ maybe ‘roles of women,’ ‘court etiquette.’  This all forms a practical binder—what I absolutely need to know. For each novel, I also have a timeline binder.  I begin from the first recorded mention of my character(s) and continue through until their death, in between I jot down everything I’ve read about them—wars, battles, who they loved, whom they hated and why (or possibly why) and who mentions them and why. https://wp.me/p29Qar-yj

Technique: Jessica Brockmole — General history books are excellent starting points. They can help us plan our novels from the onset, letting us wade through much history in order to zero in on the few essential tidbits. They can also point us in the direction of other resources. I always follow footnotes to the end bibliography in search of more to read, especially published primary sources. I’ve come across some gems that I may not have found on my own. In researching WWI and WWII, I read collections of letters between soldiers and sweethearts, war diaries, and memoirs.

Research: Marina Oliver — find books on “historical slang, synonyms and foreign phrases … dictionaries of quotations, books of names, books on furniture, costume and houses, second-hand copies of Who’s Who and Whitaker’s Almanack, hotel and tourist guides and maps”. Oliver says there are different levels of research. First there is the general background … then you will need more specific information, relating more closely to the location and the time, and finally tiny details to illustrate something in the story, to back up some action or make a plot development possible.

Technique: Delaney Green – Readers want to be transported.  Humans know where they are by taking in information through their five senses. Therefore, I try to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell past places by finding out what there was to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. https://wp.me/p29Qar-QM

Technique: Margaret Evans Porter: I rely on portraits of people and places as they were at the time the novels take place. I study maps, floor plans of building. I hunt for objects used by or connected with my real-life characters. I study types of clothing worn, and because I worked in the theatre for many years, I have the advantage of having performed in the costumes of every era I’ve written about—so far. I read recipe books, dictionaries, conduct books published at that time. I listen to music that might have been familiar to my characters, read the poets and authors they would’ve read, and study the plays they attended.

Technique: Leah Klocek: offers several suggestions she uses for research.

Eyewitness to History is exactly what it sounds like. A rather plain and ad-filled website hides a valuable collection of excerpts from first-hand accounts from all throughout history. It’ll give you some great ideas and at least one cited source per page for you to follow.

Best of History Websites is definitely strongly tilted towards teachers, but it’s still quite helpful to the rest of us. It’s an index of websites organized by time and place in history. Each website listed within the larger index includes a description of what it holds and a review of the website for usability and accuracy – and there are some amazing websites in there. It also has a section specifically aimed at researchers containing advice and tools to assist both beginners and experts.

The Internet History Sourcebooks Project contains collections of public domain and copy-permitted historical texts. Here you will find an index of a wide variety of primary source documents from just about everywhere and everywhen. The page is old and not often updated, but don’t let this stop you.

And finally, The Avalon Project is a digital library of historical documents related to law and diplomacy dating back to the beginning of written history. It’s a veritable cornucopia of documents ranging from Roman Republican agrarian laws to the 9/11 Commission Report. As many, if not most, historical plots intersect with conflict, law, or diplomacy, bookmarking The Avalon Project will not be a decision you regret.

Technique: Elizabeth St John. — What was most fascinating to me were the footnotes, for from there emerged the original source documents. That was my second research methodology – going deep into the contemporary documents of the times. Subscribing to British History Online and the National Archives opened up the world of digitalized manuscripts; and Google Books unlocked the Calendars of State Papers. Now I was humming! The hunt was on for every single character that would be making an appearance in my book, and the riches provided by these online sources were boundless. I quickly realized the need to have a pretty accessible filing system to be able to store and retrieve all the documents that were emerging – letters, pleadings, court appearances, dispatches. Some were written by my characters; others mentioned them in passing. Each provided a clue to the personality and motivation of the people of my book.

Perspective: Geoff Micks — Any writer in any genre needs to know the rules of their world well enough to know which rules can be broken, bent, or ignored. 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. By the time the characters and conflicts are made manifest, readers need to be able to imagine what is happening for themselves without heavy-handed spoon feeding of exposition, explanation, and context. That kind of fluency and familiarity only comes from a deep understanding of what you, the writer, are going to write about. For me,  https://wp.me/p29Qar-139

Perspective: 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.

Setting is not just a colourful frame in which to showcase an author’s characters, but is in many ways an extra character … it deserves to have a detailed ‘character sketch’ of its own, which is as accurate and suitable for the subgenre of historical fiction as possible.”

I hope you’ve enjoyed this deep dive into setting. Now I have to decide which element to tackle next: character, plot, theme, dialogue, conflict, or world building.

Links to earlier posts on setting:

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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.

The Splendor Before the Dark by Margaret George

Margaret George is a superb writer of historical fiction. Her novels are deep character studies, and she has tackled people from Elizabeth I to Mary of Magdalene. I had the pleasure of an early copy of her second and concluding novel about Emperor Nero.

Margaret introduces Nero and the novel:

The Splendor Before the Dark closes the life story of Nero, one of the most remarkable emperors Rome ever saw.  The era was indeed one of splendor, as well as passions, conspiracies, and outsized characters, none more so than the emperor Nero himself.   He was a complicated person, though, with many contradictory traits, and strangely modern in that he put self-fulfillment as his highest value.  In that way, I think readers of today will find him fascinating, and familiar.

My Review: Following The Confessions of Young Nero, Margaret George concludes her tale of Emperor Nero with an insightful and passionate novel of the final four years of Nero’s life. On every dimension – superb writing, feeling immersed in time and place, characters both heroic and human, authenticity, and compelling plot – The Splendor Before the Dark is a winner.

Politics and power. Throughout the novel, these two are tangled in an intricate dance where one false step can lead to tragic consequences. Despite the warnings of those who know him best, Nero is unaware of, or willfully blind to, the false steps he takes. The people of Rome are fickle. Although Nero understands that “The crowd. They can turn to beasts in an instant,” he remains convinced of his people’s love far beyond the time when popular opinion begins to shift. And with his far-flung empire at relative peace, Nero fails to appreciate the fissures that threaten his leadership and Rome’s stature: religious unrest; rebellious territories; ambitious commanders; betrayals; and resentment of the costly and extravagant rebuilding of Rome.

Underlying all this complexity—and making crucial decisions more difficult—are Nero’s conflicting personas: the dutiful emperor, the idealistic artist, and the man who allows his dark side to take over. As the novel gathers momentum and urgency, I found myself wanting to whisper in Nero’s ear, to warn him before he stumbled into further danger; before it was too late.

Margaret George tells the story through three voices: the voice of Nero; that of Acte, a woman he has always loved; and that of Locusta, a woman who specializes in herbal medicine and poisons. Through Acte we see the young Nero and his idealist and artistic side, while through Locusta we see Nero’s dark side. The author’s research and interpretation of Nero has such depth that as the novel progressed, I felt I understood Nero on an intimate level.

Here’s Locusta reflecting on Nero:

“If, all those years ago when the prospect of being emperor was a poison mushroom away, did he have any comprehension of what was waiting on the other side? … Now he had entered fully into another kind of bondage, with no deliverance as long as he lived. Emperors did not retire into private life, like philosophers. There was only one retirement for an emperor—the grave. And if he is lucky, a natural descent into it at an advanced age.”

Near the end of the novel, Nero broods on what has happened:

“There is none so blind as he who will not see.”

The Splendor Before the Dark is historical fiction at its most powerful. Highly recommended.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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.

2015 A Year of Reading – Part 2

Books read 2015On January 6th, I posted 24 of the 40 books read during 2015. So today I’m including the balance using the same rating system: LR = light, enjoyable read; GR = good, several caveats; ER = excellent, few caveats; OR = outstanding; DNF = did not finish; NMT = not my type.

In the process of writing this post, I’ve discovered two additional books read this year. You’ll see them listed at the end.

June The Dream Lover Elizabeth Berg GR Novel about George Sand; back and forth timeline was confusing; events felt repetitive
Mademoiselle Chanel C.W. Gortner ER Coco Chanel in all her glories and contradictions; not quite as compelling as The Queen’s Vow or The Last Queen
Will Poole’s Island Tim Weed ER In 17th century New England, a young man meets a visionary native; Excellent historical fiction
July Death of a Century Daniel Robinson NMT Read for an HNS feature; poorly written
Aug The Ashford Affair Lauren Willig ER A woman uncovers a family mystery; well written page turner
Claude & Camille Stephanie Cowell ER Claude Monet and his first wife Camille; great historical detail of impressionist era
Children of War Martin Walker LR Mystery set in Dordogne; lots of twists and turns; read as audiobook
The Children Act Ian McEwan ER McEwan is a superb writer; this is a poignant tale that is hard to put down
Sept H is For Hawk Helen MacDonald NMT Book club read; memoir; way too much detail on goshawks
Elizabeth I Margaret George OR Elizabeth I in her later years; superb characters and history; the second half is particularly compelling
Oct The Muralist B.A. Shapiro GR Art and intrigue at the beginnings of WWII; distracting dual time structure and multiple voices
Nov Mr. Churchill’s Secretary Susan Elia MacNeal LR Whodunit set in WWI England
Power Play Danielle Steele NMT I’m sure there are fans of Danielle Steele but I’m not one of them; trite and simplistic
The Golden Child Penelope Fitzgerald DNF Quirky people employed at a British museum
Dec Circling the Sun Paula McLain ER Based on the life of Beryl Clutterbuck the first woman to fly across the Atlantic; well written; rich characters & setting
The Secret Chord Geraldine Brooks OR The life of the biblical King David as told by his prophet Natan; historically captivating
Oops– forgot these Purity Jonathan Franzen DNF Annoying characters and thin plot; guess I’m not a Franzen fan
The Lover’s Path Kris Waldherr LR Novella told like a fable

2016 is off to the races with Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, The House I Loved by Tatiana de Rosnay, At the Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Blakewell which I began in late November, and Paris Reborn by Stephane Kirkland.

Wishing everyone a great year of reading.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.