Originally published 25 Feb 2016
As historical fiction writers, we know how important it is to immerse our readers in our setting. It is how we take them back in time, how we introduce them to a world we could not possibly know (at least not until time travel becomes real), but which was part of the everyday lives of our characters. However, it’s not as easy as putting them in period clothing and throwing in some castles, horses and swords (if only!).
Research is key because we have to know the world as well as our characters would have. But only about 5% of what we research should end up in our books, otherwise they will read like info dumps or history lessons that will disengage our readers from the story. Here are a few tips on handling description in ways your readers will love:
- Remember that your settings are there for a reason– Only describe them to the level they are important to the story or its characters. I LOVE to write descriptions. So, I describe everything in as much detail as I want in the first draft. That’s because I, as the author, need to know. But when I get into the second draft, they start to disappear. By the time we’re in final draft, they are only there if they are important for historical background, story or characters.
- Let us know right off the bat where we are– No matter when we experience it, wondering where we are pulls us out of the story and reminds us that we are reading – which we forget when we’re really absorbed. So, even if it’s just a brief mention, make it clear to your reader in every scene where the characters are. Sometimes we know through your prose that the location hasn’t changed; that’s fine. Other times all we need to know is that we’re defenseless in a dark alley. Our imagination, along with the rest of the plot for the scene, can provide the rest.
- Sprinkle in description where it’s natural– There are places in a novel where you’re more likely to give a full roof to floorboard description – toward the beginning to establish the setting, when a character is seeing a place for the very first time, or if the details of a location are particularly important – and those are fine. Just keep them few and far between. The rest of the time you can give your description bits and pieces, usually as things come up in conversation, action or casual observation.
Think about how you notice things in real life. If a place is new, you’re going to take in much more detail than if it’s a place you’re very familiar with. For example, when I go on vacation, I notice how the air smells and the local brew tastes. On the other hand, when I go about my daily life, I rarely notice the color of the walls or the pattern of the carpet. It’s so normal, I’m blind to it. If there’s something like this that it’s vital for characters to know about, throw in a change. I can guarantee I notice if something is out of place (that I didn’t move) and that makes me notice the area around it.
- Keep it interactive– Having your characters interact with their setting is the best way to “show” it to us, rather than “tell” us about it. They don’t have to do a sociologist’s cataloging of the location and its people, but if that fits your story, go for it. Something as simple as tapping a champagne flute to find out if its glass or crystal tells us a lot, both about the person, the setting and the time period, based on the expectation and outcome.
- Keep pace and atmosphere in mind– I know George R. R. Martin gets away with it, but please don’t go on for pages and pages describing a single dinner setting. That is overkill. A general rule of thumb is that lengthy descriptions slow down the pace. Action scenes usually have less setting description and more movement because your character is busy fighting for his/her life, whereas if your character is lost in the fog, you may want to extend your description a bit to provide a sense of helplessness and confusion.
- Use all five senses– Probably because we grew up with TV and movies, we tend to default to the visual as our primary mode of description. But we can also touch fabric, wood, stone and skin. We can smell the sea breeze, the putrid alleys, and our lover’s perfume. We can taste kisses or the emotion behind words. We can hear the ticking of a clock or the chug of a steam engine. If you want to learn from a novel, read Anthony Doerr’sAll the Light We Cannot See, which just won the Pulitzer. Because one of the main characters is blind, he gives descriptions in ways you may never have thought about. And you can use that to your advantage. Next time you’re tempted to describe what something looks like, close your eyes and describe it using two of your other senses instead. You’ll come away with more engaging writing.
- Stay in your character’s POV– Every scene has a point of view character. That is the person whose eyes your description should come through. His or her thoughts and experiences will influence how he/she describes a place or object. A person living during time the Black Death will see something very different in a feline than will an ancient Egyptian. Also, keep in mind that based on time period, job, or location people will notice different things. For example, Deb Harkness reminded me in a writing class that people pre-1800s wouldn’t have looked up at the stars and thought about the vastness of the universe because they didn’t have the knowledge to think of it in those terms. Also, as an ordinary person, I may not notice the fabric or cut of someone’s clothing, but a tailor, fuller or even a rich connoisseur might.
- Do your research– If you use real places in your fiction, travel to them if you can. I know that’s not always possible, but there really is something to be said for getting the feel for a location in person. Every location has its own vibe and your characters would sense that. Similarly, the light looks very different in the desert than it does in the Midwest. If you get the chance to be in your location, walk the same paths your characters would take. You’d be surprised the details you’ll come up with. It’s easier to peel back the layers of time when you can walk in their footsteps.
If you can’t travel, take advantage of technology. Look at online pictures, use Google maps, talk to locals on social media about what it’s really like to live there – it’s the next best thing to being there in person. Talk to experts about the time and read contemporary writing and/or diaries.
- Fights require judicious description –Fights are their own special animal, but in addition to thinking of how your characters are moving, acting, reacting and feeling, think about how terrain and weather conditions affect your scene. A duel in slick mud or snow will be much different than one on uneven flagstones. Each of these situations invites you to show us something different: inertia through the sucking mud on a boot or imbalance through a trip on a paver. One character may be blinded by the sun or both have trouble seeing in pouring rain, snow or dark of night. Perhaps your setting tells us something about the characters and/or their conflict.
- Read authors who are known for their attention to place– As we all know, one of the best ways to learn a new aspect of writing is to read it done well. In historical fiction/historical fantasy, I can personally recommend Deborah Harkness (Shadow of Night), Kristin Hannah (The Nightingale), MJ Rose (The Book of Lost Fragrances), Lauren Willig (The Other Daughter), Emma Donoghue (Frog Music), and there are many, many others.
If you have questions, feel free to email me firstname.lastname@example.org. I also have a presentation on this subject, so if you’d like me to present to your writing group in person or via Skype, please contact me.
HWA member Nicole Evelina is a St. Louis historical fiction and romantic comedy writer. She is one of only six authors who completed a week-long writing intensive taught by #1 New York Times bestselling author Deborah Harkness.
Nicole is a member of and book reviewer for the The Historical Novel Society, and Sirens (a group supporting female fantasy authors), as well as a member of the Historical Writers of America, Women’s Fiction Writers Association, Romance Writers of America, the St. Louis Writer’s Guild, Women Writing the West, Broad Universe (promoting women in fantasy, science fiction and horror), Alliance of Independent Authors and the Independent Book Publishers Association.
Her website/blog is HERE and she can be found on Twitter as well as on Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram.