“You Are Here!” – The Importance of Creating Historical Settings

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about pop culture references in your work, and how they can be taboo to some, and ‘setting’ to others (https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/07/05/pop-culture-yay-or-nay-the-shadow-knows/).

When you’re writing a novel set in present times, it’s a bit of a two-edged sword. For example:  the movie Clueless turns 20 (I KNOW, right? 20? How did THAT happen?!) this summer. If you grew up watching it (I was in my teens when it was released), then the cultural references are something you totally get. When Cher says “I think they’ve seen that Tina and Ike movie way too many times” (and I think I just got that quote wrong!), you know exactly who she means and why she’s saying it. It’s context. And let’s face it:  who hasn’t said “That was way harsh” in the last twenty years? 🙂 The designers (“This is an Alaia!” “An A-what-a?” “It’s like a totally important designer!”), the cell phones, the gay best friend – they all date this movie to one very specific time period.

The same is true of your novel. You have to remember that even if you’re writing a contemporary novel, some day it will be a historical. There, did that blow your mind? But it’s true. Think about it. Think about the books you had to read in high school:  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice . . . written by people who were writing about their own era, and yet today they are historical. Some day, the same will be true of Gone Girl.

But if you’re writing a historical novel, getting the details right is key, because you’re not throwing around pop culture references:  you’re creating setting.

Currently, I’m reading City of Women by David R. Gillham. Set in 1943 Berlin, it’s a fantastic glimpse inside that city and the lives of the people just trying to survive the war. Gillham hasn’t just plunked down a few facts here and there to add flavor; he’s immersed the story in the setting. I adore it. I feel like I’m there. This novel could not have occurred at any other time, in any other place.

Had this novel been written in the 1950s or 1960s, the references to the movies they watch, the war rations, the patriotic songs, might be considered trite and unnecessary. But seventy years removed, all these things let the reader see precisely what Gillham wants us to see:  Berlin, 1943. Harsh, cold, barely functioning, Gestapo everywhere. A place where one’s identity card must be at the ready at all times, and speaking out against the Reich is death.

The book is so well written, in fact, that I had trouble choosing a passage to demonstrate what I mean. But here’s one:

Another blast shakes the cellar, and the lamps blink frantically. But by this time the rest of the shelter’s inhabitants must welcome a bomb blast or two, if only to silence Frau Remki’s suicidal indictment (*of Hitler; she’s just called Hitler the devil, which is Not Good in 1943 Berlin, to put it mildly). And indeed when the light sputters back to a low-wattage glow, the woman has sunk back down to her place like a pile of rags. The thudding explosions grow more distant, but the cellar remains a densely silent place . . . One long, aching howl, signaling that the RAF has crossed over the line into Hannover-Brunswick airspace, and that Berlin, that vast, rambling city, is all-clear.

Gillham has it all:  the street names; the exact trains; the brand of the really good, black-market cigarettes; the German terms, unobtrusively explained either by context or within the next line.  Even the furtive, illegal act of listening to the BBC with your ear pressed to the speaker, the sickening realization that what Berlin is being told about the Eastern Front is a complete propaganda lie . . . You are there. You’d really rather not be. But you can’t escape.

Getting these details right is at the heart of any good historical novel. But as I learned at the Oklahoma Writer’s Conference this spring, you’ve got to have an agent who ‘gets’ that time period. There was a ‘first page workshop,’ where some people got to submit their first pages for critique by the agent (and the audience). We read a relatively good page, set in the early 1930s, in which the character looks at the thermometer (as I recall, it actually said that the thermometer was hanging outside the window) and notices it’s very hot, very early in the morning.

“See,” the agent said, pointing out the word thermometer, “this has to change. This should be thermostat. This is sloppy writing. This is what I meant when I said you need to proofread.”

Before I could say a word, the older lady next to me jumped to her feet. “Uh, no,” she said, “the word should be thermometer! This is one of those big Dr. Pepper thermometers that used to hang outside of buildings! I know exactly what they’re talking about!”

So writers, take note:  your readers will know, and your agent may not. Get it right anyway, and be ready to defend your word choice if necessary! But that’s precisely the kind of thing I mean. Look at maps – but look at photographs, too. Describe the buildings you’re writing about. Describe the clothes, the cars. Don’t say He was wearing a hat; be specific to your time period. Is it a slouch hat? Gray fedora? Stetson? Tweed driving cap? Is the building granite or limestone? It’s not just about the details, it’s about the right, exact, and accurate details.

Create the setting for your novel. Create the setting that your characters can live and breathe in, that contributes to the plot. Create the setting that captures readers and holds them hostage, where they breathe the foul fog off the Thames, or hear the jingle and creak of harness, or break a wrist cranking over a Model T engine. Create the historical setting that becomes a character itself.

Even if you’re writing a contemporary novel. 🙂

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