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…
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’s what you’re doing and that the long version is for your own benefit, not for the poor, beleaguered reader, who already has to held in her head the names and appearances and 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.
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.
Getting that telling detail spot on, though, that’s 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. 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, even 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 till there’s no obvious sign of it as you write, and then cut, cut cut!
Be sparing, that’s the key. Don’t bog your readers down in a churned-up mire of complicated description: it can slow the pace of the book down and make the reading experience painfully hard going. But make it sharp and vivid enough and you can transport them into your story as if carrying them there on a magic carpet.