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.

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.


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.