World Building – Culture & Society

In order to build the world of a novel, authors must consider the culture and society of their story. According to one definition, a culture represents the beliefs and practices of a group, while society represents the people who share those beliefs and practices. 19th century British anthropologist Edward Tylor defines culture with respect to society:

Culture…is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.

In the fictional world of The Handmaid’s Tale, there is an ultra-parochial regime where women are essentially powerless and yet gather together to celebrate the birthing process or to witness the sexual union of a handmaid with their husbands or to stone a handmaid who is convicted of wrong doing. In that culture, women are obsessed with childbirth, piety and submissiveness. In that society, a handmaid is not known by her name but by the name of her commander. If she fails to reproduce after three attempts, she is banished to the colonies, a radioactive wasteland of endless toil.

Source: https://luciennediver.net/2013/08/14/worldbuilding-workshop-part-i/

The first question to consider is who has power? What is the form of government? Who is privileged? How do gender, religion, race and other factors influence power? Who is struggling against that power structure? Who benefits from maintaining the status quo?

How does government work? Is it a monarchy? A dictatorship? A democracy? What rights do people have? Do those rights vary by some accident of birth or by gender or by wealth? What laws do you need to explain in order for readers to appreciate the difference between that time and today?

Religion is another important factor in society. What role does religion play? What ethics does religion preach? What conflicts sit at the heart of the religion of the day? How do people worship?

Arts and entertainment are also relevant. What types of art influence society? How do people of the time entertain themselves? Are artists–painters, musicians, sculptors, writers–valued or not? How do the arts affect everyday life in different socio-economic spheres? What about sports? Are sports revered? Are leading sports figures influential?

After you’ve considered power, government, religion, arts & entertainment, explore the relations between the dominant society & culture of your story and that of neighbouring societies. Are they at war? Do they trade? Are they suspicious of one another? And remember that there are cultures within cultures – the women’s culture of a harem for example or the culture of the military within broader society.

Look at other elements in the interlocking circles above. They too will add to the richness of the fictional world of history.

According to Lucienne Divers Drivel – the blog of the writer who built the diagram: “Conflict often comes when an individual or group is at odds with or fighting against what are considered the norms of a society or when cultures clash against each other over ideology (religion), control of resources (ecology) or whatever.” That notion offers a seque into another of the seven elements of historical fiction – but more on that later.

The society and culture of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind is totally different from that of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall or Robert Harris’s Pompeii. That’s one of the things readers love about historical fiction.

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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 AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Character in Historical Fiction – a deeper dive

We’ve had two posts about character in historical fiction: The Character-Driven Story (a contribution from Mary F. Burns) and Character – the historical fiction variety. Today, I’m going to further explore character – one of the seven elements of historical fiction – using author Elizabeth George’s character prompt sheet.

In Write Away, Elizabeth George provides the topics she covers in her prompt sheet. A caveat here based on comments received: I’m not advocating this particular prompt sheet, nor am I advocating planning your characters in advance like Elizabeth does. I’m more seat-of-the-pants in terms of my characters. What I am trying to illustrate is the aspects authors can explore to add authenticity to HF characters.

 

It seems to me that many items on Elizabeth’s prompt sheet offer the opportunity for a writer to bring a historical perspective.

Name – what names were popular in the middle ages or the early twentieth century? Of course, location is also a factor.

Height/Weight/Build – these could reflect nutrition of the time as well as social norms. Curviness in a woman might be considered highly attractive in some time periods, so a thin woman might feel unattractive.

Educational background – what were the prevailing norms for education in the historical period of the time? Were girls educated? Were boys expected to leave school at a young age to help support the family? Was an educated woman considered unattractive? Dangerous? Who taught the children? Were boys sent away to school? Were working class children uneducated? Were religious institutions involved in education? Were activists calling for public education?

Sexuality – no doubt there are books written about this! Or PhD theses. Sexual norms could have a critical impact on a character’s behaviour, so it’s important to understand what they were and then choose how they affected your character.

Family – family size, family structure, sibling relationships, family values and expectations all have a historical element. These can feature in a character’s back story, motivations, damaging incidents and so on.

Core need – the single need at the core of who a character is. “We’re born with them and during our lifetimes, we mold most of our behaviour to meet our core need. This is something essential to a person, an automatic striving within him that, when denied, results in whatever constitutes his psychopathology.” — Write Away by Elizabeth George

Some core needs are universal and irrespective of time period. The need to be loved, for example, or the need for a father’s approval. The desire for competence. Others may be influenced by time period or historical events shaping a particular era.

