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Conveying A Sense Of Time And Place In Your Historical Novels, by Anne Perry

I think there are two main strands in creating a sense of ‘being there’ in a historical novel.

One is the research so that you do not get anything wrong, dealing with the specific places where your story occurs.  Wherever it is, there will be things about it that are unique.  Apart from the fact that you want to be correct anyway, you can bet your life that, wherever your novel is set, there will be an expert who will read your book and write to tell you your errors.  Most of your research will be to avoid the errors rather than to jam in everything people ever wanted to know about wherever it is, and also everything they didn’t want to know.  This is assuming that you are a teller of stories, not a teacher of history.

This sort of thing includes street map accuracy in towns and cities.  If you can’t find one, then you will have to be less exact.  In many cities there are landmark buildings (and their use can change over time – so be careful!).  Any detailed description must be accurate, including anything so major that omitting it would be glaring.  For example, don’t go to Westminster Bridge and forget the Houses of Parliament or put them there before they were built.  They are not as old as they look.  (I was stunned to find there was only one bridge in Venice in the 1270s).

It is pretty important to get the climate right – temperature and rainfall at least.  Vegetation should be accurate and appropriate to its season.  Think when refrigerated shipping began, and hot house flowers.  Orangeries?  What flowers are native to a place. If they were imported, when was that?  In Britain we had an enormous influx of new plants – decorative, edible, medicinal, etc in the nineteenth century.  We are so used to them now that we forget they are not native.

The same applies to foods.  There were no potatoes in the Old World before the New World was discovered – nor tomatoes, sweet corn, etc.  There were no oranges in Britain before the Crusades.  Other things were around earlier than you might expect.

The other aspect of ‘being there’ is the personal, sensory one.  A stone in your shoe is very immediately painful and you are fully aware of it whether you are walking along a road in Peru before the Spanish Conquistadors landed, in downtown Chicago yesterday, in the Roman Forum in Julius Caesar’s day or in Jerusalem at the time of Christ. This aspect is far easier and therefore more fun.  You have room to expand, to be emotional and to be inventive.

Many other physical experiences that contribute to an immediate sense of being there are timeless.  Shops change a lot but the sea doesn’t.  I imagine seasickness doesn’t either, but let’s not go there.  Medicine is a whole other subject.  Just bear in mind that things like cuts, bruises, weariness, heat, cold, hunger and thirst are common to all of us.  You can feel intensely ‘there’, simply because as a human being you know all these things in your own time and place.  Use it.

New materials are constantly invented.  Don’t have plastic, concrete, synthetic fibres, etc before their time.  Other things have always been there – such as marble, stone and wood – and they will feel the same as they do now.  Have you left your footprints in wet sand and seen the waves wash them out?  Have you watched the sunset, or the snow fall, or seen the moon over the sea, or first light on a hoarfrost when every leaf and blade of grass looks like it’s crusted with diamonds?  Wherever it is, you are there.  Let us all feel it with you!


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Writing Historical Novels

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Carmel #

    Love your thoughts about shared experiences. Also, it took me a while to realize it was more important to make sure things were accurate in the story rather than fit in a history lesson. Enjoyed your post and hope to keep those things in mind.

    April 6, 2013
  2. Judith Starkston #

    Such a thorough and thoughtful discussion of all the pieces of doing setting properly in HF. I like the reminder of the personal details–the stone in the shoe working anywhere.

    April 7, 2013

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