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.

 

Looking Back on 2017

With over 900 posts (!!), A Writer of History now contains a lot of topics that have interested readers. During 2017, some posts stood out. The topics varied from WWI Fiction to creating historical characters. I hope you find a few that interest you.

Pictures = Thousands of Words

I’m in edit mode on my newest manuscript called variously Camille and Mariele, Acts of Rebellion, or A Time of Rebellion [MKT: now called Paris in Ruins]. As I go through the pages with the usual angst about whether my writing is any good, whether my publisher will like it, and whether the structure hangs together, I’ve been identifying photos that have provided inspiration …

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

In an earlier post Books Books Books, I included a long list of award-winning historical fiction. This post takes a look at what readers say about Life After Life by Kate Atkinson as an example of successful historical fiction.

Fatal Attraction – Margaret George Talks about Nero

Margaret George spoke about her novel The Confessions of Young Nero. I asked her: What does it take to write such a novel? How does an author feel about her very real character? 

Davide Mana on Successful Historical Fiction

Author Davide Mana generated a lot of interest with his guest post on successful historical fiction – a theme for 2017.

Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

This post features a quote from Anne Morrow Lindbergh that struck a chord with me and with readers: “the answer is not in the feverish pursuit of centrifugal activities which only lead in the end to fragmentation. On the contrary, woman must consciously encourage those pursuits which oppose the centrifugal forces of today. Quiet time alone, contemplation, prayer, music, a centering line of thought of reading, of study or work.”

Dynamic Pacing 

A summary of a talk given by agent Irene Goodman and author Selden Edwards on pacing which is the speed and intensity at which events of the plot unfold. This post contains 17 tips which were summarized at the end of the talk.

Mess, Mess, Mess, Mess – Art

Geraldine Brooks was one of two keynote speakers at the Historical Novel Society conference in 2017. She spoke about her writing process.

Weaving the Twin-Stranded Storyline

Dual timeline novels – something Susanna Kearsley excels at – was the subject of her workshop at the Historical Novel Society conference in 2017.

WWI Fiction – Readers Have Their Say

In 2017, I conducted a survey of WWI fiction. This post shows the results.

Historical Perspective – Appealing to Modern Readers

Author Cryssa Bazos talks about creating historical characters: 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. It’s only through balancing this with the commonality of human nature that we can appeal to modern audiences.

The Alice Network with Kate Quinn

After reading The Alice Network – loved it! – I spoke with the author, Kate Quinn

Book Titles – What’s Their Purpose?

What does a book title do for you? Does it entice? Does it hint at the novel’s story? Does it reflect your personal circumstances? Does it confuse? A post about choosing a title for one of my novels.

Characters – You Need to Know What They Look Like

Writing any kind of fiction involves an intense relationship with your characters. I’ve read of other authors creating a bulletin board with photos of their characters so they can easily bring them to mind. In this post, I’ve shared pictures of two characters – the admiral and the wife – in my as-yet-unpublished novel The Admiral’s Wife.

You can also check popular posts from other years: 2012, 20132014, 2015, 2016

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.

Dazzled by a green door

Dear all – this is the first post in a new series I’m calling transported … hope you enjoy it.

Almost two years ago – hard to believe – my husband and I spent three weeks living in a Paris apartment. We walked the streets searching for evidence of Paris 1870, the setting for Paris in Ruins, an as yet unpublished novel. The idea was to live like Parisians do, while absorbing the culture and feel of the city which still reflects that time period.

Historical fiction has the privilege and challenge of transporting readers in time and place. Readers say that’s the number one priority of historical fiction. Walking the streets, I focused on discovering little details that might create exactly that feeling for readers.

One day I was dazzled by this green door. What emotion does it evoke? What time period does it represent? Who fashioned the almost sinister-looking knocker? What would the knocker sound like? Look at how the shadow extends the length of the fingers. Did you notice the woman’s hand bears a ring and the wrist is framed with a ruffle? What sort of people passed through the door? Why is there a grill at eye level?

Imagine the scene: Exhausted and bedraggled, Mariele lifted the brass knocker shaped like a woman’s hand and let it fall. She smiled limply at her mother and knocked again. Maman’s cheeks were sunburned and her hair, normally tightly coifed, now lay like thick ribbons down her back. Their clothes were dirty, their hands scratched from climbing fences, their legs so fatigued they could barely stand. Mariele wore no boots, her feet bound in strips of cotton torn from her petticoat, were cut and blistered, the cloth damp with blood. – from Paris in Ruins 

Or maybe this could happen: Claire was curious about the door, not only its vivid green colour but also the brass knocker shaped like a woman’s hand. Stefan had told her to meet him at the shop with the green door but he’d said nothing about the knocker or the small grill that allowed the owner to scrutinize visitors before letting them in. “Details are the lifeblood of espionage,” Captain Lucas always said. If she made a mistake now, the mission would fail.

Or this: Breathless and with blood oozing from the wound to her side, Lisette lifted the knocker – the one Michel fashioned in the shape of her very own hand. She let it fall once and then twice before collapsing to the ground.

Every time I see this photo, I’m transported to another time and place.

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.