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Writing Historical Novels With A Sense Of Time And Place, by Emma Darwin

Margaret Atwood’s definition of historical fiction is one which is useful for thinking about writing it (as opposed to selling it): ‘fiction set in a time before the writer came to consciousness.’

It’s useful because it’s centred on the writer’s relationship to what they’re writing: a time, a place, voices, manners, mores, and innumerable practical details that you can’t know directly. So the first challenge is to learn to imagine – to inhabit – places you’ve never been, whether it’s Victorian London or pre-Colombian Chile, the hanging gardens of Babylon or a privy in Jarrow.

Mind you, even that privy will need evoking differently, depending on whether it’s being used by the Venerable Bede in 731 BCE or by Ellen Wilkinson MP, as she got ready to join the Jarrow March in 1936. But what kind of different? Research helps but historians focus on the overall picture and how it changes, whereas much of the time we deal in the typical, the ordinary and the particular.

The particular is your friend. Mind you: a lot of things about us have changed over the centuries but we still operate by our six senses (more on the real sixth sense here). If you can get down to shape and shadow, to the stuff of a harlot’s gown and the clamour of human sacrifice, your reader will also hear and smell them and, by believing in these details, begin to believe in your story.

If no novelist of the time, nor any helpful historian since, has supplied you with a detailed picture of ordinary life in the place and time where your novel is set, how do you get close enough to know what those smells and sounds might be? In the 1820 strand of The Mathematics of Love Stephen drives along the spectacular north coast of Spain, from San Sebastian to Bilbao. Google Earth and a cheap plane ticket could get me close to the physical geography but what about the human geography?

Fortunately it’s the proud boast of  The London Library that they never get rid of a book and there I found an 1850s guide to travelling in Northern Spain, complete with engravings by Honoré Daumier: here was a diligent account of staggering along those mountain roads; the basic, unchanging clothes of market women, of farmers, sailors, priests and nuns; evocations of crumbling villages and bustling towns; the usual English horror of Catholicism and the pity for the picturesque peasants who weren’t allowed to ‘know any better’.

Most delightful for me were observations of the lingering scars of the Peninsula War. Perhaps the innkeeper whom the author found so welcoming in San Sebastian was the son of the man who welcomed Stephen, only thirty-odd years before. I like to think so.


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The Mathematics of Love (P.S. (Paperback))A Secret Alchemy     The Emerald Storm: An Ethan Gage AdventureSpartacus: The GladiatorPhantoms in the SnowBetrayalThe Salt Road

Writing Historical Novels

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reblogged this on DH Hanni and commented:
    While the article is talking specifics about a particular book, it’s a great reminder to me to remember to focus on the every day details of my chararacters’s lives that will be the meat of any story I write.

    April 13, 2013
  2. Another great post from Emma and an excellent reminder to focus on the senses and those intricate, day-to-day details of our characters’ experiences. I’d encourage readers to follow the link through to Emma’s ‘Itch of Writing’ blog for her piece about the ‘real sixth sense’ – a wonderfully written post which contains more excellent advice.

    April 15, 2013
  3. A very useful post – and, for those writing about the recent past, talking to an older person for whom that period is not ‘before they came to consciousness’ is invaluable, especially for those everyday details.

    June 8, 2013

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