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.

6 More Tips on Writing Historical Fiction

Tuesday’s post highlighted 8 tips based on guest posts during the past twelve months. Today, I offer six more.

Blythe Gifford author of The Witch Finder starts every one of her novels with a map. In Creating a Sense of Place Blythe says:

Setting can, literally, symbolize your character’s situation and your character’s reaction to setting propels your story.

 

In History as a Mirror of our Present, Alice Poon, author of The Green Phoenix, writes that:

the modern world is still governed by forces as ancient as the hills: power vs. weakness, love vs. hatred, truth vs. lies, life vs. death. Thus, the stories of our past, be it recent or distant, tend to closely mirror our present-day situation.

 

In The People of our Past, George Dovel, author of The Geometry of Vengeance writes:

Not only has the path from then to now been continuous, but the way we define ourselves is largely in reaction to the generations that came before us. We may have rejected many of their beliefs and behaviors, but we reject in opposition to them and in so doing are defined in large measure by them. We are not painting on a blank canvas. As Booker winner Barry Unsworth put it, the past “belongs to us because it made us what we are.”

 

In Truth in Historical Story Telling, Tara Cowan reminds us that:

We’re missing a great opportunity if we gloss over moral dilemmas because we’re afraid to tell it like it was.  What better opportunity to show that women are equal than to tell the truth of what happens when they are not treated equally under the law?  What better way to highlight the injustice of what the enslaved faced than to be honest about how people felt about them? … We wrestle with the moral questions of our day, and so should our characters.

 

Harald Johnson explains how he researched Neanderthal times for his latest novel:

there are entire fields of scientific investigation—anthropology, paleoanthropology, archeology, evolutionary genetics—devoted to my subject. So that’s where I went. To read the research studies, papers, and articles that these scientists have presented since the first Neanderthal fossil was discovered in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856.

 

Melissa Addey, author of The Consort, provides an interesting perspective in Approaching Research as a Child:

This recent research teamwork has reminded me once again of the importance of approaching your historical research as a child, especially in the early stages. This means getting your hands dirty and staying focused on daily life.

 

And there you have it. A year of terrific guest posts and great insights on historical fiction.

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.

Creating a Sense of Place

Blythe Gifford, author of 11 historical romances, has recently released The Witch Finder, a story that largely takes place during the week prior to Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, as it was called on the Scottish Borders in the 17th Century. Today Blythe shares thoughts on creating a sense of place in historical fiction.

“We are the children of our landscape; it dictates behavior and even thought in the measure to which we are responsive to it.”  Lawrence Durrell

This quote has special resonance for a writer of history who must bring a distant time and place to life. My job, in part, is to show how landscape has shaped my characters – and their story.

To me, the decision of where to set a book may be the most important decision a writer makes. (Time, as well as place, is crucial, of course, but I’m going to focus on physical location today.) Readers want to be immersed in the historical world, so we need to enable them to feel they can walk around in the landscape of the story.

Here are a few things to think about:

Do you choose a real or imagined place?

If you are writing a story connected to a real event, you will have no choice but to learn as much as you can about Bosworth Field or Buckingham Palace. But no matter how good your research, there is always the possibility that an expert reader will catch an error.

On the other hand, trying to create a place from scratch creates other challenges. The tendency may be to create only what your story needs, forgetting that a fully functioning town, for example, will have buildings and people beyond just those in your book. The result can feel generic and untethered.

In THE WITCH FINDER, I did a combination, using a real small town on the Scottish Borders as a model, but calling it something different to give myself freedom to create. Scenes set in the real cities of Jedburgh and Edinburg, on the other hand, called for real streets and locations.

Are you grounded in the geography?

For every book, I start with a map. Where are the hills, roads, rivers? How high, wide or deep are they? And how long would travel take in the method of the day?

I’m also a stickler for researching the rise and set of sun and moon, as well as the tide tables. Will a reader know what time the sun set in 1661? No, but the reader WILL sense the internal consistency of your story when the full moon and the new moon are two weeks apart. These details also help ground me in a time in which much of life was lived in darkness. No matter what the time period, the source of light and heat is important .

