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Creating A Sense Of Place In Historical Novels, by Jane Johnson

The past is another country, goes the old saying. But what if you’re writing about the past IN another country? Or in two or three other countries? Or using different time frames for different story strands? I’ve done all this in my previous novels: talk about making a stick to beat your own back with…

Creating a sense of place is absolutely crucial in historical fiction: you have to work harder in this sort of novel than in almost any other (apart from fantasy, with which historical fiction has many parallels) to make your reader see through your eyes.

You can’t rely on a shared world view, because none of us has actually visited the seventeenth century – or if we have, reincarnation has left our memories hazy. It’s not like telling the reader that your character went to the supermarket or caught the bus to work: we all have template images for such mundane activities in our heads and it’s easy to fill in the gaps. If you’re describing Barbary raiders attacking a Cornish market town in 1625, or the inside of a slave hold, or the intricacies of a Moroccan palace, or a Tuareg encampment in the depths of the Sahara, or the view from the walls of Acre as the besieging Christian army digs its trenches, you’re going to have to put some spadework in…

Jane Johnson - Morocco photo 1

The key in all descriptions is that less is more. A telling detail – a single pivotal image – will do the work of two pages of plodding literal description in capturing the setting and giving your plot and characters an authentic-feeling backdrop. It’s easy to get carried away as you conjure the scene and go on and on as yet more details occur to you. That’s fine – it’s one way of writing yourself into a scene – but remain aware that this is what you’re doing and that the long version is for your own benefit, not for the poor, beleaguered reader, who already has to hold in her head the names, appearances, personalities and interactive relationships between your characters, the intricacies of the plot AND the epoch in which the story takes place, which is a lot to carry around.

So go back at revision stage and cut like crazy till you’ve got your descriptive passages down to few simple, striking details to set your scene. And remember, it’s not just about what the eye takes in, but also about other senses as well. The smells in a spice market or on a battlefield are just as likely to capture the sensation of being there as telling the reader the colour of the sky or the configuration of a town.

Jane Johnson - Morocco photo 2

If you work hard enough, you can make the setting do several jobs at once. The weather can mirror a character’s inner landscape or point up the irony in a situation by being the opposite to your protagonist’s inner weather. Watching a beetle climb a sand dune or having your protagonist forge a hard passage through the desert can become a wider, deeper metaphor, just as the Tuareg saying ‘walking the salt road’ can mean many things, from the literal – following the trading route along which salt is brought from the mines in the Sahara to the markets in the north – to the metaphorical vale of tears, the metaphorical road to death. Physical confinement (by four walls or even whalebone corsetry) can suggest mental or spiritual confinement. Opulent surroundings can point up moral degradation and make satirical comment without being obviously preachy.

Jane Johnson - Morocco photo 3

Getting that telling detail spot on, though, is the killer. Research is important to historical novelists, because authenticity is the lodestone without which your whole apparently carefully constructed edifice will come crashing down. You have to know more about the time and place in which you’re writing your story than any of your readers. There’s simply nothing worse than stumbling over an error or an anachronism as you read for throwing you out of the story. Write as if you have a panel of experts staring over your shoulder no; not in terror, but come well-prepared. Read and read and read your source material – and by that I mean go back to primary sources; don’t just rely on 3rd and 4th hand popular distillations by the latest favoured academic, or other historical novelists’ versions of the past. You have to make your setting your own. Visit the sites of your story if you can, imagine yourself back in whatever century you’re writing about. If you can’t physically visit a place, Google Earth can get you some of the way. But there’s no substitute for a bit of good, old-fashioned writer’s imagination. Absorb your research until there’s no obvious sign of it as you write and then cut, cut, cut!

The key is to be sparing. Don’t bog your readers down in a churned-up mire of complicated description, as it can slow the pace of the book and make the reading experience painfully hard going. If you make your descriptive prose sharp and vivid enough you can transport readers into your story as if carrying them there on a magic carpet.


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The Tenth GiftThe Salt RoadThe Sultan's WifeGoldseekers     The Barbary Pirates: An Ethan Gage AdventureThe Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)Eleven Eleven

Writing Historical Novels

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Marie Laval #

    I find old travel guides invaluable to get a sense of place, time and customs, For France and European countries, but also for Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco in the late 19th century and early 20th century, I was very lucky to come across the Guides Joanne (Hachette), later renamed Guides Bleus, which were incredibly useful to me when I was researching my historical romance ‘The Lion’s Embrace’ which mostly takes place in Algeria in 1845. The guides are full of details about travel times, costs, local customs, lists of hotels, descriptions of excursions etc… Absolutely brilliant! I also rely heavily on photos and paintings. Orientalists like Etienne Dinet painted wonderfully evocative landscapes and scenes from everyday life.

    April 23, 2013
    • I must look for your book, Marie – how very interesting. Yes, travel guides can be useful for basic information if you’re working in the not-too distant past. Not much help for reimagining the 12th century, though!

      April 23, 2013
  2. My SALT ROAD (2008) was also set largely in the Algerian and Moroccan Sahara amongst the Tuareg and featured Tin Hinan’s tomb and archaeologists. We clearly have similar interests. My husband (who has Tuareg ancestry) and I trekked across the Sahara with Tuareg guides when I was researching it: an amazing experience.

    April 23, 2013
    • Marie Laval #

      This is one of my dreams! I really hope to be able to do this one day. How wonderful it must be to have access to the wealth and poetry of the Tuareg culture. I will definitely look up for ‘The Salt Road’!

      April 23, 2013
  3. Thank you so much for bringing us this informative blog, Jane. It is clearly for all writers and not just those who want to write historical novels, anyone who wants to write vividly needs to include a sense of place (which includes a sense of history.) As a writer of fantasy and romance, I find this is especially true, but I also notice this quality present even in creative non-fiction. I love your comments about using telling sparing detail, and will put much more conscious thought into my own edits from now on with this in mind.

    April 23, 2013
  4. Reblogged this on DH Hanni and commented:
    Great advice. Personally, depending upon the time a story is set in, I, as a reader, have a tendacy to skim over the setting details. If the story is set in a time period I’m familiar with, I do that but if it’s a new place, say post-Roman Empire/early Dark Ages England, I pay more attention.

    April 23, 2013
  5. A lovely post. And I really like the message that less is more!

    April 23, 2013
  6. Stacey B. #

    “Creating a sense of place is absolutely crucial in historical fiction: you have to work harder in this sort of novel than in almost any other (apart from fantasy, with which historical fiction has many parallels) to make your reader see through your eyes.”
    This was an extremely interesting post and it really has opened my eyes, as a reader, to how difficult historical fiction must be to write! Historical fiction is a genre that I enjoy the most because not only does it transport me to a different place and culture but to a different time. It entertains me and in many cases educates me on eras I know little about. After reading this I have to give kudos to author, Layne Wong, for her most recent historical fiction romance novel “Shanghai Love” ( The book takes place during the rise of Hitler and WWII. The female heroine, Peilin, was betrothed to a man who was killed before their wedding but tradition and honor forced the marriage along anyways. She is sent to Shanghai to manage his family’s herbal shop. Shanghai is also Henri’s destination, a young Jewish man, as he has graduated from medical school as Hitler is rising to power. He flees to Shanghai where he’s befriended by Ping, Peilin’s brother. I am sure you can guess what happens next. Layne Wong really did transport me to Shanghai on a “magic carpet” and I felt immersed in their world and culture. I have a much better understanding after reading your post in what it takes to accomplish such a task. Thank you!

    April 23, 2013

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