Michelle Styles on Setting

Making Your Historical World Come Alive

A workshop by Michelle Styles

Historical v Contemporary – Historicals are about times and places that a writer has never directly experienced but really did exist. Contemporary is set in the eternal present.

Historical novels enable the writer to explore themes that might be unacceptable in a modern day set novel. Historicals often reflect the concerns of today’s writers rather than the actual concerns of the historical period.

The spectrum of historical fiction – think Jean Plaidy, Philippa Carr, Victoria Holt. Most Historical Romance falls in the Victoria Holt category – history as experienced by those who are not mentioned in the history books.

You may be writing a historical novel but your characters believe and act as if they are contemporary to that place.

Authentic v Accurate – all historical writing is anachronistic by definition. The problems with accuracy.

What does authentic mean?

Common problems: not enough research, too much research, info dumping, mindset problems, period words/slang v modern reader

The trouble with table dusting: see attached exercises

Getting historical info to the reader: the use of the outsider, developing a sense of place

The historical mindset see attached exercises

Why is the beer tasteless, the dancing beautiful, and the journey smooth? Bringing colour to the everyday life.

Working with the 12 step basic courtship ritual, rather than against it – a trim ankle can be sensuous.

Revisions are stepping stones to success

A summing up.

Table Dusting Exercises

One of the biggest problems with historical novels is the loss of tension, pointless pace killers.

Exercise one:

  • · Find historical explanation/back-story in your first fifty pages, cut it.
  • · Reread the scene. Is it necessary for the story? If necessary, can it be hinted at?
  • · Try moving the actual info to the second half of the book.
  • · 4. If you can’t cut it, figure out a way to up the tension around it.
  • Exercise two:
  • Your mss is a movie. You have a limited budget. What is the most cost effective way to give the maximum impact.

    • · Choose a scene in your mss.
    • · What is the scene trying to accomplish? Do you need to spend money on showing how the heroine gets into the carriage for example?
    • · Does the amount of words/money spent justify the scene? If not, can it be shot a different way? Can tension be increased?
    • · Repeat for other scenes, paying particular attention to transition scene
  • Exercise three: Period detail must justify its existence
    • · Find a scene with lots of period detail
    • · Cut period detail.
    • · Reread the scene. How does the scene read?
    • · Put back in one quarter to a half of the period detail, making sure the period detail is necessary to the tension of the scene.
    • · Compare it with your old scene, which scene works better?
    • · Repeat exercise in four more places in your mss.
    • · Try the reverse of the exercise – find a scene with little detail, add period detail, making it sure adds to the tension. Which scene do you like better?
  • · Historical Mindset exercises
  • Exercise one

    1 Give time period

    2 List twenty beliefs in common with today.

    3 list twenty beliefs different than today

    4 circle last five items in each list.

    5 go back to your mss, and find five places where you can use these items to enhance your story

    Exercise two

    1. Time period

    2. Pick a major historical figure who could be mentioned in your story.

    3. What is the general gossip about that figure?

    4. How is it different to today’s POV on the figure?

    5. Find a way to work the detail in to your story

    Exercise three

    1.time period

    2. What historical upheavals have the characters experienced over the past year? Five years? Ten years?

    3. What is different about clothing fashion?

    4. What is different about customs and rituals?

    5. Find five places in your story where you can show some of these differences

    Copyright 2006 Michelle Styles


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