This post is based on a presentation about writing historical fiction I did for the WordCrafters in Eugene writers’ conference under the title “Relating to Psyches Long Dead: Developing Characters in Historical Fiction”
Here are some questions concerning setting that I consider when developing a piece of historical fiction:
*What were the differences, both opportunities and limitations, in the roles of females and males, both as adults and children?
*Was there a class system in place and how did it work?
*What were the prevalent religious and social beliefs of the time?
*What moral strictures were in place concerning religious faith, sexual activity, social conduct, and social mobility?
*How did people find happiness?
*What were the common ways in which life and happiness were endangered?
The key to helping audience relate to characters in a story, whatever the setting, is the emotional aspects of the tale. How we respond to the world has a lot to do with personality, but our time and circumstances have some influence on who we are as well. In developing characters within a historical setting, its important to know something of how people within the chosen environment were affected by events of their time. Also important is considering how characters’ knowledge of their environment’s history prior to their respective births might effect their thinking. That seems like a lot, and perhaps it is. The good news is that we’re basically the same creatures we’ve been for thousands of years, with all the same emotions. What stimulates those emotions varies for all of us, and we’re used to interpreting others moods within the context of their experiences. Dealing with emotion in historical fiction is no different. We just have to know the context.
Research gets me only so far within a reasonable amount of time and effort. Therefore, it’s good to have an overarching sense of history, to knowing something of when and how technological advances occurred and how they effected the lives of human beings. Something as simple as the electric drill, has an elaborate history. The tool is descended from various hole-making devices made of wood, sometimes tipped with stone, turned by hand power alone at first, later turned with the help of bows. With time, helical metal tips or bits were developed. These were turned by hand cranks. Later added leverage was provided by hand-driven cogged mechanisms. Eventually drill bits were powered with steam, electricity and compressed air. An electric drill could not exist in a tale about ancient Egypt without serious justification for its existence being provided. Perhaps the device is the invention of a genius of the period, and the advancement was later lost to history. Perhaps it arrived in ancient Egypt with a time traveler. The latter justification takes the story into the realm of science fiction or fantasy. Reasonable explanations are possible, but whatever is used, it must be important to pushing the story forward.
Those descriptions and events that help build a sense of time and place within a story should not be added arbitrarily. I shouldn’t have the hanging of a witch occur as backdrop for a town square scene in my 15th century tale about Salem, Massachusetts unless it has some bearing on what the story is about. The descriptions of objects within an environment, the actions and words characteristic of a time period, and the use of vernacular within dialogue are helpful for setting the scene, but should only be added to give atmosphere if they also help move the story forward. I must find ways to make the introduction of such things incidental to the action and dialogue to lighten the load of describing them in summary narrative.
Dear reader, what are the historical flaws and possible solutions to the scenarios below? Each scenario has at least two flaws, and some have numerous. If you’d like, use the comment feature to list them. Number three has one flaw in particular that is very subtle. See if you can figure it out.
1) In the year 1500, renaissance painter, Antonio da Roma, loses his job decorating the ceiling of a church because he’s become too obese to climb the extension ladder used in the job. He’s dissected enough cadavers to know about plaque buildup in blood vessels. Fearing a stroke, he decides to lay off all high cholesterol, fatty foods. His family can’t get along on his wife’s income, and they are about to enter the poorhouse when an opportunity arises. An insurance adjuster who knows of Antonio’s dissections, hires him to perform an autopsy. The adjuster wants to know if his client committed suicide or died of natural causes.
2) In 1820, Melody, the unwed sixteen-years-old daughter of a plantation owner outside of Atlanta, Georgia, wants to have a sleepover party with three girlfriends on an evening when the servants have the night off. Her parents agree. The night of the sleepover, Melody’s aunt Alice, her father’s sister, comes to the house to call the parents away. “Mother is very ill,” Aunt Alice says. “The Doctors says she will surely die tonight. Please hurry. We have 50 miles to travel to get to her.” While Melody’s parents are gone, four young men the girls don’t know crash the sleepover party. They spend the night, and, on a lark, Melody has sex for the first time.
3) In 1854, during the Crimean War, the medical facilities near the front lines are overburdened with the wounded as well as with those having unseen wounds. Dr. Martin Roberts says to his superior, Dr. Susan Lee, “If they have no apparent wound, they are simply malingerers, and have no excuse not to return to battle.”
“Perhaps their wounds are of a subconscious nature.” she responds.
Doctor Roberts nods thoughtfully. “I hadn’t considered that.”
Here are links to some of the historical fiction novels I’ve written:
A Parliament of Crows
The Door That Faced West
Novels in my Jack the Ripper Victims Series:
Of Thimble and Threat
Say Anything But Your Prayers
Click the link below for both of the Jack the Ripper Victims Series novels in one ebook.
—Alan M. Clark