Sneaking in Historical Detail
by Victoria Janssen
Detail is one of the keys to writing fiction in a historical setting. It's a way to show the reader that she's traveled in time. Things are different in the world she's reading about. Even simple differences spawn more and more changes. For example, the heroine of the story doesn't drive a car; instead, a male relative must drive her in a horse-drawn carriage. Instead of worrying about the cost of gasoline, she has to avoid stepping in horse dung and dirtying her silken dance slipper. All these details have to appear normal to the reader because they are normal to the characters in the book.
You don't need to include every single detail you've researched; in fact, you need less than you think you do, though sometimes that depends on your period; for example, romance readers are more likely to have a working knowledge of social mores in Regency England than in Moldavia during the same period. Still, a few telling details can reinforce the sense of time travel.
I use a few tricks to sneak in the details. Most of my tricks are used in tandem with story elements like characterization, so every detail does at least double duty. The thing I try to keep in mind is contrast. The historical detail contrasts with the present day.
First, if there's an opportunity to use a historical detail rather than a general detail, I do it. Especially if the detail involves something that's different now from then; for example, in my upcoming novel Moonlight Mistress (December 2009), which is set during World War One, a nurse is caring for a wound. She cleans the wound with Lysol, common in 1914 but surprising now, when Lysol is most often used to clean bathroom tile.
Second, it's easier for the reader to absorb details if they're included along with action and are meaningful to the point of view character, thus giving depth to characterization. An example from Moonlight Mistress, in which things have changed: "This hamlet reminded him of the ones they'd seen on their way into France, full of cheering people who gave them cigarettes and flowers and loaves of bread. Now it was devastated, all the people gone, gardens trampled, animal corpses bloating in the streets, houses and churches shot to pieces by the guns."
Third, if a character is visiting a new place, or visiting a place that has changed since they were last there, details are a necessary part of transition between scenes or locales. Another example from Moonlight Mistress: "Even in the dark, the hot, dusty streets were mobbed, three times as crowded as a normal night. Compared to that morning, the whole town felt alien to her. Boys hawked newspapers on every corner. Men stood and read the papers under streetlights and in the street itself, arguing vociferously, blocking wagons whose drivers cursed. Singing and pipe smoke, drunken cheers and angry shouts billowed from the open door of a beer garden."
And my last trick? Don't research it to death. As much fun as research is, eventually you have to write the book.
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Purchase link for The Duchess, Her Maid, The Groom & Their Lover. Moonlight Mistress is available for pre-order on Amazon.com.