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Worlds Apart March 2007 Column

March 2007 Issue



More than one million years ago, our pre-human ancestors in Africa built a windbreak out of stones.  That simple structure was  found in Olduvai Gorge near Nairobi, Kenya, and it shows that humankind and its forebears have been building things for a very long time indeed.


The buildings and other structures that people build say something about them, and it is at that level that we, as writers of historical fiction, approach the subject of architecture.  The numerous styles in which people build things speak about their attitudes towards the cosmos, aesthetics, design, proportion, color, social hierarchies, status and many other things.  The ancient Greeks noticed that in an array of fluted columns there occurred an optical illusion that made each individual column appear to narrow slightly about halfway up its length.  Accordingly, columns were carved such that their diameter increased slightly in the middle and the illusion then created the impression that the columns were perfectly tapered from bottom to top.  The Greeks believed that everything could be made perfect by acts of will, and their buildings exemplified this.  If it didn’t look right, it wasn’t right, even if measurements proved otherwise.


A great deal of work has been done on the relationships between structures and the people who build and live in them. Although interesting, that research is not our concern in this column. What we are attempting to do in this series of monthly articles is look at the tools you can use as a writer of historical fiction to build the historical world in which your story is set.  That world must be authentic, and to be interesting and entertaining to your readers, it must be consistent and clearly shown.  As we have said in past columns, creating your setting is a task that has to be taken seriously and carried out with care. 


Most readers of historical fiction have an interest in learning about times past, and while they will, it is to be hoped, be interested in your plot and characters, they will also be keen on what you can tell them about the world of the past.  That world is built through the use of authentic dialogue, by reference to religion, folk tales, marriage and family life and so on.  You show what the world looked like in both human and physical terms, and in the latter process, you can turn to architecture.


For our purposes here architecture is being used to encompass not only structures, but also what people put into them: fittings, furnishings, decorations, adornments and so on.  Through careful and thoughtful use of descriptive writing you can use architecture to reinforce what you have shown about people’s affluence-or lack of it-their social status, their personal likes and dislikes, and while you are doing all these things, you will also be creating in your readers’ minds a picture of what the world actually looked like.


A simple statement can speak volumes.  Take this example: The ancient stone church was the largest building in the village.  What does that say?  Well, as it is built of stone, the church is expected to be permanent, and if it is old then it has been important for a long time.  Beyond those obvious things, however, the fact that the church is the largest structure in the village suggests strongly that religion is a central social element for the inhabitants of that place.


Now suppose we go on to provide more details about the church...Thick-walled and massive, the windowless church stood in the centre of the village, its lead-covered roof contrasting sharply with the thatched roofs of the surrounding houses and huts.  Surmounting the iron-studded main door at one end of the building, the church’s four-sided tower soared to twenty times the height of a man, its stone walls pierced at regular intervals by narrow, vertical arrow slits.


The foregoing not only provides a mental picture of the church and the village for readers, it also shows us more about village life.  Clearly, the people were prepared for war or invaders, and the church was not only a place of worship, but the village’s main defensive structure as well.  The church has a lead roof rather than a thatched one, and this, too, has to do with defense because lead will not burn. Additionally, the lead shows the local populace was willing to spend money on its stronghold and place of worship.  Compared to thatch, lead was hugely expensive centuries ago.


In order to be accurate in your descriptions of buildings, it will be helpful to spend a little research time, if you need it, to learn about the styles of architecture associated with the era in which your story is set. Many sentences of explanation can be spared through the judicious use of terms such as gothic, Romanesque, Palladian, neo-classical and art deco.  Most readers of historical fiction will have at least an idea of what these terms mean, but if you add a phrase or two, the result will be a neat and succinct piece of description.  For example: The palace was a large and glittering Romanesque structure, its sharp lines and perfect right angles accentuated by a covered portico and heavy columns.


Remember you can also describe or mention furnishings in your treatment of architecture, and in that way show a good deal about the owners of the house or building, their tastes and socio-economic status.  Fine porcelain and silver on a polished dining table, as against earthenware or wooden utensils used without a table at all, shows much.


The matter of furnishings brings us to one of the most useful applications of architectural information, and that is the subject of dwellings.  By referencing the manner in which dwellings are built, the   furnishings within them and, in particular, the way space is allocated to those who live in them, you can show details about family life. 


In pre-modern China the houses of wealthy families were built in such a way as to incorporate separate apartments for married sons and their wives and families.  There were common areas, private areas and also areas into which only certain members of the family were allowed to go.  A part of one of the central rooms was devoted to a shrine dedicated to the gods who protected the household. Most of these wealthy houses were built around a courtyard, called the well of heaven, and by coupling references to these architectural features with references to behavior and custom, a three-dimensional picture of family life can be quickly built up.


So, think or architectural structures as you build your world.  It’s just one more way to create an authentic, interesting and realistic setting for your stories.


Write on,