Why is setting important to historical fiction?

Why do we read? We read to gain knowledge, find advice and counsel, build self-awareness, develop motivation and strength, be entertained, create hope, seek escape or regeneration. We read to understand who we are and what we might become. We read to quiet our souls. We read to comprehend humanity, to build empathy for the experiences of others, to understand community and friendship, to appreciate how to live and die.

Pew Research Center poll asked readers what they like most about reading. In that poll, 26% mentioned learning, gaining knowledge and discovering information, 15% chose escaping reality, becoming immersed in another world, and the enjoyment of imagination. 12% read primarily for entertainment value including “the drama of good stories, the suspense of watching a good plot unfold.” Others mentioned relaxation, quiet, spiritual and personal enrichment, and expanding their world view.

So where then does setting come into play? A story will clang if the setting doesn’t ring true. You might argue that without an authentic and richly imagined historical setting, readers will have difficulty achieving any of the above objectives of fiction.

In three separate surveys of reading habits and preferences (check the Reader Surveys tab on this blog), the top three reasons for reading historical fiction are: (1) to bring the past to life, appreciating how people lived and coped in very different times, (2) because it’s a great story, and (3) to understand and learn about historical periods without reading non-fiction.

How can authors bring the past to life without exploring modes of travel, the circumstances of daily life, or the religious beliefs of the time? How can readers learn about a particular time period without seeing the characters of the novel confronting the conflicts and challenges of that era? How can a character’s emotions be relevant for today without appreciating the values and customs or the restrictions of yesterday?

Setting considers all of these and so much more. Without an authentic living and breathing setting, a work of historical fiction fails.

This is the second post on setting. The first post Tips on Setting in Historical Fiction can be found here. Next we explore the many ingredients of setting.

Your thoughts and reactions are welcome! Please use the comments to add to this discussion.


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.

Looking back – 13 insights on historical fiction

In 2017, I asked readers and authors to look under the covers of historical fiction and examine what sets the genre apart and makes it tick. Today, I’ve gathered together various insights that resonate for me.

Historical fiction adds context to modern-day social problems … my preferred approach is to let characters and their responses to the conditions around them inform the reader. Janie Chang author of Dragon Springs Road

The magic ingredient of historical fiction is the emotional truth of the time, the landscape of consciousness in the era described. Simon Parke author of The soldier, the gaoler, the spy and her lover

I build my worlds in concentric circles. The outer circle is the social, political, religious, economic and historical backdrop within which my story takes place … The next circle in will include the ‘props’ that the characters interact with … the innermost circle is the emotional core of the characters living in a particular period.  Fiona Veitch Smith author of Pilate’s Daughter 

The historical writer has to juggle with making sensibilities and prejudices true to the time while not overly offending the reader. Rhys Bowen author of In Farleigh Field 

World building is absolutely essential, and it is probably the deal breaker as far as I am concerned. I come to the book for the setting, I enjoy plot and characters, but if the world does not come alive for me as I read, I consider it a big let down. Author, Davide Mana responded to my questions as a reader.

Details have to be woven in seamlessly, so that it doesn’t come off as a contemporary novel dressed up in historical costume. Also, an author needs to give just enough description, but not so much that it weighs the reader down and interrupts the flow. Author Michelle Cox responded to my questions as a reader.

Until scientists succeed in inventing a working time machine, historical fiction is the best means we have of sinking into vanished worlds and gaining a sense of what it must have been like to live in another time. Jennifer Robson author of Goodnight From London 

Also responding as a reader is  Margaret McGovern author of The Battle of Watling Street – History is concerned primarily with conflicts, winners and losers, and what historical fiction adds to a dry retelling of history is where it imbues the events of the past with characters that reach back in time to make it happen again for me, the reader.

“Novels are about exposing the truth” of who we are and who we have been, particularly women. Geraldine Brooks author of The Secret Chord

Character is the bridge to the distant past. Exploring the nature of a character from the past, whether fictional or historical, requires embracing what makes them different, even if that means showing how their perspective differs from how we think today. Cryssa Bazos author of Traitor’s Knot

Conflict is everything in stories and when that conflict is internal as well as external, it produces a mouth-watering cocktail. Mark Stibbe author of The Fate of Kings

As historical fiction writers, we’re chasing the bubble of verisimilitude … By this I mean not only their dialogue, but also their patterns of thought, reactions to all manner of situations, and interactions with each other and their world. Jeffrey Walker author of Truly Are the Free

But perhaps for historical novel readers, it is the spicy details that change our experience from commonplace to a story that transports us to a time long ago. Rebecca Rosenberg author of The Secret Life of Mrs. London

Do these resonate for you? 

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.



Is Fiction Changing for Better or Worse?

In its online home, The New York Times offers a series of topics under the banner Room for Debate. One of these topics discusses whether fiction is changing for better or worse. Having read what all six debaters had to say along with many comments offered by readers, I’ve concluded that most are optimistic about the novel’s place in our world.

This is good news.

Jane Smiley “In our dangerous world, the freedom and empathy that fiction develops in its readers remain essential.”

Matt de la Pena “We’ve grown terrified of sadness and self-reflection, and we actively avoid ideas that challenge.” De la Pena seems less optimistic.

Robin Sloan “Novels, on the other hand, are just about the most durable home for words we’ve yet discovered.” Sloan argues that new forms of writing prompted by technology are far less durable.

Thomas Glave “For it is at last undeniable that for all of us, wherever we may be, the opportunity to experience other people’s stories — their fiction — is a powerfully human one, that requires the uncommon and invaluable skills of careful listening and the ability to enter the lives of people different from ourselves.”

William Deresiewicz “the novel continues to do what it has always done best: compile the atlas of private experience, show us what it feels like to be alive at our particular time and place.”

Historical fiction is a particular type of novel. Survey participants responded to a question about why they enjoy this type of fiction.

What do these responses suggest?

To be fair, I did not frame the question to reflect whether historical fiction is better or worse, but look at the number one reason for reading this type of novel: to bring the past to life, appreciating how people lived and coped in very different times.

The stories of the past are highly relevant today which seems to me to resonate with Smiley, Glave and Deresiewicz. I would also argue that this top response is consistent with what Sloan has to say given that the notion of reading about history emphasizes the popularity of durable stories.

Just a thought.