The Best Historical Novel – How to Write History into Your Fiction – Part 2 – Setting creates Character

Your setting is one of the most important characters in your work; what does that mean? It means that you can’t do anything plot-wise without considering impact on and by your setting. This also frees you to choose adjectives and verbs that you were once scolded for using towards ‘inanimate objects.’ It means you can revel in your setting’s mood swings (for example ‘the weather was sweet and then it went sour.’) Ever read a book where the description of the scenery was scarier than the villain? I read a book set in the Arctic; the opposite of the actual weather around me – and yet I shivered.

Break out your essential journal and do some delicious research on the time period that attracts you. Write down all the things you find that are different from our world today. Don’t worry about similar things at this point, find what was done differently. Clothing, food, transportation, speech, money … We’ll talk more about this later. Start this process now.

Yet, when we talk of History as the setting, there’s even more than just flavor. It is required for the story and the characters to exist. You simply can’t paint a wash of history over your story and hope it works. The story must arise from the nuances of the period. Let’s consider this example: The adventures of a gentleman thief – it could happen anywhere at any time. Wash on the history glaze all you like, its still a story that is not historical, it won’t convince your readers. What makes your story historical is that all is driven by the time period. The adventures of a gentleman thief – during the Civil War. Now, can he use high-tech equipment to break into homes with alarm systems? No, they haven’t been invented yet. So what does he have to do to break into a home? What are the consequences if he gets caught – especially in wartime or if he’s a Northerner caught below the Mason Dixon line? If he is a gentleman, what exactly does that mean? What makes him a gentleman in the mid 1800’s? Why did he become a thief? See where I’m going? Every answer flows out of the time period, giving believable life to your character.

Ok … take the example above and change the time period to the Renaissance in France. Ask the same questions and you’ll get completely different answers. This is how the period drives the story.

We keep coming back to the most essential effort on your part: Research. I can’t say it enough. Research, research, research.

More in a bit.

T.E. MacArthur – Historian, Artist, Author

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