“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. 🙂

Character Descriptions

Last week, I discussed setting descriptions (sort of; there’s an entire book there!). This week, I want to look a bit more at character descriptions.

Most writers have drafts sitting on their hard drive or in their desk drawers in which they describe characters by having them stand in front of a mirror and contemplating the way they look.Something like this:  “Petra stood in front of the mirror, contemplating her long blond locks. Her blue eyes stared back at her; she could count the five freckles dotted across her nose.  The high aristocratic cheekbones were a gift from her mother, while her heart-shaped mouth was from her father’s side. When she wore white, as she was doing now, it made her look even paler.”


But why? you ask? Veronica Roth did it in Divergent. Yes, she absolutely did. And she got away with it – but just barely. The reason Roth gets away with it is that she’s using Tris’ mirror-gazing as a microcosm of the larger whole, as a way to introduce us to the dystopian world we’re about to enter.

There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair. . . . I look at my reflection when she isn’t paying attention – not for the sake of vanity, but out of curiosity. A lot can happen to a person’s appearance in three months. In my reflection I see a narrow face, wide, round eyes, and a long, thin nose – I still look like a little girl, though sometime in the last few months I turned sixteen.

In reality, .Roth’s goal here isn’t so much to describe Tris – we don’t even know what color her hair is, or her eyes – but to describe Tris’ world. Factions? A mirror hidden behind a panel? She doesn’t know when she had her birthday? This evokes questions in the reader. And remember, the goal of your first sentence, first paragraph, and first page is evoke questions that the reader MUST have answered.

So why is it so bad to sit your characters in front of a mirror and describe them? Because every single word counts. And you need to do a lot more with your descriptions than convey what someone looks like. If all they’re doing is sitting and staring, that’s boring. And when readers are bored, readers stop reading. Your descriptions need to evoke emotion, feeling, atmosphere, what era your character is in, what their social status is, and who they are.

Last week, I said the best way to describe your setting is to have your character interact with it. And this extends to character description as well.

I have to go back to Diana Gabaldon here – she’s the queen of this. And she does it mostly by weaving the descriptions seamlessly into the conversations. Like this example from Outlander:

“You’ve the loveliest hair,” Jamie said, watching me.

“What:? This?” I raised a hand self-consciously to my locks, which as usual, could be politely described as higgledy-piggledy. . . . “But it’s so . . . curly.”

“Aye, of course.” He looked surprised. “I heard one of Dougal’s girls say to a friend at the castle that it would take three hours with the hot tongs to make hers look like that . . .”

Of course, if your main character is as vain as the day is long, maybe they do spend countless hours in front of a mirror, contemplating their own beauty, counting the pores on their faces, making sure they don’t have any new blemishes threatening to erupt. If they’re that vain, though, they better have some really good redemptive qualities, because no one is going to care about them. You could, perhaps, pull a Sunset Boulevard kind of thing if your MC is older, looking back on her life, and wondering where she got all those wrinkles and age spots. But I would find a different way to do it.

You can always have other characters describe each other, and in romance novels, this is usually how it goes. We see the heroine’s POV in which she sees the dashing hero for the first time (usually shirtless), and then we switch POV so we can get the hero’s reaction to the ravishing beauty he’s just been introduced to. Readers have come to expect this, in fact, so if there’s a way you can mix it up, do so.

Here’s an example from my own work in progress, from the point of view of Kai, who died more than 250 years before Erin shows up at his door. So I wanted to be sure to spin his reaction in that direction.

But then the car door slammed, and if he’d had any breath in him, the sight of the girl standing in the drive would have taken it away. She was tall. Nearly his own height, in fact. Her long blond hair was pulled away from her face, and she wore clothes that left little to the imagination. . . He watched as she struggled to pull a large bag out of the car, displaying attributes no single woman ought to display so well.

Later, he – not in a creepy way! – sneaks up to study her:

She rolled over in her sleep, one long leg slipping off the edge of the sofa. He stared at her toenails, fascinated. Since when had women bared their toes long enough to need them painted?

I wanted my descriptions to highlight the differences between them, to show as much about Kai as they do about Erin. Your character descriptions should not focus solely on the physical; they need to also show the things that cannot be seen easily.

Some authors – especially in literary fiction – seem to have no character descriptions at all. I hate this, personally. For one, I really want to know what the characters look like. For another, one or two GREAT choices can always remind the reader exactly who this person is and what they look like. I know this is weird, but think for a second about Adolf Hitler. Think of how he’s portrayed in movies. Let’s face it, all you need is an actor who is kind of short and has beady little eyes. Give him that mustache and the Nazi uniform, and everyone knows immediately who this is supposed to be. Same thing with your characters. Jamie Fraser’s slanted, blue cat-eyes and knife-edge nose – not to mention his red hair – are forces to be reckoned with. Claire’s riotous hair and gold eyes (YES, in the books she has gold eyes, Jamie says they’re whiskey-colored) set her apart instantly.

In Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell novels, Russell has very long, straight hair, even though she’s a modern girl – she’s reading theology at Oxford and owns a Morris – and it’s 1915 when we first meet her, just on the cusp of the women’s lib movement. King has an unusual task in her novels, though:  not only does she have to create Russell, but she also has to remain faithful to one of the most iconic fictional characters ever, Sherlock Holmes. And she does, magnificently. Russell’s long hair is at first a source of confusion for Holmes. Later, when Holmes has been taken prisoner by a maharajah in India:

And then the maharajah said to me, ‘Do remove your topee, Captain Russell; you’ll be able to see better.’ Holmes tensed, his hand making a fist, his eyes darting to the guards as he prepared to fling himself to my protection.