Ambition in life – clearly this needs to reflect historical times rather than modern day times. And similarly take into account a character’s station in life. An 18th century woman would not yearn to be CEO of a major corporation. It’s unlikely that a 12th century peasant would yearn to command an army.

Gait – at first I thought that the way a character walks would not be influenced by history. But what about a geisha? Or the young Queen Victoria who was disciplined to walk in a composed, stately manner even as a child?

Laughs or jeers at – while some of these choices for characters can be universal, others would reflect the historical time period. Men during Oliver Cromwell’s time would laugh at different things or people than men of the early twentieth century.

Philosophy – we can think of this as the guiding principles a character lives by. It defines who we are and what we stand for. One’s philosophy often reflects upbringing, religion, societal values and these, in turn, reflect the times.

All of these and more help transport readers in time and place. In a subsequent post, I’ll look at the rest of the prompt sheet plus some additional items to consider.

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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 is like an iceberg

So what exactly is setting as it relates to historical fiction? I’ll attempt to answer that, but I know that my answer will be incomplete. In addition, many of the items listed below also fit into the category of world building – I’m having trouble separating the two! We’ll explore world building later.

A few years ago, I wrote Time Travel – The Work of Historical Fiction where I listed all sorts of details I needed to explore to develop a novel set in 1870s Paris. Since then, other authors have written guest posts that have helped expand the notion of setting and I’ve done more digging on the topic. In this post, I’ve organized the components of setting into broad categories to make it more useful.

The Social Domain

  • social customs, arrangements and attitudes
  • norms and attitudes
  • expectations of the time and of different stations in life
  • what people valued
  • beliefs (cultural, religious, political, scientific, philosophic)
  • manners and mannerisms
  • morality and changing mores
  • class divisions; upward mobility
  • marriage
  • constraints of the time period
  • folklore and myth

Everyday Life – these vary with social class

  • types of clothing worn and fashion of the day; clothes people wear can actually change the way they behave; where people get their clothing
  • the popular books people were reading
  • the type of soap used, toiletries
  • shopping experience
  • jokes they told
  • what was considered an insult
  • fears
  • food and cooking, recipes, who does what
  • furniture and decor
  • housing and architecture, building materials, sources of heat and light
  • entertainment and diversions; popular music, pastimes and hobbies; where people go to meet friends, who else might frequent the places they visit
  • sounds, smells, tastes, touches; physical sensations, scent, touch, sounds
  • everyday life, everyday struggles; What did a typical day look like? Who did what? What was acceptable in society then, and what wasn’t?
  • family environment and household matters; family dynamic; family responsibilities and obligations
  • the cost of goods and the types of goods available
  • material culture
  • sex and attitudes about sex
  • news sources
  • education and class; literacy
  • medical practices of the day and medicines; psychological know-how; diseases; life spans; causes of death (and its customs)
  • transportation, conveyances and travel

Work life

  • the trades
  • typical occupations and professions
  • high, middle- and lower-class work
  • existing and emerging technologies
  • international trade

Politics, Religion, Government, major institutions

  • the political situation, political motivations,
  • governments and government institutions
  • important figures of the day, prominent people; if your historical characters are real people, you must know where they were and when and what occurred at these points in time
  • international alliances
  • military organization and role within society
  • educational institutions and norms
  • legal system, laws and regulations; the way the law worked (and who was oppressed and privileged by it and how)
  • rights of women
  • religious structures and religious norms
  • medical institutions (if any)

events and timelines – historical timelines and major events affecting your story

  • military actions and wars (recent and impending)
  • revolutions and uprisings
  • news of the day, important news stories
  • what those who were considered subversive were doing
  • the (sometimes massive) changes that were going on during the time; who was affected by change; how did they react?
  • scandals of the day
  • broad issues of the era
  • unusual weather events (famines, natural disasters)

Relevant landscape and geography

  • landscape and physical geography
  • flora and fauna
  • layouts of towns and cities
  • neighbourhoods and who lives where
  • weather and weather patterns
  • place names

So many elements to explore and understand! And you still have to write your story and ensure that the story isn’t burdened by all this detail. Who said writing is easy??

Let me leave you with an image based on the title of today’s post.

 

I welcome your input and feedback. Earlier posts on setting:

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.