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Setting In Historical Novels, by DE Johnson

In most novels, setting is just that – a set for a story to take place. For writers of historical novels, however, setting is often much more. We have to transport the reader in time and place to somewhere unfamiliar – and then get them to accept that and be able to move into the story without that pesky setting getting in the way. That said, one of the likely reasons the reader picked up the book is the historical context. Our readers like to learn while they’re being entertained.

The setting of any novel is crucial, even if for no other reason than to give the reader a location in which to experience the story. A good writer sets the story in such a way that the reader can see the crumbling red bricks of the tenement, smell the grease and fried fish as the viewpoint character walks down the dark hallway, taste the sour boiled cabbage dinner, and feel the cold wind cutting through the broken window.

In a historical novel, the setting has to be crafted in much the same way as a major character. It’s deadly dull to introduce a character with a list of traits: “He was 5’10”, 180 pounds, with brown hair and hazel eyes. He had a long face and a matching nose, and a dimple on the right side of his face when he smiled. He wore a pair of brown wool trousers, slightly rumpled and a graying cotton shirt torn at the sleeve. A gray hounds-tooth jacket was slung over his shoulder”…and so on. All the reader can think is, “Why do I care?”

Instead, good writers start with whatever detail the viewpoint character would notice first and gradually reveal the scope of the character. “He squinted up at her with small hazel eyes, shiny enough to make her wonder if he was trying not to cry.” When they move through the scene, the reader learns more details. So it is with the setting in a historical novel. A hundred years ago, it was perfectly acceptable to start a novel with three pages of setting. However, that strategy doesn’t work today. For that matter, even the Bible begins with, “In the beginning, God created (verbed) the heaven and the earth.” If you are a writer, make sure the beginning of your story verbs as well.

Historical novelists find wonderful details to set the story, but a good novelist will gradually reveal details throughout the novel. We need to give the reader enough to hold onto that they can visualize the scene, while not dumping in pages of setting and forgetting about the story. Ultimately, we need the reader to accept the setting as a real time and place they experience as they read. That means that they can’t be forced to think about the setting all the time. In a tense scene, the focus is on the action, not the setting details. STORY ALWAYS WINS.

It’s crucial to use all five senses. It’s easy to get stuck on visual detail and forget about smells, tastes, sounds, and physical details like temperature and texture. Each is important in transporting your reader into the story. One detail that struck me in researching 1910s Detroit was the amount of horse manure on the streets. Even the best neighborhoods had towering manure piles. There’s a smell that could be important.

However, that leads to another potentially tricky item: our point-of-view character is not going to notice something they pass by eight times a day, any more than you are going to notice the buildings you pass on your way to work every morning. Okay, maybe you did the first week or two, but if you’ve been on the job for a while, making the same drive (or ride), you don’t notice them anymore. When we write a story, though, we can cheat. It’s simple enough to bring any detail to the attention of our viewpoint character just by having something stand out as different. (Losing control of the car that skids into one of those piles, stepping on a stray piece that’s fallen off, the viewpoint character noticing the pile is twice as tall as it was yesterday, another character complaining about it, etc).

Setting is often the hardest part of a historical novel for a new writer, but approaching writing about that time and place with the same technique as writing characters can simplify the process and pull the reader right where we want them – inside the story.


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The Detroit Electric SchemeMotor City Shakedown     Where Lilacs Still BloomThe Leopard Sword (Empire)EquinoxEscape by Moonlight

Writing Historical Novels


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