World Building – another of the 7 elements

Having looked at setting and character, I thought it would be useful to consider world building as it relates to historical fiction.

If you’ve read or watched Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, you’ll have an inherent understanding of world building.

I would argue that within historical fiction, we’re always building worlds for our readers in order to take them into another time and place – not a fantasy world, but a real world that existed at some earlier point in time.

Let’s begin with a rough definition. I’ve borrowed these questions and examples from self publishing.com – they’re straightforward and will give us a guide for subsequent posts.

What does the world look like? Include things like landscape, weather, terrain, city structures (if there are cities), density, borders, natural resources, rivers, mountains and the like.

Who are the inhabitants? Population, class structure, neighbouring peoples, alliances, origins, dominant tribes, language.

What is the history behind the time of this story? Relevant rulers of the past and present, key events leading up to the story, government structure, historical events of religious or political significance, major environmental disasters, important wars of the past.

What are the rules of this society? Political structure, people of power or influence, rules and norms governing society and individual behaviour, punishments for violating rules, prevailing attitudes towards rules, the role of the military.

What are the religious and social customs? Religious belief system, gods, places of worship, sacred entities and symbols, rituals and customs, religious festivals. Holidays, the world of work, customs, norms of behaviour, gender roles, family structure and significance, ceremonies, marriage customs, morality and immorality, secret societies.

World building for more recent times such as WWII may require less work than for the middle ages or ancient Rome. However, we could argue that a story involving war still requires the author to build a military world for readers.

I’ll explore these questions in more depth and may add a few more critical questions as we go along. Would love to hear your thoughts on the topic as we go along.

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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.

 

Setting – Research Sources

Two weeks ago, in Setting is Like an Iceberg, I included a grouped list of the ingredients that constitute setting – one of the seven elements essential to transporting readers in time and place. Where, you might ask, does an author find information about those ingredients?

Primary sources are foundational. They include: first-hand accounts, letters, diaries offer insights on period dialogue and attitudes, memoirs, maps, legal documents including wills, deeds, court rolls, treaties etc., which can also give a sense of language and attitudes of the time. Then there are judicial reports, school log books, ships’ logs, local newspapers, transcripts of old court cases, journals, advertisements, photographs, cookbooks, etiquette manuals, dictionaries of the time. Civil and military records.

Museums contain a wealth of primary material carefully collected and curated to reflect a particular time and place. I remember being in Stockholm where a 17th century ship that sank on its maiden voyage is on display –  mammoth, majestic, intricately carved, it gives ample evidence of shipbuilding practices of the time and could fuel the imagination with what it must have been like to sail such a beauty.

Site visits can be considered primary source material, although never assume that things look exactly the same today as they did in the past. Site visits allow an author to appreciate buildings, landscape, flora and fauna; to feel the land and see the people; to hear the language and engage your senses; to walk the streets and imagine your characters doing the same. Is the earth rich and dark or red and dusty? Are the streets narrow and windy or wide open? Do people speak with a lilt? What building materials were used in Haussmann’s Paris? Where does the sun set and the shadows fall in late September?

Secondary sources include academic writing, non-fiction books, archaeological reports, reference books, biographies, academic lectures, subject-matter experts. Paintings and contemporary portraiture  from the time period show people, clothing, how much traffic is around and what sort, the shop fronts and advertisements. They also illustrate attitudes and interests of the time. Re-enactment groups work faithfully to demonstrate life the way it was, wars the way they were fought. Books on historical slang and foreign phrases. Books on furniture, costume and houses.

Internet trawling is a favourite pastime of authors. Be very wary though of sources and it’s best to corroborate ‘facts’ with multiple sources. Nonetheless, you can find amazing articles, reports, historical timelines, sites dedicated to the fashion of a particular time period or to a specific regiment’s experience during one of the world wars.

Project Gutenberg and Google feee books offer out of print novels, diaries, journals and more. I’ve found fascinating accounts of World War One and the siege of Paris using Project Gutenberg.

Where else can you look? I’ve assembled a list based on my own work as well as suggestions from other writers.

