World Building – another of the 7 elements

Having looked at setting and character, I thought it would be useful to consider world building as it relates to historical fiction.

If you’ve read or watched Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, you’ll have an inherent understanding of world building.

I would argue that within historical fiction, we’re always building worlds for our readers in order to take them into another time and place – not a fantasy world, but a real world that existed at some earlier point in time.

Let’s begin with a rough definition. I’ve borrowed these questions and examples from self publishing.com – they’re straightforward and will give us a guide for subsequent posts.

What does the world look like? Include things like landscape, weather, terrain, city structures (if there are cities), density, borders, natural resources, rivers, mountains and the like.

Who are the inhabitants? Population, class structure, neighbouring peoples, alliances, origins, dominant tribes, language.

What is the history behind the time of this story? Relevant rulers of the past and present, key events leading up to the story, government structure, historical events of religious or political significance, major environmental disasters, important wars of the past.

What are the rules of this society? Political structure, people of power or influence, rules and norms governing society and individual behaviour, punishments for violating rules, prevailing attitudes towards rules, the role of the military.

What are the religious and social customs? Religious belief system, gods, places of worship, sacred entities and symbols, rituals and customs, religious festivals. Holidays, the world of work, customs, norms of behaviour, gender roles, family structure and significance, ceremonies, marriage customs, morality and immorality, secret societies.

World building for more recent times such as WWII may require less work than for the middle ages or ancient Rome. However, we could argue that a story involving war still requires the author to build a military world for readers.

I’ll explore these questions in more depth and may add a few more critical questions as we go along. Would love to hear your thoughts on the topic as we go along.

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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.

 

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.

7 Elements of Historical Fiction

Apparently, more than 10,000 people have read this post since I wrote it in March 2015. Who would have imagined? As it seems to be so popular, I thought I’d repeat it today. Enjoy!

All writers of fiction have to consider seven critical elements: character, dialogue, setting, theme, plot, conflict, and world building. While every story succeeds or disappoints on the basis of these elements, historical fiction has the added challenge of bringing the past to life.

Since I work best by example, I’m developing an explanation of the seven elements in the context of historical fiction.

Character – whether real or imagined, characters behave in keeping with the era they inhabit, even if they push the boundaries. And that means discovering the norms, attitudes, beliefs and expectations of their time and station in life. A Roman slave differs from a Roman centurion, as does an innkeeper from an aristocrat in the 18th century. Your mission as writer is to reveal the people of the past.

Dialogue – dialogue that is cumbersome and difficult to understand detracts from readers’ enjoyment of historical fiction. Dip occasionally into the vocabulary and grammatical structures of the past by inserting select words and phrases so that a reader knows s/he is in another time period. Don’t weigh the manuscript down or slow the reader’s pace with too many such instances. And be careful. Many words have changed their meanings over time and could be misinterpreted.

Setting – setting is time and place. More than 75% of participants in a 2013 reader survey selected ‘to bring the past to life’ as the primary reason for reading historical fiction. Your job as a writer is to do just that. Even more critically, you need to transport your readers into the past in the first few paragraphs. Consider these opening sentences.

“I could hear a roll of muffled drums. But I could see nothing but the lacing on the bodice of the lady standing in front of me, blocking my view of the scaffold.”Philippa Gregory The Other Boleyn Girl

“Alienor woke at dawn. The tall candle that had been left to burn all night was almost a stub, and even through the closed shutters she could hear the cockerels on roosts, walls and dung heaps, crowing the city of Poitiers awake.”Elizabeth Chadwick The Summer Queen

“Cambridge in the fourth winter of the war. A ceaseless Siberian wind with nothing to blunt its edge whipped off the North Sea and swept low across the Fens. It rattled the signs to the air-raid shelters in Trinity New Court and battered on the boarded up windows of King’s College Chapel.” Robert Harris Enigma

Straightaway you’re in the past. Of course, many more details of setting are revealed throughout the novel in costume, food, furniture, housing, toiletries, entertainment, landscape, architecture, conveyances, sounds, smells, tastes, and a hundred other aspects.

Theme – most themes transcend history. And yet, theme must still be interpreted within the context of a novel’s time period. Myfanwy Cook’s book Historical Fiction Writing: A Practical Guide and Toolkit contains a long list of potential themes: “ambition, madness, loyalty, deception, revenge, all is not what it appears to be, love, temptation, guilt, power, fate/destiny, heroism, hope, coming of age, death, loss, friendship, patriotism.” What is loyalty in 5thcentury China? How does coming of age change from the perspective of ancient Egypt to that of the early twentieth century? What constitutes madness when supposed witches were burned at the stake.

Plot – the plot has to make sense for the time period. And plot will often be shaped around or by the historical events taking place at that time. This is particularly true when writing about famous historical figures. When considering those historical events, remember that you are telling a story not writing history.

Conflict – the problems faced by the characters in your story. As with theme and plot, conflict must be realistic for the chosen time and place. Readers will want to understand the reasons for the conflicts you present. An unmarried woman in the 15th century might be forced into marriage with a difficult man or the taking of religious vows. Both choices lead to conflict.

World Building – you are building a world for your readers, hence the customs, social arrangements, family environment, governments, religious structures, international alliances, military actions, physical geography, layouts of towns and cities, and politics of the time are relevant. As Harry Sidebottom, author of Warrior of Rome series said: “The past is another country, they not only do things differently there, they think about things differently.”

As you research, here’s a list of topics to consider: attitudes, language and idiom, household matters, material culture, everyday life, historical timelines, occupations, diversions, regulations, vehicles, travel, food, clothing and fashion, manners and mannerisms, beliefs, morality, the mindset of the time, politics, social attitudes, wars, revolutions, prominent people, major events, news of the day, neighbourhoods, gossip, scandals, international trade, travel, how much things cost, worries and cares, highways and byways, conveyances, landscape, sounds, tastes, smells, class divisions, architecture, social preoccupations, religious norms, cataclysmic events, legal system, laws, regulations, weather, military organization, cooking, sex, death, disease. I’m sure you can – and hopefully will — add more.

Ultimately you are seeking to immerse yourself in a past world then judiciously select the best ways to bring that world to life as you tell your story.

A closing thought from well-known historical fiction author Bernard Cornwell: “The most important thing, the all important thing, is to get the story right. Write, rewrite, rewrite again, and do not worry about anything except story. It is story, story, story. That is your business. Your job is not to educate readers on the finer points of Elizabethan diplomacy or Napoleonic warfare, your job is to divert and amuse people who have had a hard day at work. What will get you published? Not style, not research, but story. Once the story is right, everything else will follow.”

If this post was helpful, you might also enjoy:

10 Thoughts on the Purpose of Historical Fiction

Historical Fiction – Readers Have Their Say

Author Tips on Writing 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.