The internet has made it possible to see something almost anywhere in the world. (A boon, but also a danger, as I’ll discuss below.) Try to find an historic map instead of relying on Google Maps alone.

Are you wearing 21st century glasses?

Often I’m asked whether I visit every place I write about. The answer is that I have visited virtually none of them. For the first time this year, I visited a city in which I’m setting a future book. I was very familiar with the historical map, so I knew the city was on a hill overlooking the river, but being there, gave me a valuable sense of the downhill slope of the streets the characters would be walking.

The downside was that skyscrapers now clutter the clear, historical view I had in my mind’s eye.

This goes beyond modern cars and buildings. Once, when researching the Scottish borders, I saw a picture of a beautiful flower spread across the hillside. Ready to describe it in my story, I discovered it was introduced to Great Britain AFTER my story was set. When I was going to have a wolf in the woods as a threat, I discovered that wolves (and bears) were extinct in Britain by that time.

Since the time of your story, roads and rivers may have changed course. That lovely lake? Be sure it isn’t a reservoir created when a damn was built less than a hundred years ago. All reasons to seek out maps made during the period of your story.

What does this location mean to your character?

Setting can, literally, symbolize your character’s situation and your character’s reaction to setting propels your story.

Whether it is a home she loves that is threatened, or a foreign city to which he had traveled, the push-pull of character and circumstance can be represented by the location itself.

If the place is home, is it one the character loves or can’t wait to escape? Does the new and unfamiliar place represent exile or adventure? These things will color the way the character sees his or her surroundings.

Even if your character has left home, the ground of home will still inform his or her perceptions. I grew up in the Midwest and saw the sun rise and set with a flat horizon line. When I lived amidst the mountains, I saw them as blocking what should be a beautiful view of the sun hitting the horizon. (People who love the mountains are aghast when I say this.)

Place carries emotional weight, even if the story is not one of man versus nature. For example, in my book THE WITCH FINDER, the heroine is a stranger to the Scottish Borders. She has come, hoping she is far enough from the dangers of home to disappear. But now, she is a stranger in her new landscape, suspect by those who have lived there all their lives.

How do you bring this to life on the page?

Lengthy description will bore the reader. Lines obviously stuck in, too brief, too general, or too specific, will feel artificial as a magazine picture taped to a wall.

My advice: show the land only when the character notices something, and couching the description in emotional, “loaded” words.

For example, compare this: “Solid and sure beneath her feet, the mountain path took a sharp turn skyward just before she reached the house.  She climbed the five wooden steps to the porch, her feet fitting comfortably into the grooves sculpted by three generations of Hendersons.”

To this: The looming peak behind the house blocked the setting sun, throwing the house into shadow. Her calves ached as she climbed the last, and steepest, ten feet to the house and started up the stairs to the porch. Worn paper thin, the steps sagged ominously beneath her feet.”

Did you catch it? Both describe the same scene, but the character loves the first and hates the second.

May some of these ideas help ground your story and your character firmly in a sense of place.

Many thanks, Blythe. I’m sure your perspective is of interest to both readers and writers.

THE WITCH FINDER by Blythe Gifford is set on the Scottish Borders just before All Hallow’s Eve. It was a finalist for a Booksellers Best Award (2014) and was book of the month for The Review in February 2015.

Scotland, 1662

He’s a haunted man.

Alexander Kincaid watched his mother die, the victim, they said, of a witch’s curse. So he has dedicated his life to battling evil. But in this small, Scottish village, he confronts a woman who challenges everything he believes. She may be more dangerous than a witch, because she’s a woman who threatens his heart.

She’s a hunted woman.

They called her mother a witch, but she was only a woman made mad by witch hunters like Alexander Kincaid. Having escaped to the Border hills, Margret Reid is seeking a safe haven and a place to hide. But when the witch hunter arrives, not only is her heart in danger.

So is her life.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

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.