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How I Approach Setting In My Historical Novels, by Kathleen Benner Duble

Plot, characterization and dialogue are important components of any fiction book but, for historical fiction, setting may be one of the most crucial elements in your story. Setting should become like a character on its own, with all its attendant complications and depths.

So how do you make a setting vivid for your readers?

Before I begin any historical novel, I cut out or copy pictures of the setting my characters will inhabit. For Phantoms in the Snow, my novel about a group of skiing soldiers who fought in World War 2, I found pictures of their base in Colorado, of their training grounds in the mountains, and of Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere where they fought the Germans in Italy.  I made a folder of these pictures and referred to them frequently when writing my novel. When I was writing Quest, my novel about Henry Hudson’s last ill‐fated journey, I kept a picture of the replica of one of Henry Hudson’ boats, the Half Moon, along with a drawing of the Discovery, the boat he sailed during his last voyage, pinned up near me so I could refer to them frequently. The replica was a great source of inspiration when describing the life of these explorers.

Next, I make a list of key setting items such as housing, clothing, food, cities, shops and transportation. I describe each of these items. By doing this, I can easily see where gaps exist in my research. Perhaps my description of the clothing Henry Hudson wore is coming out too vague or I need more information on how houses in 1692 operated. If I find my account of these items are weak, I know my setting will be weak too ‐ so I go back and research further.

Even when I think I am strong in an area, often there will be gaps in my knowledge. When writing Phantoms in the Snow my main character was from Austin, Texas. Even though I had been to Austin many times, I realized that I didn’t remember the landscape as well as I wanted. As my skiing soldiers were sent there before being deployed to Italy, I really needed to understand the terrain. I needed to research more.

In collecting all these details about the setting, there is a trap that I must avoid. In doing my research, I often stumble across wonderful details about the setting that I am eager to tell the readers. While my settings need to be distinctive, memorable and educational for young readers, they must not be so overwhelming as to interfere with the pace of the story. Sometimes it becomes necessary to cut out details I had been hoping to include. It hurts, but it’s important to keep the story moving.

Writing a great setting can be a lot like walking a tightrope, but a great setting done well can really make your story come alive.


Kathleen Benner Duble’s author website:

Kathleen Benner Duble’s bio page


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QuestThe SacrificePhantoms in the Snow     AuslanderGoldseekersWhere Lilacs Still Bloom

Writing Historical Novels

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reblogged this on DH Hanni and commented:
    In working on my own research for my novel, it’s nice to see I’m on the right path with information gathering. Lots and lots of binders and printouts!

    June 1, 2013

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