17 December 2006

Setting the scene

For the writer of unusual historicals, setting the scene is the most important task you must accomplish. Long-time readers of settings such as the Regency or the Medieval come to books set during those times with preconcieved notions and knowledge of what was and what wasn't done, what existed, real-life people of that era, etcetera. But with an unusual setting, an author can go two ways: the wallpaper historical, wherein details of manners, dress and other various things are vaguely sketched in, or you can go the detailed route, in which the setting is vital to the movements and reactions of the characters and the specified setting is unique to their story.

There are pros and cons to both. With the former, the anxious reader's fears are calmed when they open the book and realize that 1670 Venice or 1838 Russia really no different from 1803 London--but on the flip side, you may as well have set the plot and characters in 1803 London. On the occasion of the latter, the reader may be sucked into a completely different world and perhaps learn something they never may have known, but the downside may be that they found the vivid sketch of the setting overpowering the actual plot and characters (which, IMO may not be so terrible if your objective is for the setting to take on a character of its own).

Both of the aforementioned tactics can be correct, if either one is more comfortable for you, but for all of us history buffs who write unusual historicals, it is important that the romance and the characters much remain within the forefront of the novel. In a way, historical details are like backstory. You don't want to info-dump the beginning of each scene because it slows the pace of the story. Instead, study the way in which you reveal your characters by dropping little hints of their personalities and manner, follow the crumbs of idiosyncracies and dialogue dispersed within the text, and sprinkle your details throughout the novel.

So tell me, what are your own techniques for sketching the historical details of your period?

Any frustrations you run into when attempting to write about something most people are ignorant of?

Do you disagree with my pros and cons of wallpaper vs vivid details?


Morag McKendrick Pippin said...

So tell me, what are your own techniques for sketching the historical details of your period?

My historicals, which range from WWI - WWII, are probably easier to
sketch than some. There is a visual record of this time in movies and in the memories of people I interview. Also, periodicals of the time are more easily found. I visit antique and collectables shops to see and feel the clothing, kitchen tools, toys, etc of the day.

Any frustrations you run into when attempting to write about something most people are ignorant of?

Yes! After the book is released some readers will say that wasn't released/invented/worn, etc until after this time period. I must differ - I did the research. Someone made a comment about my first book, BLOOD MOON OVER BENGAL, that cosmetics weren't used in 1932!!! Cosmetics have been around since before the Egyptians. And movie stars of the '30s applied cosmetics with a heavy hand.

Do you disagree with my pros and cons of wallpaper vs vivid details?

Yes, I do disagree with the wallpaper. If the details of the time are vague I feel the author hasn't done her job. The author should make her story come alive and I don't see how it can if the details are only sketchy.

My historicals

carrie_lofty said...

I have to tell my historian self that she gets one page on my website per book to go history hog wild. One of my beta readers actually didn't get past my introduction because it was too heavy. Warning sign! I've since made revisions, obviously. But I agree with Camilla's idea that the unfamiliar history is a character in and of itself. To reveal too much is the worst sort of info-dumping, like pushing too much backstory right up front.

I'm having trouble with language for my WIP set in 1200, which is something Kim mentioned at the back of Liberty -- often, the words back then do not match what the word means now. Compromises are constant for me this time around. The big concern I had with Serenade was the use of German words and placenames. Eventually, I had to ditch much of the cool German in favor of readability. And yes, my historian self grumbled for a week.

jennifer said...

I read up on everything about the period and then start writing. I don't keep lots of notes and try to fit lots of things in but I'll know them if they come up in the story. When i wrote my first regency, nice and usual i'm afraid, i hate to think of how many times i had pride and prejudice playing in the background so i had the speech patterns in my head. the history is easy obviously how much you put in is up to you unless of course you pick that one spot i did that vanished off the face of the earth 1000 years ago.

Anonymous said...

First can I say that ALL historical fiction writing by definition is anachronistic. Thewriter has never directly experience the time period and can only draw her conclusions from making some sort of sense of her research.

Techniques for sketching the time period?

