Science fiction, fantasy, and historical novels bring to life worlds unknown to the reader. Science fiction and fantasy novels invent ones that never existed or don’t yet exist. Historical novels, on the other hand, invoke ones that once existed. I love to create historical atmosphere.
The standard definition of the most recent temporal limit of a historical at any given time is the period when one’s grandmother was a girl. Thus, Gone With the Wind, published in 1936 and involving events in the 1860s, qualifies as a historical, given that Margaret Mitchell was born in 1900.
I’ve had fellow historical novelists tell me they use only about 10% of their research in their stories. I agree. This means we’re history nerds. However, since we’re writing novels and not history books, we do not want or need to bring the whole of an era into existence. The best we can do is to invoke parts of it.
For Creating Historical Atmosphere It’s the Rule of Three:
I decided that a reader could get a good sense of historical atmosphere if I concentrated on only three aspects – let’s call them themes – of that time period. Of course I could bring in other details, here and there, but three themes would be emphasized, and they would be plot related.
For instance, in Tangled Dreams (affiliate), which is set in London in 1791, I foregrounded the themes of reading, monetary policy, and the turmoil in France.
First, I regularly worked into the story the kinds of things my characters would have been reading. I researched the London Times at the Duke University library and read through several issues from 1791. The article entitled “Three Notorious Pickpockets picked up by Two Stout Men appointed by the Ward of Cheap” that the heroine, Marianna, runs across in Chapter Three was actually one I read in the Times from that year.
Then, too, Mary Wollstonecraft, a writer and advocate of women’s rights, was alive at the time, and educated people would have been reading and discussing her work, as they would have been reading and discussing the popular novels of Mrs. Radcliffe.
Next comes monetary policy. It wasn’t until the aftermath of Waterloo in 1815 that the stock market began to take its present form. In 1791 stocks in London were still traded in coffee houses. I created the character of Mr. Vaughan who describes himself on his business card as “Hatter, Hosier, and Stock Broker” and who specializes in investing for ladies of fashion. Marianna has occasion to do some business with him.
The hero, Anthony, is very involved in government and is working to ensure the stability of the English pound, banks, and stock market. When he comes to learn of Vaughan’s investing strategies, he is directly opposed to them.
As far as the turmoil in France is concerned, recall that the fall of the Bastille came in 1789, but Louis XVI wasn’t executed until 1793. So in 1791 it was difficult to know ultimately what would happen. Suffice it to say that for the English at the time the situation in France was worrisome.
The culminating scene of Tangled Dreams, which involves digging up a box in a cemetery, ties together the English stock market and the political problems in France.
All my historicals follow suit. And Heaven Too (affiliate), set in 1637, thematizes the English theater which the Puritans were going to shut down in 1639, Italian painting and the Vatican’s desire to bring England back into the Catholic fold. Again, all these elements are plot related. I took particular pleasure in staging as many scenes as possible as plays, whether an actual stage was involved or not. It helped that I made the hero friends with a troupe of actors.
I could rehearse the three-fold thematics of all of my historicals, but a couple of examples should serve to give you the idea of how you might try to create historical atmosphere of your own.
See also: All My Writing Tips
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen