Allison's Book Bag

How Does a Writer Make an Historical Setting Come Alive? Guest Post by Helen Sedwick

Posted on: May 17, 2013

How does a writer make an historical setting come alive? Good question, and one every writer faces no matter where her book is set. The answer is details–telling, precise details. And for many writers the problem isn’t having too few details, it is having too many.

coyoteimageLike most writers of historical fiction, I read a great deal about the time period of my novel. (I list some on my website.)  I researched coyotes, rattlesnakes, rifles, prairie dogs, homesteading, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and the Volga Germans settlers. I looked at old Vogue and Harpers magazines to see what young women were reading. I listened to vintage radio serials like Little Orphan Annie. I watched videos of swing dancing. I also had my father’s memoir of growing up on the prairie in the 1930s. Whenever my writing got stuck, I researched and came up with new ideas.

Well, after all that research I had too much information. In fact, I risked bogging the novel down if I loaded it with too many. How does a writer decide what details to leave in and which are better left off the page?

An inexact science at best, but here are some tools.

Use the filter of the point of view character. What details would the character notice when he walks into a room? The light from the window, the rifle over the fireplace, or the dust bunnies along the floor. How does it physically feel to be that character. Are his feet stuffed into outgrown boots or is he climbing a tree barefoot? Does his home smell of baking bread or horse manure? Is he hungry, cold, dirty? What are his wishes and fears? What is his typical day?

What details would someone else notice about the character? My main character, Myles, tells corny jokes and puns, a detail which reveals how he likes to please others. His neighbor, on the other hand, boasts about killing coyotes and putting their pelts on his fences. Another telling detail.

What details are important to the plot? As Chekhov said, if you introduce a gun in the first act it had better go off by the third. In COYOTE WINDS, a neighbor boy shows Myles how to taunt a rattlesnake into striking until it is too tired to fight. This is important information towards the end of the novel.

Pacing also determines what details to add. In a suspenseful scene, add details to drag out the moment. That is how the mind works. In moments on stress, we often become very aware of our surroundings.

A writer should also slip in details which are just too wonderful to leave out. For instance, I describe a blind man’s bluff game played by the Volga immigrant children, including the German rhyme. I described the frogs which disappeared during the years of drought, only to appear again when the rains returned. When Myles is caught in a tornado, I describe how the suction torn off his shoes. To capture the carnival-like atmosphere before a rabbit drive, I describe how “neighbors chatted with one another, catching up on marriages, babies, and deaths. A man from Burlington offered homemade ale in Mason jars. Boys tossed ax handles in the air like batons.”

Some of the most interesting details came from my father’s memoir. He told how they buried old farm plows and tied the corner of the shack to the plows to keep the shack from blowing away in the prairie wind, how they made ice cream using summer hail, and how in the last minutes before a dust storm hits, the wind dies down. The blowing dust blocks the wind like a sail. I posted my father’s memoir on my blog.

These details are gifts, precious personal gifts, which I pass on to my readers.




I have posted my father’s memoir on my blog.

2 Responses to "How Does a Writer Make an Historical Setting Come Alive? Guest Post by Helen Sedwick"

Excellent post. I tried to print it but somehow I couldn’t. Great information. Thank you. Rose

Emailing you a copy to print!

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