One of the most challenging aspects of writing historical fiction is building a believable atmosphere that resonates with contemporary readers. What many people don’t realize is that the farther back a book’s historical period goes, the more you might have the same difficulties a fantasy author might: worldbuilding and authenticity – only with the added pressure of being constrained by historical social rules and events.
So here are some tips that might help get you started:
1. Conduct social research.
By social research, I mean taking a look at what it was like to live in the society you’re writing about—and, perhaps most importantly, researching the social class your character belongs to. A number of cultures were deeply segregated by hierarchical structure (many are even today!). They had different habits, diets, behaviours, beliefs, and social obligations.
Your character will be expected to be familiar with these aspects of society, and deeply aware of social taboos. And this is where knowledge of that sort of thing is important: though certain past societies appear to have incredibly rigid social rules (think Victorian era), those living in society were, first and foremost, real people. And real people, being the incredibly stubborn creatures they are, tend to both acknowledge and skirt etiquette.
So once you become acquainted with the everyday life and beliefs your characters would hold, you can more easily base plot points, scenes, and characterization based on that. Not acknowledging certain social ideals might look like bad research. However, being aware of these things gives you the ability to hang a very realistic lampshade on it if your characters decide to break them.
2. Know the mood of your period and the lay of the land.
Ever read a book that claims it’s set somewhere and you’re like, “What? Really? I didn’t get that from the text.” I understand not all authors are great at description, but creating an authentic setting is paramount to what we do; it’s an historical writer’s bread and butter.
Each time period—even in the same location — has its own mood, a Zeitgeist, that is very distinct. London during Elizabeth I’s reign is vastly different to London during Queen Victoria’s reign. Certain historical events had incredible impact on their various time periods, and should be acknowledged.
Furthermore, it helps to be familiar with the layout of the place you’re writing. Readers respond well to visceral description, the smells, sounds, and sights of a place. This includes weather, geographic markers, city streets or buildings, and the mood of the people living there during the time period. I mentioned earlier that many societies were segregated in terms of hierarchy, and this absolutely would have been reflected in a city’s layout (it still is!).
3. Be watchful for modern words, thoughts, or phrases in your writing.
I think this will probably be the most difficult for many historical writers; it’s certainly the most difficult for me. Phrases and ideas that “sound off” or “too modern” can easily pull readers out of your story. Try not to be too distracted or worrisome about this when you’re in the process of drafting (at the risk of severely slowing yourself down), but it’s something to be mindful of during editing.
Avoiding modern ideas is where point 1 comes in handy, but phrasing and language can be more difficult, especially the further back your historical period goes. A great deal of English words are up for grabs, simply because it’s such a hodgepodge of other languages and much of it goes back centuries.
When in doubt, look a word up in the dictionary and see when it was first used. Sometimes, you may find you’re forced to sacrifice authenticity for whether a word “sounds” correct. For example, I tried to slip in a wow! (precisely the way it means now; it’s 16th century Scots), and a killjoy (18th century) into The Falconer and my critique partners said they sounded to modern.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to avoid is modern idioms and phrases. Already in this entry, I’ve used ones like, “up for grabs,” and “bread and butter” without really thinking about it. The way we word things is deeply engrained, so it becomes easy to pull out when writing, and even easier to skim over when editing. So be very careful.
4. If you’re going for authenticity, don’t be afraid to use contractions.
I know this one is terribly specific, but it’s something so common in historical writing: in an attempt to sound authentically old timey, writers forgo use of contractions. So the “won’t” becomes a “will not”; the “I’m” becomes an “I am”; “that’s” is “that is”. The result is dialogue and writing that can often sound overly formal and a bit wooden.
I do think it’s important to note that many books written in, say, the 18th and 19th centuries would have been written with more formality than everyday speech. That’s why the ones that contained slang and “common language” are so notable. So speaking patterns would have included contractions, even if certain books didn’t.
So if you’re going for realism, contractions are really okay! If you’re going for mimicking the style of books from the era, you might use them less.
5. Try not to overwhelm readers with the details.
Research is meant to help create an authentic atmosphere in historical books, but try not to be so overwhelmed by all the historical minutiae that you risk infodumping it in your novel. As with any other genre of novel, details should be described organically as needed.
Instead of thinking about this strictly as a historical time period, consider what you’re doing here as worldbuilding. You are constructing a setting with its own social mores, geography, past, political structure, etc. Sometimes you’ll have readers who are aware of its history, and sometimes not. The key is not to cater to any one type of reader: too much detail bogs down the story, and too little detail leaves readers wanting.
I find the best way to balance this is to get into the protagonist’s mindset. He or she will already be familiar with these aspects of society. Relay any information in a way that shows your character’s awareness of them. What opinions does s/he have? What does s/he think about her world, either positively or negatively?
This type of description is not only beneficial in that it gives readers information, but it also gives prime examples of your character’s voice and personality. For example, in the Victorian era, upper class ladies simply didn’t leave the house without a chaperone. Instead of giving this information as, “I can’t leave the house without a chaperone,” perhaps try something like, “I detest that I can’t leave the house without a chaperone.” This does two things: it reveals the information, and it does it in a way that shares your heroines feelings on this aspect of etiquette (which infers that she probably has other strong opinions, as well!).
Once all the details are sorted, it’s easier to slip into the historical setting and have fun with it. Go wild, break the rules, and play with the details. Happy writing! 🙂