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

Researching Outside the Box – by Jessica Brockmole

Jessica Brockmole - Letters from SkyeI’m delighted to have Jessica Brockmole on the blog today. I’ve connected with Jessica many times on Facebook but it was when I read her novel Letters From Skye, that I really came to appreciate her wonderful writing style and story telling skills.

Here’s Jessica talking about some of the more unique aspects of researching history for the novels she writes.


Writers of fiction must, of necessity, be creative. With nothing but words, we create characters, situations, dialogue, sometimes whole worlds. Historical novelists especially must draw on their imagination. Even if we are familiar with our setting, we have to add to it. Like artists, we paint an overlay of history on a place, so vivid that a reader can imagine the scenes as we do.

While writing Letters from Skye, I lived in Edinburgh. I knew how the streets ran through the city, how the cobbles felt after a rainstorm, how the parks smelled in the springtime. I drove north, across the bridge, and visited the Isle of Skye. I walked the contours of the green hills and shingle beaches. I climbed high and felt the winds coming off the sea across my face. But I didn’t know how it felt to navigate the streets of Edinburgh during WWII blackouts or wait in the queues to buy rationed groceries. I didn’t know the anticipation of waiting for the Skye ferry, before the bridge was up. I’d been to both places, but not sixty years ago or ninety years ago. I’d been to Edinburgh and Scotland, but not to the past.

Here’s where fiction writers again draw on their creativity. Not for fabricating a layer of history (though, of course, some fabrication does occur), as canny historical fiction readers often will not allow anything less than accurate. Rather the creativity is called upon when doing research.

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. Some were edited and published recently, like Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis’s interesting A War in Words, while others were published back in the day. I have a pristine (and much-consulted) copy of Friends of France, a 1916 “history” book put out by the still-fledgling American Ambulance Field Service.

But I encourage you to look beyond the big publishers or the well-known books to see what local historians and museums have to offer. When writing Letters from Skye, I found little books like Dorothy Slee’s Two Generations of Edinburgh Folk, part of an oral history series through the National Museums of Scotland, and Isobel Macdonald’s slim A Family in Skye, 1908-1916 to be invaluable. Local libraries are wonderful resources for finding some of these small-printed volumes. The central library in Edinburgh turned up the delightful 1940s and Edinburgh at War by Day Greer, a book that truly looked to be photocopied from pasted photographs and typewritten pages of wartime memories. First-hand accounts like these are excellent ways to get a feel for the era and—important when writing an epistolary novel—the language used then.

Published collections aren’t the only place to find excellent primary sources, not in this age of digitalization. Historical newspapers are easily available online, making the search much easier than the days of scanning microfiche. I’ve spent many a happy evening browsing scanned and transcribed newspapers through the New York Times Archive and the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America project, looking for articles and advertisements pertinent to the eras I write. Check the newspapers local to your setting; many have access, either free or via a subscription. For some visuals, the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection and Historic Map Works are two nice sources, with historical maps that can be superimposed on top of modern maps in some instances. British Pathé offers newsreel and film footage, easily searchable through keyword and year. And for the novelist wishing to add a little flavor to her or his storytelling, look for collections like Michigan State University’s Feeding America project, containing images and transcriptions of 76 cookbooks, and the wonderful Miss Frank E. Buttolph American Menu Collection, with copies of thousands of restaurant and banquet menus. [Note: If writing in other than an American setting, don’t be put off by the titles of these digital collections, as many contain ephemera from other locales.]

Ephemera doesn’t have to be digital. I’ve been building my own collections over the years, of vintage magazines, postcards, yearbooks, cookbooks, brochures, and roadmaps—little scraps of life. Those give me insight into the casual details of daily life. This very blog summed it up beautifully in the recent post on the treasures found lurking in attics. What information to be gleaned from such a find!

And don’t overlook novels published during the era of your book. They may be fiction, but it’s a fiction pulsing with the emotions and biases of the period. From the stark (like the powerful WWI novels Paths of Glory and Fear) to the romantic (Rebecca West’s War Nurse), you’ll get a sense of what things captured the public’s interests at that time, as well as catch a glimpse of some of the little details left out of history books.

Researching outside the box can allow the writer to paint a more vivid overlay of history onto that fictional world. Let yourself become immersed in the words and pictures, sights and sounds of the era. Let yourself feel what people in your time and place might have felt. The more that setting comes alive to you, the more it will come alive to your reader.

Many thanks for being on the blog today, Jessica. Your post gives readers as well as writers a wonderful peak into the world of creating historical fiction. I think I’ll make a sign with ‘Research Outside the Box’ to remind me of your ideas.

Jessica Brockmole is the author of Letters from Skye, a novel of Scotland, of war, and of love found through letters. She can often be found browsing in libraries or dusty secondhand book shops and cheerfully digging through boxes of old postcards. She loves to hear from readers, whether through email, Facebook, or Twitter.