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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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,

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:


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

From English teacher to author

Deb Peterson has been a Facebook friend for quite some time and has been on the blog before as Delaney Green (more about that in a moment). She is the author of the Jem books, about a girl with Second Sight who grows up in the years between the Seven Years’ War and the American War of Independence. Today she shares her path to becoming an author.

You asked why I write under a pseudonym.

I write under a pseudonym because, first, my given name is rather common, and I wanted it to be easier for readers to Google me. Second, I wanted a division between my public and private life, especially on social media, so I could keep writerly stuff on my writer sites and personal stuff on my personal site. Last—and how’s this for hubris?—I assumed I’d be so well known one day that crazy fans would seek me out, and I didn’t want to have to move to a secluded house in the country away from my current neighbors and a neighborhood I enjoy, especially after spending 20 years rehabbing my house until it’s just the way I like it.

What sort of career did you have before becoming a writer?

I’ve had a lot of jobs—newspaper reporter, copy editor, professional actress, Broadway theater concessions manager, adjunct professor, farm laborer—but my career for 25 years was high school English teacher. That job was a privilege. It was a marathon. I didn’t much care for all the grading I had to do (one year of work at home for every year I spent at school, and I’m not even kidding—I did the math), but you do what you have to do so kids learn. Teaching was excellent training for what I do now:

  • You have to be disciplined enough to do your work consistently and well, because you face people every single day who need you to be there for them with your A game.
  • As a teacher, you have to know where you’re going and plan, just as you do with a novel.
  • You have to figure out multiple ways to get a student from point A to point B, as a writer must do with both plot and character development.
  • Teachers have to be able to explain why they’re doing what they’re doing in the classroom to parents, principals, peers, and students—again, an aid to crafting plot.
  • A teacher experiences humans in triumph and in crisis, another aid to character development.
  • On top of that, I taught literature: Dante’s Inferno, The Iliad and The Odyssey, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men, Shakespeare—it was a 25-year deep dive into classic literature. Invaluable.

Was there a triggering event that prompted you to begin writing?

Before I knew how to read and write, I was drawing pictures, and every picture had a story. As soon as I learned to read, I read every book on the shelf. I never thought a regular person like me could/would be allowed to write an actual story, but I wrote and illustrated one anyway in grade four. I had a poem published in a national magazine in grade seven. I wrote a ton in high school and started a creative writing magazine. I didn’t really have a triggering event. I have always invented stories. But I will say that I simply could not write when I was a single mom teaching full time, rehabbing our house, and directing the theater program at my school. I had to sleep in my spare time!

Do you now write full time or part time?

Normally, I get up every morning and write for four or five hours, so that’s only 30-ish hours a week—not really full time. I also coach writers at a local college about eight hours a week. And I still sub in the local schools once in a while because I still need a kid fix now and again. Right now, I have been waiting five months for my editor in London to finish editing my latest novel in the Jem series (Jem, a Foreigner in Philadelphia), so I have been working on a mystery novel, a novel about trolls, and on short stories. I’m delighted to report that I just had two stories accepted for publication, one by Black Dandy (New Zealand) and one by New A third story made the long list in an inaugural competition sponsored by The Woolf of Switzerland—I’ll hear about that one in early February.

What parts of the writing career do you enjoy the most/the least?

In the last two years before I retired, I got up two hours before work to write—but I always had to quit and get ready for school. Now, it’s an immense joy to be able to get up and go straight to my desk with a cup of coffee and work without having to stop. Honestly, I don’t dislike anything: I love the research, I love crafting a story, and I love editing. I feel so blessed to be able to do what I do.

What parts of your former career do you miss/not miss?

I miss the kids. As I said, I still sub now and again because kids are refreshing—and I fall right back into “I truly see and appreciate you” mode when I’m with them. Kids know if you really care about them or not. I do care. I always will.

I do not miss the incredible amounts of time I spent grading papers. I do not miss interacting with difficult parents who apparently birthed little gods and goddesses rather than human children. I do not miss being demonized in the press and the resultant political crippling of my profession.

Do you have any regrets?

I regret not getting up at 4 a.m. years earlier.

What advice would you offer other second career writers?

My advice is simple: START. Just start. Don’t spend weeks or months looking for the perfect pen, perfect office chair, perfect time of day, perfect routine, perfect time of life. Don’t say, “I’ll start tomorrow” because you may not get tomorrow. If you want to write, write NOW. I wonder what I might have produced if I had developed those hundreds of story ideas I had over the years that I jotted down on bits of paper I subsequently lost. Or the stories I made up for my son on the fly at bedtime; one year, I made up a 24-chapter story about an elf whose adventures led up to Christmas Day. Oh, how I wish I’d written down that story! What other marvelous stories never got written, and never will get written, because I didn’t put them down on paper? Please, dear reader, pick up one of your slips of paper and WRITE THAT STORY TODAY.

Many thanks, Deb. Wish I had the exposure to classics that you’ve had – although I doubt I could have handled a group of high school students! Wishing you success with your next Jem novel.

