Getting to setting in The Importance of Pawns

Keira Morgan discovered the Renaissance when her grandmother gave her a book about England’s queens when she was five. At university, she studied Renaissance and Reformation history to the doctoral level. The Importance of Pawns is her first novel and you won’t be surprised to know that it’s set in her favourite time period. Today, Keira provides insights into the interplay between setting and character.

~~~

When anyone asks about The Importance of Pawns, the first thing I say is, “It takes place in the 16th Century French court.” 

In other words, I situate the person in time and place. With this information about the setting, I announce that mine is an historical novel and I promise implicitly that the details will be authentic to the period.

So, what is setting and how important is it?

According to Masterclass, the setting is the most important part of a historical fiction novel. It should take place during an authentic period in history and be set in a real historical place. For example, New York City during the Great Depression or Paris, France during World War II. 

M. K. Tod has added to that description from her research. Setting includes:

  • atmosphere,
  • landscape,
  • landscape of the person and
  • internal landscape. 

Simply put, it is the place where the scene occurs. It includes details such as timing (day, hour, year), mood invoked, historical aspect, details that reveal personality, and the actions that preceded it. Each scene must do this. 

To illustrate, here is the setting from early in the first chapter of my novel. My readers need to be situated right away and I use a simple, often used device; I state the time, place, and principal character. If I want my reader to keep on, I must engage their emotions and intrigue them from the start. By showing Countess Louise as she engages with her physical and interpersonal landscape, I hope to capture these responses.

***

4 January 1514, Early afternoon

Château de Blois

Countess Louise d’Angoulême

When would that Agnez arrive? It was unsuitable that a woman of her rank should be kept waiting by a servant girl. She [Countess Louise] paced once more around the perimeter of her suite’s presence chamber, running her fingers over the thick Flemish tapestries that absorbed the chill from the stone walls. She reminded herself that she had done very well to parlay King Louis’s favor into this suite of three rooms, despite the overcrowding at the Christmas court. It had taken some effort on her part, but despite Queen Anne’s enmity, she had even charmed the king into furnishing the rooms. When she arrived early in December, she had come accompanied only by her bed and clothes chests. 

Chateau de Blois tapestry – Source Wikimedia

Louise threw herself into a folding leather chair in front of the hissing fire. The crowned L & A for Louis and Anne emblazoned on the fireplace hood drew her eyes. How the emblem irritated her! When her son was king, she would order those initials replaced immediately.

***

Since I came from an academic and bureaucratic background, learning to write fiction did not come easily to me. It will not surprise you that finalizing these two paragraphs took many rewrites. Finally, I realized that I must show Louise’s presence chamber through her eyes and voice when she was impatient and irritated. Only then could I create the atmosphere and choose the details that captured the scene without the dreaded telling

It required a lot of stripping away. I removed almost all the furnishings. At first, only the tapestries, expensive Flemish tapestries, and a leather chair remained. More than that, Louise had to do something with them. So, she ran her fingers over the Flemish tapestry (though now I wish she had ‘stroked the Flemish tapestry,’ but I defy any writer ever to be satisfied.) 

Later, I remembered that even for the richest, no-one travelled without a bed. Beds were hugely expensive, bulky items passed from generation to generation. When the court moved from one place to the next, it took its furniture with it and left the unused rooms in the Château empty. Even if the king could supply his heir’s mother with a few chairs and tapestries, he would not have beds or chests to spare. I wanted to add these details — without another of those dreaded flaws, the info dump.

By presenting everything from Louise’s perspective and introducing the enmity between her and the queen, I could show their conflict through implication and carefully chosen detail. For example, she feels satisfaction at having brought only the essentials — her bed and clothing chests. Her reasons aren’t made explicit, but over time her obsession with money will become clear. But this hint suggests something about her character. Another example is her reaction to the crowned L & A emblems on the fireplace hood. The reader learns something about the depth of her resentment by her intention to remove it ‘immediately’ when her son became king. 

Louise reveals her own sense of her importance because her son is heir to the throne. Moreover, she expects to be so influential that she will have the power to give such an order and have it obeyed. 

In these details of setting, I present past actions (both the fact that François is heir and the embellishment of the fireplace hood occurred well in the past) that create the present and will significantly affect the future.

Did I have all this consciously in mind when I wrote these two paragraphs? I admit I did not. I had not then read the observations on setting I’ve referred to at the opening of this post. But by then I’d learned about the importance of the apropos detail.

Louise was as real to me (or I knew her even better) than most people around me by then. So was Blois. So was the moment I was writing about. Those were the elements that made it possible to recognize what needed revising. For the future, I am now `consciously aware of the elements of setting that inform effective historical fiction writing.

Many thanks, Keira, for illuminating the role of setting. This brief scene tantalizes the reader to want more!

The Importance of Pawns by Keira Morgan ~~ Danger lurks beneath the glitter of the sixteenth century French court. The queen lies dying; the king has but months to live. Their two daughters, Claude and young Renée are heiresses to the rich duchy of Brittany. Countess Louise, their guardian, schemes to steal their inheritance.

For years she has envied the dying Queen Anne, the girls’ mother. She plots to marry wealthy Claude to her son. Her unexpected guardianship presents a golden opportunity, but only if she can remove their protectress Baronne Michelle, who loves the princesses and safeguards their interests. 

As political tensions rise, the futures of Princess Renée and the Baronne hang in the balance, threatened by Countess Louise’s designs. Will timid Claude untangle the treacherous intrigues Countess Louise is weaving? Can she outflank the wily countess to protect young Princess Renée? And can she find the courage to defend those she loves?

Based on historical events and characters, this timeless story will rivet you until the last page. It is a tale of envy, power and intrigue pitted against loyalty and the strength of women’s friendships. 

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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.

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.