Do the research. Look at objects that were actually used. Investigate. Visit the area if at all possible. Visit museums. I try to learn about the mindset. What was different to today's society? What was the same? How might things that we accept as commonplace be viewed? Where are the freedoms? What are the restrictions?


Not really. It gives you more freedom in the same way hiaku or a sonnet gives freedom.
I accept that historical novels are no more reflective of real life in that period than contemporary novels are of today. Georgette Heyer would not have written the same sort of Regency if she had started writing today. Her Regencies reflect her concerns. They are very different from Jane Austen for example who was writing a contemporary novel. JA happened to be writing during the Regency period, but even then there is some debate on the exact years she was protraying. Which year was P&P actually set in for example.

Historical novels are in fact a dark glass with which the author can view today's society, and maybe highlight a few different areas.
How an author choses to protray a time period depends to a great extent on an author's personal experience? Where does research interests lie? Clothing? Consumer goods? Industrial? Warfare? Politics? Economics? No one author will place the same emphasis on all the details.
Also what is known? What is unknown? What do people think they know? What is a myth? What do you think you know, only to havei t overturned by research. (ie Rosemary Sutcliffe's missing Ninth legion that wasn't actually missing at all, but was at the time of writing.)
ie in the Roman republic, everyone wore purple as it was an aspirational colour. There was no concept of purple being reserved for anyone. That only comes later.

Wallpaper v vivid details

I like to learn something when I read. I dislike it intensely when mindsets are not accurate.
I also understand that certian speech patterns have changed. Slang is a difficult area because unless done with a careful hand, it can become totally incomprehensible to the average reader.

You always have to ask yourself -- who is your reader and how much do they need to know?
Why is the reader reading?
A short historical romance will have different amount to a main stream historical ficition title. I like to call it the Jean Plaidy/Philippa Carr/Victoria HOlt spectrum. Same writer -- differing amounts of history.
The main job of a historical romance is to entertain and perhaps, if the writer is lucky, pique the reader's interest in the time period.

Basically how good is the author's world creation? A historical author creates a world in much the same manner that a fantasy writer does. The ability to bring that world vividly to life is a talent IMHO


PS LOL on the cosemetics. Did you know they found face cream from the Roman period in London? Still there, and still viable, -- a sort of fat that dried to give a translucent pearly sheen?

Kim Iverson Headlee said...

Michelle's post about covers it, but I will add one thing:

An author can get away with incorporating a great deal of detail as long as it is done deftly.

F'rinstance . . .

You saw a fantastic object in a museum? Have it be something one of your characters receives as a gift, so you can convey to the readers your own sense of wonder through the character's senses as the object emerges from the box.

You had a particularly unusual experience while conducting field research at a site for your book? Mine your feelings and translate them to your fiction. For example, in DAWNFLIGHT I mention a site on the Kintyre Penninsula of Scotland, Dunadd, as the villain's stronghold but didn't actually get to visit there until after DAWNFLIGHT was published. My husband & I traveled there one January, during a particularly gusty & cold afternoon, and when I incorporated that into the sequel, a beta-reader said he actually felt cold!

Going with the "vivid details" approach is indeed more difficult for the author, by the very nature of the process, but I find it to be much more rewarding. I hope my readers do, too.


Eliza said...

You know, one of my critiquers made this comment about Atrocity Gods: "You're turning the city into a character." She meant it as something to watch out for, but I found it a great compliment. To me, New York is a sentient being! It's as interesting as any human character in fiction...that's why there are so many books written about it.

So I love to dive headlong into setting, but I don't do it a lot. Actually, I think I could do it more on some occasions.

Another great compliment I got from a reader was about a scene toward the end. What the reader didn't know was that originally I had a full 11 pages describing that particualr room (call me Hawthorne, I know!), but I knew it was terribly overwritten so I put the "good parts" in, and that's all. The reader said it was her favorite part in the book, because she felt like she was right there.

So that's my big strategy: overwrite on details in the early drafts, then trim, trim, trim.

As a reader, I absolutely love reading details. I pick up historical or foreign fiction to learn. Teach me. Let me go somewhere I can't go on my own. Let me experience something a little out of my realm of knowledge. Acquaint me with different customs, sights and ideas.