Monday, September 29, 2014

How to Seamlessly Transport Your Readers to a Historical Setting

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

Last week I talked about gathering the information you need to create the historical world for your story. When researching, not only do you learn an overwhelming amount of dates and information (especially if you're writing a historical that coincides with a war or political situation) but now you have to figure out what belongs in your story.



The mantra to keep in mind as you undergo this task is "Story is king." This is not a historical textbook, is is a story. Your reader wants to be entertained. Yes, historical readers love the genre because they also learn something and catch a glimpse of time long ago but there's a reason they picked up historical fiction and not a biography on George Washington. Right?

Telling a good story is your first priority.

With that in mind, the first thing I did when I started working on my historical book was set aside all my research notes. I had spent time learning the details of prohibition, I had read articles on 1920s fashion, read articles on F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I had read a book called Daily Life In The United States 1920-1940. I had a basic understanding of what my character's world looked like.

The first few chapters were achingly slow. Wait, what kind of hats did men wear? When was the flu epidemic? How did the train system work back then? When did Capone take over Cicero?


The research was strangling my writing process, and if I ever wanted to write "The End" I had to free myself to write the story. I remembered an interview I had read with Phillipa Gregory when she was talking about her process for writing The Other Boleyn Girl. She detailed all the different ways that she does her research and makes timelines. Then she said, "Then I put my notebooks to one side and only consult them for factual detail, and try to write from memory and a sense of time and place. Otherwise, the detail of the research blocks the flow of the story. In the second draft I check everything all over again."

That seemed like it would fit my writing style, so I stopped pausing to figure out train fares or the price of jewelry and instead focused on telling the story.

But some things were worth pausing to figure out, like when I needed to know if it was probable for my family to have a live-in housekeeper. This was a detail that impacted the story and would have been a pain to rewrite.

In the best historicals, the details are woven in so seamlessly, the reader doesn't register that you're spoon feeding them a bite of research. Here are three ways to help immerse your reader in the setting:

Word choice.

Much of what gives a book that great historical feel is the word choice.

Consider this simple sentence from Melanie Dickerson's The Fairest Beauty:


Gabe strode down the corridor to his bedchamber.

Rather than Gabe walking down the hall to his room, Melanie chose period words to describe even his simple actions, making this a sentence that invites us deeper into the medieval setting.

Here's a longer excerpt from Roseanna M. White's Circle of Spies:
She tucked her hand into the crook with an exhalation blustery enough to rival the wind off the Chesapeake. "I am a woman of three and twenty. I am perfectly capable of maintaining my own living, and Mother Hughes needs me."
This combines not just great word choice ("maintaining my own living" versus a more modern "managing my finances") but also a good in-character description of the Chesapeake. It also shows an action common back then, a lady taking the arm of a gentleman when out walking. 

Use comparisons.


There are things about the culture your character lives in that your reader needs to understand. One way that you can do this is by having characters make comparisons. I like how Julie Klassen does that in this excerpt from The Apothecary's Daughter:
"I suppose medicine is rather distasteful," he continued. "Boils and growths. Infections and bodily fluids..." He stopped, turning to her, face stricken. "Forgive me!"
Lilly said mildly, "Do not be uneasy on my account."
"Such talk does not disturb you ... you do not swoon nor faint nor sicken?"
Lilly shook her head. 
In this exchange, Julie Klassen shows us how different Lilly is from other girls of her time. And she does it by comparing the doctor's previous experience with ladies with his current experience with Lilly's mild reactions. She doesn't have to come right out and tell the reader, "Lilly was very unusual for a girl in her time."

When working on my 1920s book, I discovered that being a teenager in the 1920s was very unique in that this generation was being raised with starkly different morals and opportunities than their parents had been. There are a few times where my character might think someone is behaving a bit too Victorian, but I had her quote an expert when she was trying to impress her oldest brother:
“We haven’t spoken much about his family." I raise my glass but don't yet take a drink. "But I suppose our generation is so vastly different than our parents—more so than any generation before—that some clash is inevitable.”
Tim arches his eyebrows.
I laugh and confess, “I read that in an Emily Post column. It was advice on wayward teenagers, or something.”
A little of this goes a long way. We don't need Dr. Graves to constantly be telling Lilly that other women are repulsed by medical issues, nor does my character need to regularly talk about the rise of the modern woman. Just a little will do.

Put it between the quotes.


Sometimes there are outdated notions in a historical premise that need to be outright told to a modern reader in order for the story to make sense. Your reader may not understand the intricacies of land ownership laws in Britain or the stigma of having disabilities during the middle ages or any number of things.

Movies frequently handle this with conversations between characters, and it's fun to study how they do it without it seeming forced. In the 2003 version of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth is telling Charlotte that the dreaded cousin is coming, the one who will inherit their house. "But why?" Charlotte says as they rush along the street. "The house can't pass on to us," Elizabeth says (or something close to it, I forget the exact wording) "We're females."

Historically speaking, Charlotte never would have needed to ask this question. This is something so common that it's built into the whole premise of Pride and Prejudice. The Bennetts had five daughters, so good marriages are critical to a decent life. And if they want the house, somebody needs to marry the comedic yet insufferable Mr. Collins. (The conflict in Downton Abbey, particularly the first season, is the same.)

But unless you've read a lot of regency stories or studied British history, this is likely something you don't know and it's information they needed to pass along to a modern audience so the story will make sense.

Do not forget your reader, who can't help their modern mindset.


As awesome has historical accuracy is, your modern reader will bring their sense of right and wrong into the story. It's only natural.

Certain practices that were considered normal, or at least acceptable, in another time and place may not jive with a broad modern audience. For example, words that we now consider racial slurs were once used very casually by many people. And it was very common to not tell a servant or slave "thank you" or to consider their thoughts/feelings/time/effort. But very few modern readers would be able to overlook such thoughtless and egotistical behavior in a character they're supposed to be rooting for.

This carries over to romance too. In Britain, it used to be extremely common for cousins to marry each other. But even if you're writing a regency romance, I don't recommend your hero and heroine be cousins, despite the historical accuracy. For a modern reader, it's a bit creepy.

One last note...

Don't be afraid to get the balance wrong. Because you will. It's the nature of first drafts. You'll explain too much and have to take stuff out, or you'll explain it too little and add stuff in. But that can be fixed and will likely require the help of critique partners who haven't done all the research that you have.

Next Monday, I'll share a tool I've used to help me keep track of historical dates alongside the dates of my story. Any other questions about historicals that you'd like answered next week?

44 comments:

  1. Great post! You're making me want to write that historical fiction I abandoned last winter... Actually, now that I think about it, that story wasn't such a bad idea. *pulls Victorian London his-fic back out of abandoned folder*

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    1. Whenever you wind up working on it again, I hope these posts are helpful!

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  2. I love Historical Fiction. Great post!

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  3. Awesome! These are
    Great tips, as I seem to write my first drafts more like a text book when I do any type of research on a story.

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  4. I'm writing a historical set in my hometown in 1929. It's based on some true stories about gangster Fred Burk's activity in my town. However, I don't know when to stop researching. I've come to understand that I could research for years and years, and never write the story. How much should I research before I start writing?

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    1. I addressed that some in my last post, Michaella: http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2014/09/worldbuilding-for-historical-gathering.html

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    2. Hi Michaella, I hope it's ok if I give you my experience. When I started reaserching my story (1926 Chicago) I knew absolutely nothing about the Twenties in America and I was kind of intimidated. But I started reading and very slowly, I became very familiar with the era.
      Only in the first stages, I researched the internet a lot, looking for very basic info about that time. That helped me get an idea of the general feel (info on the internet tend to be very very general) and direct my interested where my story would be. Then I started reading specific books. I found social history very useful, because it addresses the basic of everyday life. I can give you my list of book if you contact me… in case you’re interested. Just let me know ;-)

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  5. This is wonderful, Mrs. Morrill! Thank you! I really enjoyed this post, and loved your tips. I know this will be a great help in my novels, which are all historical fiction! :)

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  6. You are so smart, Steph! I'm totally coming back to this when I'm brave enough to venture into the world of historicals.

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    1. I'm confident you'd knock it out of the park,, Shan :)

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  7. This is great!! Thank you for this! Can't wait to read your post on Monday. =)

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  8. Thanks for yet an other awesome post! I've always shied away from writing historical fiction of my own, because I thought I'd have to worry about all the details, but this really brings some stuff to light. I think I may place my next story in WWII. (-:

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    1. It's very intimidating, Elizabeth. But also extremely rewarding.

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  9. Wonderful advice!
    The note about cousins and romance reminded me of Downton Abbey - every time Matthew and Mary called each other 'cousin', I was definitely a little creeped out!

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    1. YES. I talked about Downton in my original draft of this post (because they have the whole "someone must marry the heir if you want to stay here!" thing going on too) but made myself scale back. I'm glad you brought it up!

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  10. Thank you, Steph!! I'm so bookmarking this for future reference :) One thing I have trouble with is making the dialogue sound authentic to the time period. Whenever I try to incorporate words and phrases from the time, I feel like the dialogue comes out too "stiff" and formal, rather than casual. Is there anything you would suggest in this case?

    And by the way, the more of these posts I read, the more I am excited about your historical. The 1920s? A mystery? YA fiction? It sounds amazing!

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    1. You're so sweet, Jillian. I'm really excited about it still. Even though at this point it feels like I will be editing it forever...

      The dialogue, yes. Here are some thoughts:

      1. Dialogue that sounds off is a frequent problem in my first drafts. Mostly because I'm still getting to know my characters. I take care of it in the edits, honestly.

      2. If you can find media from the time period, soak it up. My Kindle is currently loaded up with books published in the 1920s. It just helps you get the feel for their rhythm and wording.

      3. Look for original sources. Letters or diaries are fantastic. I've been reading a diary written by a teenage girl in 1925. It's full of frivolity (the girl loves and hates different boys all the time) but seeing her word choices and the things she and her friends say to each other has been SO helpful.

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    2. Why didn't I think of diaries for a source of example dialogue? That's a great tip!

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  11. These posts are making me want to write historical, lol. But I think this could be helpful for fantasy or futuristic fiction most any "different" setting.

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    1. Lol! I agree. I am not doing a historical, but my story world is a bunch of eras strung together. I think a historical would be too constricting for me to handle, though I have enjoyed reading them.

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    2. I totally understand. Feels a bit restricting to me at times too!

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  12. Thanks for this Stephanie. This will definitely help me in my second drafts. The novel I'm working on for the 100 for 100 Challenge is a historical fiction, too. I've decided to only let details that really influence the story be worth research for the first draft. (That was after nearly loosing my head because of the amount of times I had to open Google.) Anyway, I'm really enjoying writing a historical novel. Sounds like you are, too ... hopefully I'll get to read yours when it's published! I don't have any questions at the moment (or that other commenters have already asked), but it was a great post!

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    1. I'm glad these posts are coming at such a good time, Annie-Jo!

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  13. Thank you so much for this blog series! I've always wanted to write a historical fiction novel because historical fiction is my favorite genre to read, but first I have to find an idea. I'm thinking about writing something in either the Pioneer time period or the World War II time period. Two questions. How do you know where to set the boundaries for including historical details so that you don't include too many? Also, how would you go about seamlessly showing the reader what major historical events are actually happening during that time? Thanks!

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    1. I might be too under qualified to answer this well, but I'll try :)

      I went in to the first draft knowing just enough to get by. I think that has kept me from doing a lot of showing off in my prose about how knowledgeable I am about the 20s. But that means during my edits and my break times, I need to spend time reading up on the era to be sure I'm getting it right.

      Regarding historical events, keep in mind your own world view. Right now, lots of things are going on in the world. How many could you name? Isis? Ebola? What else? How many of them directly impact you? Your character is similar. And depending on the era, he/she is way more sheltered than we are now.

      I hope that's somewhat helpful...

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    2. Thanks, and I can't read to read the rest of the series!

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    3. In my story set in 1926 Chicago I kept the historical facts at a minimum by choice, because I wanted the plot to be concerned with my characters' story more than anything. In the third novel of the trilogy, one of the main characters gets heavily involved with gangsters. I researched this topic a lot (actually, I’m still researching) but in the novel this only shaped the story. I don’t reference any particular events (I might just reference Hymie Weiss’s murder, I’m still not sure), I never mentioned any historical characters (although I might be forced to name at least Capone, but I’m trying anything not to), what I did was crafting the situation in which my character find himself on the actual historical events and believe me, even if you never explain the situation, it will come out if you let it filter into your characters’ life.

      It’s true, you may not be aware of certain events (my characters are not and they are not interested to be more informed than they are), but the time they live in will shape their life whether they want it or not.

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  14. Thanks so much for writing these posts! They're coming at the perfect time for me, as I'm just now starting to write a historical fiction for 100 for 100, and I'll write another for NaNo. I have the same question as Jillian: how to make the dialogue true to the time period without it coming out as stiff and unnatural?

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    1. I love when timing works out! I responded to Jillian above :)

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  15. Thanks you for this post! I think my book fits more into the fantasy, but I was wondering what kind of research would you do if you want to combine two separate eras together?

