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January 2008 Worlds Apart

The Questions of Description and Detail:

Establishing the Context


In the column just prior to the holiday break, we were examining the question of how to insert historical detail into a story without having either too little or too much of it. It’s not an easy balance to achieve, and it takes careful attention and some practice, but as you work at it, you will come to recognize the places where description does or does not belong.


In doing this, an important question to ask is what the description is intended to do. Or put another way – why is it there? That sounds like common sense, but in fact it goes a little deeper than that. It’s all a matter of context.


Let me explain what I mean.


Generally speaking, historical tales can be divided into two broad categories, regardless of genre. The first category comprises stories set in a past time that are independent of the historical events associated with that time. They may make use of recognized historical figures such as Henry VIII of England or General George Custer, but the story itself does not revolve around, or even depend upon, the recorded historical events of the period in which the story is set.


The second, and more prevalent category, is the precise opposite. We could almost call these tales dramatizations of history, in that their plots and premises are so closely tied to historical events that the story would not really exist without them. The stories of Bernard Cornwell exemplify this because although his plots involve many fictitious characters, conflict, intrigue and romance, they are driven forward by the historical events of the Napoleonic Wars and the travails of the British army fighting Napoleon’s forces in Spain and France.


Both categories of historical fiction have a context, but those contexts are very different.


Thus, when I say it is necessary to understand what your descriptions are intended to do, I refer to issues of context. Ask yourself what is the purpose of a particular piece of description: is it to set a scene in a house or in the nation; will it provide the reader with a picture of the immediate action, or is it designed to place the action in a larger setting in reference to external circumstances?


The detail you provide will be different depending upon what is intended, and this month we’ll focus on the first category of story, that is, tales which do not depend on external historical events.


As always, your task as a world builder is to create a consistent, understandable picture of the historical period in which your story is set. In the particular case we’re discussing, it is not necessary to provide information on anything beyond the immediate circumstances of your characters as they move about the world they inhabit. You don’t have to find opportunities for expository writing that provides background on the politics, rulers, wars or any other such elements that were in place at the time. The story doesn’t need them, and so putting them in is irrelevant and can in fact detract from the story itself.


So, what should go in?


Actually, all the usual things. The reader should know what the land itself looks like, how the people dress, what they eat, where they live and so on – the things we have discussed over the past couple of years. As we said in the last column, however, pay attention to pacing and allow descriptive detail to flow naturally rather than appear forced or disruptive. Describe a house when your characters are in it, not before they’ve even seen it. A dark forest can be just that, unless it’s necessary to name the species of the trees for purposes of the story.


Clothing is another challenge. Descriptions of clothing are a good way to create in your readers a sense of the time period you’re dealing with, but it’s seldom useful to describe a person’s attire in intricate detail. Sometimes all you need say is that a man wore a brown leather jerkin or black woolen breeches, or a woman a long green cotton dress. You don’t need to overwhelm the reader by explaining that he had white socks, black shoes, a linen shirt and a grey wig, or that she wore a snood or wimple made of tortoise shall and ivory. If you do add the extra detail, there must be a reason for doing so, and sometimes there certainly is, but strive to learn when you have said all you need. In writing, less can often be more.


Next month we’ll look at the more complicated problem of how to place expository historical detail into your stories without sounding like a history book, or worse, boring your readers half to death. People usually want to learn something when they read historical fiction, but they don’t want to be hit over the head with it.

Write on,