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Worlds Apart March 2009

Back To Basics III

The Major Task


Having taken a month out to look at festivals and rituals in a column inspired by the holiday season, I want to return now to the series we began late last year in which we’re having a look at the basics of historical fiction. We’ve thought about setting the historical context, building characters, the use of dialogue and this month I want to recap the most basic task of all: building the historical world.


All of the elements we’ve considered up to now form part of the process of building a historical world, but with that background let’s now ask the fundamental question: what exactly is a historical world?


“That’s easy,” I hear you say. “A historical world is the world as it existed in times past.”


And that is pretty much correct, if you are a historian. But we are writers of historical fiction, and so for us things show in a slightly different light. Although we strive for authenticity and accuracy, we are telling a story first and foremost, and the historical world we are dealing with is the one in which our story is set. It’s the background to absolutely everything.


Imagine you are looking at a photograph of a man. He’s just standing somewhere, but the camera has been set in a certain way so that only the subject – the man – is in sharp focus. The background, however, is completely out of focus and is unrecognizable. As you look at that photograph, you are able to tell a lot about the subject: his approximate age, his appearance and so on, but you are not able to go beyond that.


However, if the camera is differently set to allow for plenty of depth of field, the man and the background will be in focus and clearly visible. Now you are able to say a lot more about this man because you will know where he is, perhaps why he is dressed as he is, you can perhaps tell his nationality, see what the weather is and draw many other conclusions. In short, your understanding of the subject is greatly increased.


What I’m saying here, then, is that the background in that photograph is analogous to the historical world you build as a setting for your story. If it’s not clear and vivid, your readers won’t fully see and understand it or fully grasp your story. In addition, although they may see your characters in sharp focus, without the background – the world you have built – there will not be a clear frame of reference and the characters won’t be fully understood. Without the historical world it’s not possible to make clear why your character behave as they do.


The historical world that you have to build as a writer of historical fiction is a clear, sharp background for your subjects. And what are your subjects? Your story and its characters. Your subjects must have a setting. If you are writing a story set in the present day, your readers will understand the background – the world – and no special attention need be paid to describing it beyond the necessary descriptions for the story. However, when it’s a historical world, a world with which most of your readers will be unfamiliar, it must be created, built, by you so that your subjects have a clear, consistent, accurate and authentic background behind them for your readers to see, learn about, understand and come to appreciate.


Write on,