But a topee is not a turban, and I had been my teacher’s pupil before I became my husband’s wife, learning to my bones that half a disguise is none at all. I lifted my topee, smoothed my regulation officer’s haircut with my other hand, and bent forward obediently to witness the lack of tricks up the magician’s sleeve.

The moment my short-cropped, pomade-sleek, unquestionably masculine hair passed beneath his nose was the closest I’ve ever seen Holmes to fainting dead away.

Character descriptions are just as important as any other descriptions, and just as tricky to get right. They need to convey more than the physical; they need to convey emotions, time period, changes in your character .  .  . It’s a tall order! But with practice – and lots of reading! – you’ll get there.

Why Are Descriptions So Hard????

After talking with a couple of friends this week, I realized something:  Descriptions are hard. We tend to either a.) go into WAY too much detail and bore our readers into oblivion, or b.) give so FEW details that readers aren’t sure of anything.

When I taught creative writing, it was one of the most difficult things to get across to students. They always wanted to sloooooow down and give paragraphs of information – an information dump. “The white two story house with an attic had a white picket fence, and the siding was weathered and one window had been broken out by a baseball back in 1994 and never replaced and the shutters were all askew except for that one at the very top on the southwest side that’s missing, and . . .” Or they went the opposite way. “There was a white house.”

Both are bad.

But how do you teach someone how to do descriptions? That’s what we were trying to do Friday. And honestly, as with all things, I think you have to go back to the Golden Rule of Writing:  Read and write. In this case, read is the operative word.

Some authors are brilliant at description. Some aren’t. Some struggle with it. But when you read, you really get to see how other writers deal with the issue.

Take this photo, for example:  How do you describe this house and this scene?

west house 3Do you say it’s tumble-down? Decrepit? Sagging? Ready for the bulldozer? (That one is WRONG, by the way!) “A still wind would have knocked it over.” Or better, “A STIFF wind would have knocked it over.” Depends on if you’re going for something Twain-esque or not, I guess.

Do you go for something more literal? “The house had two stories – for now. The windows were long gone, the porch sagged, the rafters were exposed to the sky. The only inhabitants were rats and ghosts.”

It depends on you and your writing style. It’s a tricky balancing act.

In her book The Writing and Critique Group Survivor’s Guide, Becky Levine gives us a list of the things description needs to do:

  • Evoke an image or a feeling.
  • NOT distract the reader, but draw them further into the story.
  • Use all of the five senses, if possible.
  • Be necessary and ACTIVE. The characters need to interact with it. Live within it.
  • Create a sense of personality (especially in a first-person narrative).

Take the photo of the house again. Does your narrator consider it sad? Creepy? An eyesore? Is it in the way of something she wants to do? Maybe it’s more complicated than that:  maybe this is the house her grandparents built. Perhaps she had a traumatic experience there. All of those feelings and emotions will affect the words you choose to describe it.

In my descriptions, I didn’t use all five senses  – touch, taste, sight, sound, and hearing. And let’s be honest – most of us don’t. But did you know that the sense of smell evokes the most memories for us? So how does the old house smell? Maybe there are lilacs outside, or a seventy-year old rose rambling up a broken lattice. If your character goes inside, what does she smell? Decay? Mold? Rat and bird droppings? If she touches the porch railing, does she get splinters? Do the floorboards give under her weight, maybe even crack and groan? Can she hear the wind whistling through the rafters? The scratching of rats in the walls?

Taste is one of the hardest senses to work into a story, unless you’re Elizabeth Gilbert. But how many of us refuse to eat things we find disgusting? Taste is an extremely important sense in our everyday lives. It doesn’t have to be food, either. Fear has a taste. So do tears. If you bite your tongue hard enough, you taste blood. Look at your story. Where are there places you could gently work it in to add depth and dimension to the story, without distracting the reader?

One of the most important things we need to keep in mind is this:  our characters have to interact with their environment. So many writers give us an information dump, and then expect us as readers to keep all that in mind for the next several pages while the characters blithely move through life – but apparently, not through a setting! Ground your characters. Are your characters having a chat? Sit them down on the wide veranda with the mimosa tree overhead, and a pitcher of iced tea between them. Smell the mimosas. Taste the iced tea. Hear the ice clinking against the side of the glasses. Have the characters move. Make them interact with the setting. Open a window to let in a fresh, pre-storm breeze, or close the shutters against the first spatters of rain.

To write good descriptions, we need to be aware of how much we interact with our own setting, every single day. For a week, just observe yourself and others. If you’re having a conversation, what else are you doing? Fiddling with your cell phone? Making a mental to-do list? Pacing? Plucking at stray threads on the blanket over your knees?

And we need to read as many books as possible, in all different genres. Underline or highlight every time you see description of any kind. How do they do it? How seamless is it? Did you almost miss it? Or was it glaring? Did it evoke anything in you? How many senses did they use per scene? Could it have been better?

Some writers have a knack for dialogue, others for plot, still others for characterization; some have a knack for description. Like everything else in writing, it’s a skill you can learn. If you want yours to be better, you may even want your beta readers to read specifically for description, and give feedback. But above all, just read. Diana Gabaldon, Karen Marie Moning, and Jim Butcher are my go-to authors for description that is pitch-perfect. All three address it in different ways, but all three get it right.

Go forth. Read! Write! Describe! 🙂