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

Margaret Evans Porter on Writing Historical Fiction

After exchanging emails and Facebook messages with Margaret Porter for a few years, I feel I know her, so I am delighted that she agreed to be on A Writer of History today talking about historical fiction. Margaret also did me the great honour of reading and endorsing Lies Told in Silence as well as Time and Regret.

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’?

For me, these ingredients would be compelling and motivated characters, a plausible and engaging storyline, sufficient and believable conflict to sustain the plot, and a high degree of historical accuracy, based upon the author’s research into his or her chosen period. Whether or not the novel centres on a single and specific historic event, or spans decades, is biographical or is entirely fictional, all these elements in combination with evocative and effective writing style ensure a gripping read. My most unforgettable books—whether I read them long ago or as recently as last week—fit this description. The authors I most admire make it look quite effortless, and yet their diligent effort shines forth on each page. The best historical fiction authors possess highly-tuned selectivity. They (probably with input from a good editor) understand what is essential to include in the novel, and what is best left out. What might require detailed exposition or description, and what may be left for the reader’s imagination to fill in. It’s terribly important to me to trust a reader’s intelligence, because readers of historical fiction have so much of it!

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

It’s not as widely read, which is too bad. And because the readership isn’t as broad, it’s marketed differently. We are better at defining historical fiction genres—biographical, mystery, thriller, saga, military, which surely helps the readers find what they’ll most enjoy. The biggest difference is that the author of a contemporary novel needn’t reveal certain specifics of current life to a reader in the same way as for a book set in past times. We therefore must at times clarify the complexities of daily life for characters lacking our modern conveniences—with regard to food, fuel, clothing, lighting, travel, religious belief, effects of wartime, consciousness of political or monarchical changes, and so much more. Not that the writer provides a written dissertation on how things were different—they are best revealed through character, action, and conflicts large and small.

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

One of the most important aspects, I feel, is the behaviour and mindset and environment and the worldview of the characters. These all relate to motivation and response to obstacles and conflict. As a reader-author, I’m quick to notice anachronistic ways of thinking, reacting, speaking, and acting.

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?

I’m very immersive. So many of my characters were real people who left traces of their personalities and activities on the historic record—letters, deeds, wills, and so on. Whenever I access these materials, I try to read between the lines. I compare their personal timelines with the historical timelines to see where they fit in—and don’t. What they experienced personally. What they knew, what they didn’t know, when and how they would learn about an event that affects them within my story. This helps me to imaginatively re-create conversations that might have happened. For entirely fictional characters, the process is much the same, I try and identify real people who might be similar and trace their lives as a foundation for creating a person who lives only in the pages of my novel. In addition to available primary sources—biographies, memoirs, letters, etc.—I delve into secondary sources connected with the people and their period.

I travel extensively, visiting places my characters lived or would have known well, and take hundreds of detailed photographs. Whether or not I am writing real people, 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.

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

The many areas covered in my research reveal what aspects are foundational for me. Obviously I don’t include all my discoveries, only those most pertinent to the story I’m telling and the impact I need within a scene or chapter. I also try and find reasonable ways to introduce the smaller, more intimate moments of a character’s life without slowing the flow of the story, alternating them with the moments of great intensity and influence on plot development. I bear in mind that aspects of the past that seem unusual or different or even quite bizarre to the modern reader would have been commonplace to the people I’m writing about. One example of this is the individual’s relationship to the church. Because it was highly significant, to discount or ignore it seems unrealistic to me. Therefore I acknowledge it, either subtly or not, depending on circumstances.

Do you see any particular trends in HF?

I like to think that the trend in HF is that there are no trends—with the ever-popular Tudors as the sole exception! It ought to be trend-less in the sense that a novel should emerge from a writer’s fascination with a fictional or imaginary character, a period of history, a significant or intriguing obscure event, regardless of all other considerations. Writers need that passion and enthusiasm to propel them forward throughout the process. Because what we do is hard work, however rewarding, and requires enormous time, attention, and effort.

It does seem that traditional and independent authors are equally expanding the horizons of periods covered, and in some instances focussing on the types of people whose stories haven’t been told as often—or at all. Obscure individuals who are more relatable to the average reader than a king, queen, or aristocrat. And they are increasingly exploring less familiar periods and more diverse locations—Asia, Africa, South America, the farthest reaches of the globe, in fact, enriching our perspectives on world history.

That said, there will always be a market for tales of the powerful, and there’s no denying the drama and conflict in their lives. I see no diminishment in readers’ desire to experience well-known historic figures in a more intimate and vivid fashion than in the history books.

There are many more books set in the 20th century nowadays, increasingly regarded as fertile ground for historical fiction authors—you are one of them. Downton Abbey probably influenced interest in the opening years of that century. Television so often influences trends in fiction. Games of Thrones and The Last Kingdom will doubtless be responsible for future explorations of the Dark Ages. Sleepy Hollow and Turn: Washington’s Spies might increase the number of American Revolution novels. And for a few years more we’re within the centenary of World War I. I notice more novels depicting that era—whether or not the war is a focus—than in the past.

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

A Pledge of Better Times by Margaret Evans PorterA Pledge of Better Times explores the political and religious upheavals of late 17th century England through real-life characters at royal courts in England, Holland, and France. The chief protagonists are Lady Diana de Vere and Charles Beauclerk, illegitimate son of King Charles II and actress Nell Gwyn. I thoroughly enjoyed the research, chasing my protagonists through the royal palaces and around England and on the Continent. I’ve also spent many hours in the British Library and public and private archives, reading documents they left behind (oh, that 17th century handwriting!)

Queen Mary II befriends her youthful attendant Diana, whose father the Earl of Oxford is a veteran—and highly conflicted—courtier of long pedigree and whose mother is notorious for her many affairs. Charles, the 1st Duke of St. Albans, bears the royal blood of the Stuarts yet his mother sold oranges in a theatre before treading the boards and catching the king’s eye. My protagonists regard court service from very different perspectives, experiencing multiple tumultuous reigns and one revolution—from James II through William and Mary, Queen Anne, and George I. They lived during very interesting and complicated times, so the novel contains intrigue, scandal, warfare, religion, and plenty of family dysfunction!

Sounds like a wonderful premise and time period for a novel, Margaret. And many thanks for being on the blog today.

Oct 2016 Update: To explore other authors offering insights on historical fiction, you can read interviews with Johanna Skibsrud, David Blixt, Stephanie Cowell, Stewart Binns, and many others.

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, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. 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