We all know what to deck the hall with. That’s right, boughs of holly. Sure, we all know it because the song has an upbeat melody and lots of fun fa-la-las. But it’s also memorable because it sets the Yuletide scene so deftly. Along with all the fresh and fragrant greenery, we hear about “gay apparel,” and “the blazing yule,” and “the harp.” We encounter snappy verbs like “don” and “troll” and “strike.”
How can novelists set their scenes as effectively?
Deck The Hall: Historicals
Tip #1: Love to do research
Historical novelists are born not made. Not only do they not mind doing historical research, they in fact love it. If you don’t absolutely love doing historical research, then you’re probably not going to write historicals.
I distinguish historicals from costume dramas. The latter are not concerned with historically accurate portrayals of a particular time and/or place. Rather they just want to get their knights in tights, put a sword in their hands and get the action going. Stories with medieval shtik – or Regency shtik or whatever – can be tons of fun. I’ve enjoyed reading my fair share. But that’s not we’re talking about here.
Tip #2: Use 10% of your research
Talk about loving to do research, if you’re only going to use 10%!
Historical novelists use their research like cooks use seasoning. Your story is the meat you want your readers to taste. The historical details are the parsley and mustard seed that bring out the flavor. So, given my analogy, how much you use of your herbs and spices is a matter of taste.
My early historicals are much heavier in historical details than my current ones. So a writer’s taste can change. Still, as a reader, I always want my desire for new or unexpected historical information to be satisfied.
Tip #3: Focus
You can’t invoke an entire historical time and place. My strategy has always been to choose three areas of historical focus to present to the reader. Let’s say you want to set your story in early 18th-century George II London. You can go to town, pun intended, with descriptions of the period clothing.
You do not necessarily turn your historical into a costume drama if you choose to focus in on the elaborate clothing of the period. However, you do need to weave it into the fabric of your story. You could set a scene with plot significance between a gentleman and his tailor or a gentleman and his valet. Then terms like breeches and clocked stockings would naturally come into play and help bring the era to life. And there are all sorts of things those guys stuffed up their sleeves. Have fun with them and be sure to make them plot relevant!
To discover the fascinations of neck stocks, cravats and neckerchiefs, see 18th Century Neckwear.
Add two more areas of focus, weave those into your plot as well, and your reader will likely have a satisfying historical experience.
Deck The Hall: Contemporaries
Contemporary research is straight-forward.
Tip #4: Visit your setting in person
The bar may seem to be set high here. However, it’s really just a version of the old chestnut Write what you know.
Let’s take the case of York, England. If you wanted to set a story in medieval York, I wouldn’t say you ever have to go there, because the historical resources for this location are rich. If you had the luxury, a visit would be great, of course.
However, if you wanted to set a story in present-day York, and you had never visited it, I would have to ask “Why there?”
You can imagine the rank scents of blood and offal coursing down the gutters in the butchers’ lane in medieval York. You can’t imagine the scents coming from the shops on the High Street in present-day York.
You’re pulling a narrative punch when you write about a place you’ve never visited. This is especially the case when you already do know about a place, namely where you live. So, write about that.
Tip #5: Think of your setting as a character
The reason behind Tip #4 is Tip #5.
I enjoy stories – whether set in a small town or a world capital – where the setting is another character, one I come to know and love as the story unfolds. Clearly the writer needs to know and love the setting – what the air feels like, what the sky looks like, how the vegetation smells, how the local food tastes, what the ambient sounds are – in order to create its character.
Deck the hall!
See also: All Writing Tips
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen