5 Tips on Creating an Authentic Historical Atmosphere

NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month. 50,000 words, 30 days.  Candy headaches, insomnia, napping on laptops and occasionally ranting to pets about how our characters are just so damn difficult.

As some of us are wading through the perilous, stormy writing seas this month as NaNoWriMo participants, I thought I would break topic this week to discuss tips on creating an authentic historical atmosphere.

By Max Ginsburg. Is this authentically historical? I doubt it. But I’m just putting it here to distract you while I put together my tip notes.

Tip One: conduct social research.

By social research, I mean taking a look at what it was like to live in the society you’re writing about — and, perhaps most importantly, researching the social class your character belongs to.  A number of cultures were deeply segregated by hierarchical structure (many are even today!).  They had different habits, diets, behaviours, beliefs, and social obligations.

Your character will be expected to be familiar with these aspects of society, and deeply aware of social taboos.  And this is where knowledge of that sort of thing is important: though certain past societies appear to have incredibly rigid social rules (think Victorian era), those living in society were, first and foremost, real people.  And real people, being the incredibly stubborn creatures they are, tend to both acknowledge and skirt etiquette.

So once you become acquainted with the everyday life and beliefs your characters would hold, you can more easily base plot points, scenes, and characterization based on that.  Not acknowledging certain social ideals can look like bad research.  Being aware of these things gives you the ability to hang a very realistic lampshade on it if your characters decide to break them.

Tip Two: know the mood of your period and the lay of the land.

Ever read a book that claims it’s set somewhere and you’re like, “What? Really? I didn’t get that from the text.”?  I understand not all authors are great at description.  If you write historical fiction, learn to do it well.  Creating an authentic setting is paramount to what we do; it’s an historical writer’s bread and butter.

Each time period — even in the same location — has its own mood, a Zeitgeist, that is very distinct.  London during Elizabeth I’s reign is vastly different to London during Queen Victoria’s reign.  Certain historical events had incredible impact on their various time periods, and should be acknowledged.

Furthermore, you want to be familiar with the layout of the place you’re writing.  Readers respond well to visceral description, the smells, sounds, and sights of a place.  This includes weather, geographic markers, city streets or buildings, and the mood of the people living there during the time period.  I mentioned in Tip One that many societies were segregated in terms of hierarchy, and this absolutely would have been reflected in a city’s layout (it still is!).

Tip Three: be watchful for modern words, thoughts, or phrases in your writing.

I think this will probably be the most difficult for many historical writers; it’s certainly the most difficult for me.  Phrases and ideas that “sound off” or “too modern” can easily pull readers out of your story.  Try not to be too distracted or worrisome about this when you’re in the process of writing (at the risk of severely slowing yourself down), but it’s something to be mindful of during editing.

Avoiding modern ideas is where Tip One comes in handy, but phrasing and language can be more difficult, especially the further back your historical period goes.  A great deal of English words are up for grabs, simply because it is such a hodgepodge of other languages and a lot of it goes back hundred and hundreds of years.

But when in doubt, look a word up in the dictionary and see when it was first used.  Perhaps rarely, you may find you’ll have to sacrifice authenticity for whether a word “sounds” correct.  For example, I tried to slip in a wow! (precisely the way it means now; it’s 16th century Scots), and a killjoy (18th century) into THE FALCONER and my critique partners said they sounded to modern.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to avoid is modern idioms and phrases.  Already in this entry, I’ve used ones like, “up for grabs,” and “bread and butter,” without batting an eye (HA! Yeah, I know, I went there).  The way we word things is deeply engrained, so it becomes easy to pull out when writing, and even easier to skim over when editing.  So be very careful.

Tip Four: if you’re going for authenticity, don’t be afraid to use contractions.

I know this one is terribly specific, but it’s something so common in historical writing: in an attempt to sound authentically old timey, writers forgo use of contractions.  So the “won’t” becomes a “will not”; the “I’m” becomes an “I am”; “that’s” is “that is”.  The result is dialogue and writing that can often sound overly formal and a bit wooden.

I do think it’s important to note that many books written in, say, the 18th and 19th centuries would have been written with more formality than everyday speech.  That’s why the ones that contained slang and “common language” are so notable.  So speaking patterns would have included contractions, even if certain books didn’t.

So if you’re going for realism, contractions are really okay!  If you’re going for mimicking the style of books from the era, you might use them less.

Tip Five: try not to overwhelm readers with the details.

Research is meant to help create an authentic atmosphere in historical books, but try not to be so overwhelmed by all the historical minutiae that you risk infodumping it in your novel.  As with any other genre of novel, details should be described organically as needed.

Instead of thinking about this strictly as a historical time period, consider what you’re doing here as worldbuilding.  You are constructing a setting with its own social mores, geography, past, political structure, etc.  Sometimes you’ll have readers who are aware of its history, and sometimes not.  The key is not to cater to any one type of reader: too much detail bogs down the story, and too little detail leaves readers wanting.

I find the best way to balance this is to get into the protagonist’s mindset.  He or she will already be familiar with these aspects of society.  Relay any information in a way that shows your character’s awareness of them.  What opinions does s/he have?  What does s/he think, either positively or negatively?  This type of description is not only beneficial in that it gives readers information, but it also gives prime examples of your character’s voice and personality.  For example, in the Victorian era, proper ladies simply didn’t leave the house without a chaperone.  Instead of giving this information as, “I can’t leave the house without a chaperone,” perhaps try something like, “I detest that I can’t leave the house without a chaperone.”  This does two things: it reveals the information, and it does it in a way that shares your heroines feelings on this aspect of etiquette (which infers that she probably has other strong opinions, as well!).

Have fun writing your wonderful novels!  If any of you are participating in NaNoWriMo, best of luck to you!

And if you do love our blog, will you consider posting our wee banner?

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About Elizabeth May

Elizabeth May resides in Edinburgh, Scotland where she can frequently be spotted skulking about dark wynds with a camera in hand. Her début novel THE FALCONER (2013) is set in a steampunk version of 19th-century Scotland, where a teen girl is the only human being alive who can stop the dark faeries threatening her life, her family, and her city.

5 thoughts on “5 Tips on Creating an Authentic Historical Atmosphere

  1. catwinters says:

    Excellent post, Elizabeth! I’m going to highly recommend it to anyone who asks me how to write historical fiction. And I love the new wee banner! I’ll add it to my own site after I tweet about this post.

  2. Elizabeth May says:

    Thank you, Cat! So glad you like it. 🙂

  3. The wee banner rocks! I’m posting it!

  4. kathoward says:

    Great post! I’m definitely going to take this advice to heart, as I work on my novel-in-progress. Thanks for the inspiration!

  5. This is really a great post, Elizabeth. You’ve nailed all the areas that make it difficult to bring an historical novel alive. I adore research, but its still difficult when I sit down to do the actual writing and it’s easy to get stuck or slow down while drafting because the temptation to keep looking things up gets in the way. And you live in Edinburgh! Oe of my absolute favorite cities!!!! Lucky you. 😉

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