  • Period novels (novels written at the time) to get a sense of how people thought about events then and not how a contemporary author thinks about them through the lens of today
  • Poetry of the time period
  • Government collections
  • Talking to locals
  • Bibliographies are goldmines that lead to other sources and experts
  • For language and dialogue, talking to actors and voice coaches
  • Dictionaries of quotations from the time period.
  • Books of names can offer popular names of the time. Or you can search plays, letters, poetry, stories, and newspapers of the time for suitable names that were popular in the period.
  • Copies of Who’s Who and Whitaker’s Almanack or equivalent
  • Hotel and tourist guides and maps from the era
  • Google maps; Google earth
  • Graveyards and memorials are also helpful for names, facts about your potential characters, typical life spans, class differences, causes of death, family sentiments
  • Broadsheets and plays are ways to access the authentic vocabulary of the time
  • Recordings conducted at the time.
  • Interviews conducted during the time period.
  • Pinterest boards – it’s fascinating the material collected by others!
  • Town histories
  • Farm journals
  • Listen to music, songs and instruments from the period
  • TV and film adaptations
  • Check records on the period for mentions of floods, snow, hot dry summers
  • Newspaper archives
  • Museum websites
  • Historical societies,
  • Educational sites like PBS
  • Children’s books

The possibilities are endless! So I’ll leave you with a quote from Helen Bryan author of War Brides and The Sisterhood.

Another good thing about research is that it’s possible to do it almost indefinitely without actually writing anything, while looking impressively busy.

Of course, it’s also possible to write lengthy articles for your blog instead of actually writing the next chapter of your novel  🙂

See you next time.

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.

Tips on Setting in Historical Fiction

The most popular post on A Writer of History is about the 7 Elements of Historical Fiction: characters, dialogue, plot, conflict, theme, setting, and world building. Over the next few months, I plan to flesh out some of these elements beginning with setting.

Broadly speaking, setting is a time and place of the past. In more than one survey, readers of historical fiction state that bringing the past to life is the primary reason for reading historical fiction. Successful historical fiction will do just that — transport readers into the past. Creating an authentic and convincing setting is critical.

According to Mark Sullivan, author of Beneath a Scarlet Sky:The best historical novels transport the reader to another time and place so convincingly that it is like being swept away. If it’s done right, a historical novel can be an unforgettable experience, truly magical. There’s the sheer novelty of the setting and characters, and you can feel that the author understands her world cold. But that alone won’t do it. The best historical writers get in the minds of their characters in accordance with their times and then plumb the human emotions that are timeless.” More about characters later.

To do justice to the topic of setting, we’ll look at why setting is important to readers, the long list of ingredients that constitute setting, the research sources authors can tap into to explore the setting for their novels, and the reflections, perspectives and techniques used by various authors.

But first some context.

In a discussion hosted by the University of Cambridge, Dr. Sarah Burton talks about the journey fiction embodies “where the reader and writer have made a compact, where a point of view is shared, where common responses are exploited.” In that same discussion, Trevor Byrne, author of novels, short stories and essays, suggests that “fiction brings you to places, emotionally and imaginatively, which you never otherwise would have visited”, while Dr. Malachi McIntosh, a Fellow at King’s College, says that “fiction lets us press pause, rewind, zoom in, zoom out; it creates a space for us to think about ourselves and our world in novel ways.”

Add a historical setting to this journey that fiction embodies and the challenge is clear: the compact between writer and reader takes on the added complexity of making history and its people relevant to ourselves and our world.

In his book The Historical Novel, Jerome de Groot examines the development of the historical novel and its relationship to the wider cultural sphere. According to de Groot, history interests people more as the unfolding of moral and cultural developments than as the “mere enumeration of facts”. Historical fiction, with its focus on people—famous or fictional—offers an analysis of recognizable human character such that readers can “re-experience the social and human motives which led men [and women] to think, feel and act as they did in historical reality.”

Through insights into the minds of those living in the past—something historical fiction excels at—readers develop an awareness of how historical events impact on our contemporary world, building empathy for the past and a meaningful connection between then and now.

Let’s hear from a few more authors reflecting on historical fiction:

Judith Starkston, author of Hand of Fire, said: 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?

In How I Write Historical Fiction, author Geoff Micks has this thought to add: 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.

In The Role of Setting, 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.

Next time we’ll have a look at why setting is important to 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.