We writers spend a lot of our time in our heads. Replaying scenes, conducting character interviews, thinking of words and phrases, daydreaming. And, of course, we spend a lot of time at our desks. Typing, deleting, bleeding red pen all over manuscripts. Daydreaming.
I’m here to advocate getting up and trying something different, because part of creating a believable story world is writing settings, events and actions that feel real, even when they happened hundreds of years ago.
Because our characters lived in a different time period, they also, truly, lived in a different culture. They had different belief systems and different ways of expressing them. They wore different clothes, ate different foods, engaged in different pastimes, were restrained by different social structures. How can we, as modern writers, even begin to imagine what all of that was like?
One way is to try it out.
I spent much of my young adult life on stage in various different school and community theaters. I also worked in the costume shop and studied costume design, so I already had a feel for the construction of period clothing. I’ve worn a 17th Century bodice and stomacher, laced so tight up the back that I couldn’t bend in the middle or breathe. But I loved it because of the extra support to the diaphragm that gave me that much more oomph to project. (And because I finally–finally–had a cleavage.)
I knew that our costumes weren’t entirely accurate–they just had to be made to look that way. But it wasn’t until I started writing about historical dress that I realized how complicated the actual act of dressing was for women in the 16th Century. Several separate skirts, underskirts, shifts, bodices. Even sleeves had to be tied on with laces. I borrowed muslin mock-up pieces from Kristen Held, my costume designer friend, and kitted myself out in skirts and even a bum roll. But damn, I wish I had taken pictures!
I didn’t want to go into great detail in any of my books about the act of getting dressed–it’s not a scene that would truly move the story forward, nor would most contemporary teens find pages of fabrics and lacings fascinating reading. But the process helped me to write packing scenes in GILT, sewing scenes in BRAZEN and a (brief!) undressing in TARNISH. I could have written these scenes without the in-person practice, but something about taking the time to put the pieces on, feel the pressure of the stomacher, the drape and heft of the skirts, gave me a better appreciation of my characters and how they engaged in their world.
You don’t have to find your friendly local costume designer to get deeply into your character’s tactile world. You can take any common, every-day action and attempt it yourself. Write with a quill. Visit a tapestry-making class. Take the kids to a blacksmith shop. Learn how to roll your hair into a chignon.
And go beyond the historical to the events and actions that pervade the daily lives not only of your characters, but your readers, too. For my current WIP, I’ve started taking a jujitsu class–not because my character does, but because she has to learn something that takes her way beyond her comfort zone and jujitsu does that for me. My friend Stasia Kehoe talks about how she practices before writing kissing scenes. I’ve been known to get up from my chair and back myself up against a closed door just to feel what my characters might.
What do you do to help yourself write believable sensory details in your historical fiction?