World-Building in Historical Fiction

Consider the opening paragraph of Mary Renault’s classic novel, The King Must Die:

“The Citadel of Troizen, where the Palace stands, was built by giants before anyone remembers. But the Palace was built by my great-grandfather. At sunrise, if you look at it from Kalauria across the strait, the columns glow fire-red and the walls are golden. It shines bright against the dark woods on the mountainside.”

Can you see this? It’s important to the author that you can. Otherwise you’re not rooted in the story, and you will quickly lose interest. Authors take note: the more fantastical or distant in time the world you are creating, the more you must infuse that world with vividly familiar and universally recognizable details. In the passage I just quoted, Renault uses a time-tested method for achieving a sense of the familiar and recognizable: a vivid description of nature, in this case a spectacular mountain sunrise. Which leads us to,

World Building Tool #1: Vivid Descriptions of Nature

I would argue that landscape description is an essential tool for all fiction writers, not just those wishing to engage in time travel. Why? Well, we all know natural landscapes instinctively, even if we’ve been born and raised in cities. Nature is primal; its patterns and spectacles are written into our DNA. It’s universally recognizable to us, so compelling portrayals of it tap into deeply resonant emotional responses. And because nature is relatively unchanging, landscape descriptions transcend time. They provide us with a reliable, scenic, and well-built bridge to the past – or to the future, if you ever decide you want to press the fast-forward button and write sci-fi – or to a completely invented world, if you decide you want to write fantasy. (Let’s not forget that JRR Tolkien is one of the greatest nature writers in the history of fiction.)

A few more examples:

url2From Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles:

“Later, Achilles sleeps next to me. Odysseus’ storm has come, and the coarse fabric of the tent wall trembles with its force. I hear the stinging slap, over and over, of waves reproaching the shore.”

From James Welch’s Fool’s Crow:

“He pushed aside the boughs covering the entrance and looked out into the grey light. He had slept well in his small shelter, but now his breath told him it was very cold — and still. He heard the croak again and looked up into the trees. The sky was lighter above them. The granite face of the great mountain loomed through the trees, and the yellow light of the Sun Chief struck the very top. He rolled out and stood up, and there in the pine where he had placed the meat sat a fat raven.”

World Building Tool #2: Accurate Portrayal of Recognizable Human Emotions 

This one sounds easy, but it’s not. If you can evoke emotional states in your characters that not are only plausible, but vividly true, the reader can’t help but be transported into the world of the story. From Edith Wharton’s seminal historical novel, The Age of Innocence:

“The longing was with him day and night, an incessant undefinable craving, like the sudden whim of a sick man for food and drink once tasted and long since forgotten.”

Can you relate to this? What, have you never been in love?

From John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman:

french_lieutenants_woman“He put on his most formal self as he came down to the hall. Mrs. Endicott stood at the door to her office, her mouth already open to speak. But Charles, with a briskly polite “I thank you, ma’am” was past her and into the night before she could complete her question; or notice his frock coat lacked a button.  He walked blindly away through a new downpour of rain. He noticed it no more than where he was going. His greatest desire was darkness, invisibility, oblivion in which to regain calm.”

From Gore Vidal’s Burr:

“I have always preferred women to men. I think that sets me apart, don’t you?”

Knowing exactly what he meant, I agreed. New York gentlemen spend far more time with one another in bars and taverns than in mixed company. Lately they have taken to forming clubs from which women are banned.

“I cannot — simply — be without the company of a woman.”

“But you’ve had no wife . . . ”

“Since before you were born. But then I have not lacked for . . . gentle companionship.”

He gives me a swift grin; suddenly in the pale light he looked to be a randy boy of fourteen. Then he abruptly became his usual self; full of dignity save for that curious unexpected wit. I always find his brilliance disturbing. We do not want the old to be sharper than we. It is bad enough that they were there first, and got the best things.

Is this clear? It’s good writing, basically. We’re trying to portray human emotion in way that will make our reader exclaim, “Ah yes. How true!”

World Building Tool #3: Incorporating the Exotic

The previous two elements of world building were all about grounding the reader in the familiar. The next one is about the opposite: it’s about transporting the reader to an unfamiliar place. Elsewhere, I have alluded to the importance of “vicarious experience” in historical fiction. This is the “pornography” of the genre, if you like, and your readers will need some of it or a lot of it depending on the expectations you’ve set up. Vicarious experience is one of the innocent joys of historical fiction. No matter where you come down on the “literary” vs “genre” spectrum, you really can’t ignore it. From Sharon Kay Penman’s Here be Dragons:

77449“Accustomed to forest trails and deer tracks, he found it strange to be traveling along a road wide enough for several horsemen to ride abreast. Stranger still to him were the villages, each with its green and market cross, its surprisingly substantial stone church surrounded by a cluster of thatched cottages and an occasional fishpond . . . It was midday before he was within sight of the walls of Shrewsbury Castle. He drew rein, awed. Castle keep and soaring church spires, a fortified arched bridge spanning the River Severn, and the roofs of more houses than he could begin to count.”

Doesn’t this seem exotic to you? It’s exotic for the point of view character too, but from opposite directions in time: for him its grand and modern, while for us it’s a scene brought back to life from the mists of the primordial past.

From Kenneth Roberts’ Arundel:

“In the spring there are quantities of salmon running upstream, easy to take with a spear because of the narrowness of the river bed. When the salmon are finished there are fat eels lying in the current riffles at low tide, so thick that in an hour one boy with a trident may fill a barrel, which is a feat I have frequently accomplished, being addicted to smoked eel with a gallon of cider before meals . . .”

So, we get it, right? A different time. Something that is foreign to our experience, but that is written so well that we can clearly imagine it. We are transported.

World Building Tool #4: Defamiliarization

Defamiliarization is a critical tool for all fiction writers, but especially for those writing historical fiction, where the risk of falling into clichés is particularly acute. Consider this passage from Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient:

 bca_science_english_patient“The last mediaeval war was fought in Italy in 1943 and 1944. Fortress towns and great promontories which had been battled over since the eighth century had the armies of new kings flung carelessly against them. Around the outcrops of rocks were the traffic of stretchers, butchered vineyards, where, if you dug deep beneath the tank ruts you found blood-axe and spear. Monterchi, Cortona, Urbino, Arezzo, Sandepolcro, Anghiari. And then the coast. Cats slept in the gun turrets looking south.”

Why is this an example of defamiliarization? Because it shows us something familiar, even clichéd, in a compelling new light. In the process, it makes us wake up and pay attention. Ondaatje transforms the Italian theatre of WWII into something new and surprising. It’s a mediaeval war: the butchered vineyards; the blood-axes and spears buried beneath the tank ruts. Best of all, for me, are the cats sleeping in the gun turrets. This is why Ondaatje is so good.

From Bernard Cornwell, Sharpe’s Rifles:

“The dryest building was a stone barn, built on rock pillars that were meant to keep vermin at bay, and with a roof surmounted by crosses so that, from a distance, it looked like a small crude church. The ruined house and byres yielded dam and fungus-ridden timbers that, split and shredded with cartridge powder, were coaxed into a fire that slowly warmed the wounded men.”

He could have just written, “they built a fire.” Fungus-ridden timbers split and shredded with cartridge powder? It’s a different way to build a fire.

And now we come to a very important point:

Q: What do all the world-building examples we’ve discussed so far have in common?

A: Vivid, concrete, specific detail: which is the lifeblood, the gods’ nectar, of fiction.

That’s right. Vivid, concrete, specific detail. If there is one simple key to world-building, this is it.

Word Building Tool #5: Use Period Details – But Sparingly 

Consider this made-up passage, which is brimming with period detail:

“He walked down the street, his beaverskin top hat like a bobbing stovepipe, his shiny black Kramer’s Brother’s boots clacking against the ship’s-ballast cobble stones.”

This passage may strike you as awkward or funny, but it’s representative of a habit that’s all too common in lesser or apprentice historical fiction. Remember: period details must make sense given what’s happening in the story and the point of view character’s emotional state. They can’t feel “show-offy” or cut-and-pasted from the writer’s journal. Don’t fall into the trap of simply cataloguing your research. Stay away, in other words, from the historical “info dump.”

The-Age-of-Innocence-933525Here’s an example period detail used more effectively, again from The Age of Innocence:

“He stood silent, beating his stick nervously against his boot-top . . .”

This is the first time in the novel we’ve had a reference to a walking stick, or to boots, both of which were of course ubiquitous in the period Wharton was writing. But it makes sense that we wouldn’t hear much about it, because what self-respecting point of view character is actually going to look down and notice his own clothing or everyday accessories? Wharton’s character is not noticing them, he’s using them, and in a way that is expressive of both his character and his emotional state.

* * *

Summing Up

The best world-building passages in historical fiction, of course, combine several or even all of the above tools at once. They weave the familiar with the exotic, the recognizable with the unknown. They use period details sparingly, never gratuitously or in a way that seems intended just to showcase the author’s research. These passages are gritty and vivid enough to awaken our imaginations, so that we can’t help but be transported back in time to the world of the story.

To illustrate this point, let’s read three final passages. The first two are also from The Age of Innocence (obviously, I love this book) and the third is from Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier’s runaway bestseller published in 1997.

“The figure at the end of the pier had not moved. For a long moment the young man stood half way down the bank, gazing at the bay furrowed with the coming and going of sailboats, yacht-launches, fishing-craft and the trailing black coal-barges hauled by noisy tugs. The lady in the summer-house seemed to be held by the same sight. Beyond the grey bastions of Fort Adams a long-drawn sunset was splintering up into a thousand fires, and the radiance caught the sail of a catboat as it beat out through the channel between the Lime Rock and the shore.”

“The next morning, when Archer got out of the Fall River train, he emerged upon a steaming midsummer Boston. The streets near the station were full of the smell of beer and coffee and decaying fruit and a shirt-sleeved populace moved through them with the intimate abandon of boarders going down the passage to the bathroom.”

Cold Mountain“It was a cold day and the mud of the road was near frozen to the condition of slurry. Some of the men were barefoot. Many wore homemade uniforms in the mute colors that plant dyes make. The Federals were arrayed on the field before them, all newly outfitted. Bright and shiny in factory-made uniforms, new boots. When the Federals charged,
the men behind the wall held their fire and taunted them and one called out, Come on closer, I want them boots.”

Q: What do these passages have in common?

A: They’re beautifully written, even poetic. They blend vivid, well-drawn sensory observations of the natural world with deftly chosen and carefully limited period detail. They weave the familiar with the exotic, the recognizable with the strange, and they are gritty and vivid enough to awaken our imaginations, so that we can’t help but be transported back in time to the world of the story.

And that is how the worlds of the past are made.

* * *

 This post is based on a lecture given at Grub Street’s 2014 Muse and the Marketplace conference. It was originally published as a two-part article in The Grub Daily.

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§ One Response to World-Building in Historical Fiction

  • Hello … I’m a fellow author with a blog called A Writer of History. One topic I’m pursuing this year I call ‘inside historical fiction’ – how character, setting, theme, conflict, plot, dialogue and world building come together to create excellent historical fiction. Would you be willing to be interviewed?
    I can be reached at mktod [at] bell [dot] net. I also see that you are attending the HNS conference in Denver.

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