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    1. Well, I've never done it before but it seems like you'd need to research the two eras. Figure out how they overlap, how they're different, and what suits your story best.

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  16. Though I don't write historicals (yet (: ), this is helpful for me in my almost-done WIP. It is medival fantasy-ish. What makes it easier for me is that my main female character is from a different world (she was....transported in? Kinda. If that makes sense. The evil guy allowed her to come in there. Ack, I'm not making any sense. Anywho, she's from a different world from everyone else), so while they explain the different things to her, the reader also learns those things as well. :) I have a bit of a problem with the dialogue, though. I want their (the people in the world the FMC 'falls' into) speech to be a mix of modern and medival, if that makes sense. But not so much modern that it sounds like they're from Earth. Any advice?

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    1. Let me add some stuff to that, LOL. They've also had other people from Earth (the evil guy does it quite often- he uses them for his evil purposes *insert evil laugh here*) in to their world, so they might have picked up a little bit of speech from them.

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    2. That sounds a bit like my fantasy novel. My MC discovers her parents and best friend are actually from another world (I don't say planet because it's not a planet, if that makes sense--the world is flat like a geometric plane) and they were sent to Earth to protect the human race from their world's bigger-than-life threats.

      I'm afraid I don't have any very helpful suggestions. All I can think of at the moment is you might want to have them use a bit of "thee" and "thou"-Old English type stuff-instead of "you". I know that's not very helpful. Maybe just try looking in an Old English dictionary, play around with words and see what works best for your story.

      Happy writing!

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    3. YES. Emily, there's actually a name for that. Jeff Gerke refers to that as the "dumb puppet trick." If you've ever seen Twister, the fiance is the dumb puppet. She's the one asking lots of questions about tornadoes and what things mean so that we the audience can understand what's going on. Fabulous technique to use!

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  17. Word choice is huge, but it does take a bit of practice to get a feel for how to do it correctly. It's wonderful to read, though.

    Good post! :)

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  18. How would someone who has been to several different time periods behave? Would they have the same customs and technology is the time they came from?

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    1. Hmm. That's an interesting question,

      Let me ask you this. Have you traveled much? When I travel/meet new people/visit other cultures what it does is open my mind to different ways of doing things. Sometimes it means looking at the way I've always done something and saying, "Yes, this is still good. I see how this other group of people does this, and I prefer my way to theirs." Other times, I come back thinking, "I used to feel this way about this issue. Now I've met this person who has helped me see something I never before considered."

      All that to say, I would think they'd be more open-minded than other characters. But you're the writer :)

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  19. Stephanie, sorry if I'm being presumptuous in saying this (and if you've already looked it up and my sources are different). The word 'teenager' was not used until around the late '40s, and 'teenage' was used to refer to the age group, but not to individuals. So someone might refer to the teenaged generation, but not to their teenaged daughter. Obviously I don't know the exact year(s) your book is set, but I just wanted you to be aware of this before you get a scathing review on it. ;-)
    (source: the Oxford English Dictionary. Under 'timeline', I selected the year my research pointed me to, and searched 'teenage'.)

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    1. Thank you! Since I'm still in the editing process, a lot of those kinds of details haven't been checked yet since they don't impact the plot. I appreciate the help!

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    2. And actually, there's some conflict about that:

      teenager (n.)
      also teen ager, teen-ager; 1922, derived noun from teenage (q.v.). The earlier word for this was teener, attested in American English from 1894, and teen had been used as a noun to mean "teen-aged person" in 1818, though this was not common before 20c.

      From: http://etymonline.com/index.php?term=teenager&allowed_in_frame=0

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  20. Hi Stephanie, an interesting article as usual. I always like reading your article because they often relate to your story and I am writing a Twenties story too.

    I agree on anything, I just handle the section “Put it between the quotes” in a different way. I don’t like explaining things, so I normally try to give suggestions to the readers through what the characters perceive as normal. There are all kind of things the characters take for granted because they are commonplace in their experience, I normally try to show that familiarity and the acceptance of the characters of a certain social behaviour. I think most of times readers can construe the social behaviour without having the author explain it. Sometimes I just described a social situation even when I know it’s unlikely the reader will get it, but if that isn’t crucial to the story I just leave it as is.

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  21. Love this post. Writing a hifi is definitely on my wiring bucket list, but wow, so much goes into it! I'm writing fantasy right now, and I definitely see the similarities.

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