The Best Historical Novel – How to Write History into Your Fiction – Part 1 – the All Essential Setting

On Wednesday, Nov 18th, I popped up a post on things you can do to help decide what time period and what place to set your historical novel. So now you know where and when. The question becomes, how do you convince the reader (in this case a picky history-lovin’ geek – me) that they are there and then?

Let’s talk about Setting. You’ve chosen your ‘where,’ and there’s a strong possibility that you’ve never been there and ‘there’ doesn’t exist anymore – or it certainly isn’t what it used to be. Break out the mental crayons, your essential journal and research materials. Begin forming the image of your setting based on creative license combined with facts.

What colors surround your setting? For example, your novel is set in post Civil War America, in the Arizona Territory. Think about the pristine Southwest. Seriously, close your eyes and imagine what Arizona looked like. Orange, Red, Beige, Brown, Purple? What is the texture? Smooth, Sandy, Rocky? Is it vast or enclosed? Short or tall?

Not sure? Haven’t been there? Find a travel magazine, go to the Arizona Historical Society’s web site, go to Wikipedia. See what color pictures you can find. Note: you may find lovely Victorian photographs and these are extremely important, but they will not be in color. For your novel, you need color because contemporary characters would see in color. That time period was full of bright color and people who weren’t afraid to use it. If you wish to see contemporary color of the Wild West, look to the painters of the period, such as Frederick Remington. This won’t always be a tool for every human time period, but why not use it when it’s available.

In your journal, write down things you see in those photographs. Sketch them if you can. Make note of the colors, the shapes, the sky, the plants, the animals, the buildings … don’t worry about describing them in a narrative form, go ahead write down single words or phrases that help you clarify the environment your characters are going to live in.

Why worry about such things? First (using our example,) while you may not have been to the American Southwest, you can bet some of your readers have – or love the Wild West and are historical nuts like me. Lack of authenticity can make someone put down the book before they ever get near your brilliant plot. Second, your setting is a character in and of itself. The environment has moods, needs, appearance, and reactions. Treat it as a character. Fill out a character worksheet on it, just as you would for your protagonist. (*Worry not! I’ll get to the worksheet soon.)

Color, Texture, Tone and Quality. Write these down in your journal. Cut out pictures or print them off and put them in your file folder. Allow yourself to fall in love with your setting. Imagine yourself there.

Next? What about the other senses and your setting? This isn’t just visual. Part 2 we’ll discover more about your setting and how to make it so vivid that your reader will forget that they are sitting on a commuter bus or hanging out in a coffee shop – they’ll believe they are there!

T.E. MacArthur – Historian, Artist, Author

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