Adding Historical Texture to Setting

I’m fascinated by the idea of place–how environments shape us in different and unique ways. (I may have written a dissertation on rhetorics of space). I grew up along the rockies: the mountains of Montana and the red rock of Utah are part of who I am. This is equally true of our fictional characters–the setting for the novel should be so much a part of them that the story could not have taken place in any other setting. Katherine Patterson wrote once that she was stumped writing Jacob Have I Loved–until she realized she needed to set it along the Chesapeake Bay.

Recently on this blog, Charlie offered some great tips on making your setting stand out. I’ve got one more critical dimension I want to offer to setting: its history.

As some of you may know, I’m deep in revisions in book two for a historical fantasy trilogy. The second book is a proverbial beast, and I’m still wrestling the story into shape. My story is set in 1848 Vienna, and while I’ve done some research on the city and environs (even spent a few days there last spring), it still seemed flat in my writing.

A writer friend suggested I check out a history book about the 1814 Congress in Vienna, which convened to decide how to restore Europe immediately after Napoleon’s defeat. On the surface, this might not have much to do with  my story–but as I read this particular book, ideas started sparking.

I’d forgotten a key aspect of my setting: the rich history of the city, the tangled political currents that would still be working some thirty years later. As I replotted the story with a better sense of this history, I was able to deepen the plot, flesh out character motivations, and generally (I hope!) create a better story.

The history of a place matters in its present moment. I recently read an advance copy of Adriana Mather’s HOW TO HANG A WITCH, the story of a young woman, a direct descendant of Cotton Mather (just like the author), who moves to Salem, MA, and triggers a series of dark events connected with that long-ago history of Salem. Her story would not have worked in any other setting–and the success of her story depends on readers’ understanding of the original witch trials as well as the psychological damage still present in those whose families were affected by the violence.

History matters to fantasy worlds as well: one of the things that made Naomi Novik’s UPROOTED so powerful was the long, complicated history between the main character’s village and The Wood–the evil presence that lurked in the nearby forest. Without knowing that history, readers would not understand what was at stake when the local sorcerer appeared, as he does ever sixteen or so years, to choose one of the village girls to “assist” him in keeping the wood in check.

Some questions you might ask about a place:

1. What happened in this place ten, fifty, one hundred years ago?

2. How do those historical events manifest in the present of the story? For Salem, MA, which still has a thriving tourist trade based on the witch hunts, the answer is pretty obvious. For other settings, this might be more subtle.

3. What is your main character’s personal experience of the setting? Do they love it, hate it, why? What about their past experience influenced this opinion? For instance, my family loves Capitol Reef, one of the lesser known national parks in Utah. But my love of that place is shaped by some very personal experiences of that place that are unique to me.

4. Is there any “hidden history” of the place? For instance, an event that was dark enough or tragic enough that local historians and civic figures have worked to actively suppress? (Scholars who look at public memory have pointed out that forgetting sometimes takes as much work as memorializing).

Some of these answers may never appear in your story–but the depth that they give your understanding of your world will influence the resulting story and give it added resonance.

Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, THE BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is forthcoming Spring 2017 from Knopf. She’s represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary.


One thought on “Adding Historical Texture to Setting

  1. Great questions to consider. In my WIP the prairie (in Ohio actually) is a metaphor for the heroine and how she blossoms after leaving her abusive husband. I'm mindful that too much info could bore the reader to put the book down while putting just enough info to keep interesting.


Comments are closed.