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

Inside Historical Fiction with Delaney Green

Jem - A Girl of London by Delaney GreenDelaney Green has been a reporter, a copy editor, and a professional actress to name some of her pursuits. She has also taught English and now writes historical fiction of a speculative nature. Today Delaney has dropped by to talk about the unique aspects of historical fiction.

What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?

Historical fiction that places the reader INTO the time period by including the five senses, an accurate historical viewpoint from each character, and tantalizing historical tidbits you mightn’t find on Google make HiFi work for me. My mom taught history, and she was always springing stuff on her students. For example, she might tell them on a given day what people used to blow their noses with. Her junior high school students particularly enjoyed learning about gnarly medical history. (Side note: we lived in a tiny town, and so my mom was my eighth grade history teacher. My biggest problem with this was figuring out what to call her in class.)

Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?

In some ways, historical and contemporary novels are not different. Both usually require research. But I do think a writer has a greater obligation with historical fiction to get his or her facts right, since a historical writer is, in essence, a teacher, and teachers are supposed to be the experts in their chosen field. Readers are busy. They aren’t inclined to verify the facts in a book. So a writer is honor-bound to be honest. You can’t fudge history—especially since your book may be the only exposure a reader has to a given time period. That’s not to say something couldn’t happen in the past that the writer has no reference to cite in support of that event, but whatever the writer inserts should be plausible for the period.

What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?

My main character, Jem Connolly, is interested in medicine, which in the eighteenth century was heaving itself into the modern world. Back then, some physicians still practiced using Galen-based theories of the four humors; others had studied in Edinburgh and had read the works of physicians and scientists on the Continent and were more aware of the actual workings of the human body. Another thing I have to be aware of is logistics: how long communication might take, how long a journey might take, and so on. In these days of instant communication across thousands of miles, it’s quite a mental adjustment to know a letter might take months to cross the ocean. For example, letters written back and forth by American amateur botanist John Bartram and English gardener Peter Collinson often crossed mid-ocean, and the gentlemen often were peeved with one another for not writing back soon enough.

In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?

What do they say about real estate—“Location, location, location.” For a writer of historical fiction, alter that to “Research, research, research.” Spend your plenteous earnings (ha) on books. The internet is great for a quick look-up, but you won’t find everything you need to know there. I am very bad at keeping track of how much I spend on period books, to my accountant’s dismay, but I very much like to have IN HAND a book that I can layer in sticky notes. Besides, books often include juicy bits that an internet site will leave out. I recently visited Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia, and my wonderful guide through the gardens recommended a book of Bartram’s letters I’d already purchased. Which brings up another point: if at all possible, a writer should visit the place in which his or her story takes place. At Bartram’s Garden, I learned that the greenhouse Bartram had built on his property was, in truth, very much smaller and darker in real life than what I imagined. His house, too, was smaller and more cramped than I expected it to be, and it was much closer to the  Schuylkill River than I’d thought. The gardens were wilder. That kind of thing matters.

What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?

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. In addition, when I am including an actual person from the past, I want to find out what kind of person he or she was. I want to get the person’s temperament right. In the case of Benjamin Franklin, for example, I read a couple of biographies and tried to fit some of the things he actually said into my fictional situations. In the case of Jem, a Novice in Philadelphia, which I’m working on now, I have a trickier situation: one of my main characters is Deborah Franklin, Ben’s wife, who stayed at home whilst Ben politicked (and frolicked) in London for years and years. We don’t know much about her other than that she missed her husband terribly and ran his business while he was gone and was a terrible speller. So I had to make up her temperament from the tiny tidbits I could unearth about her.

Do you see any particular trends in HF?

There appears to be an interest in writing first-person accounts, although Diana Gabaldon (and others) do insert third-person perspectives into first-person stories. First-person has advantages and disadvantages, of course, as I well know. But as far as time period is concerned, I think writers immerse themselves in a time that fascinates them, so I don’t see any trends regarding specific time periods. Same goes for readers: some like steampunk, some like togas.

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

Jem, a Fugitive from London, continues the story of Jem that began in Jem, a Girl of London. In the second book, Jem has to leave Doctor Abernathy in London and journey to a remote farmstead in Cornwall to learn how to control her Second Sight, which has become a big problem—in fact, Jem’s life may be forfeit if she can’t learn to manage her power on her own. Jem’s tutor is the grandmother of the herbalist, Margery Jamison. Jem has to adjust to life on a farm, to Margery’s unusual grandmother, to the isolation of the moor, to awareness of her own personal foibles. It’s a coming-of-age story, really. You and your readers may remember your own first realization that you were not self-sufficient—that you needed other people and that you might NOT be able to triumph in every situation unless you relinquished your pride and developed your talents and bolstered your weaknesses. That is the focus of Jem#2. Jem finds out, too, that Patch is still hunting for her and that he may be in possession of his own brand of magic. I also am working on Jem#3, wherein Jem sails to America. But that’s down the road—or should I say across the water?

Many thanks for adding to the discussion of inside historical fiction, Delaney. 

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.