Building an Historical World

Katherine Longshore 3 Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Last night, the Apocalypsies (debut authors of YA, MG and picture books in 2012) had a Twitter chat on world-building.  We chose the topic because it transcends genre.  Every author has to build a believable world in which to set the story -- one that even becomes part of the story -- whether that setting is contemporary, historical, futuristic or in a different dimension.  It is so enlightening to hear other writers talk about what they write, about what works and doesn't work, and what inspires them.  This is one of the reasons I love this blog, and reading everyone else's posts, and reading all of your comments.  It keeps things fresh (and makes me feel like less of an oddball).

But because I write historical novels, I'm going to write about building an historical world.  There is only so much I can learn by reading, and so much I can learn by visiting historical sites today.  Somehow they have to come together, with a touch of something a little less sterile than research.

Which is good, because the Tudor world was anything but sterile.  It's fun to watch dramas set in Tudor times (though I haven't watched more than two episodes of the Tudors -- I didn't want them to influence my own character-building -- I do enjoy a good Elizabethan drama these days!).  And to see how beautiful and clean everything looks.

Things were not clean.  Men and dogs peed against the walls of the great halls and courtyards of palaces.  Mud must have been everywhere.  There was no escape from lice and bedbugs and fleas -- Henry VIII thought that sleeping with piece of fur under his pillow would protect him.  That the bugs would latch onto the fur instead.  Most clothing items couldn't be laundered -- just the thin linen garments worn underneath the heavy doublets and bodices and skirts.  But if everyone smelled, perhaps you just didn't notice?

When I think about this world, I conjure up some of the smells I encountered while traveling.  The odor of a sewer in a tropical third world city was probably similar to that of the River Thames in the 16th century.  The eerie, damp reek of an African public toilet (seriously, avoid them at all costs) could probably be likened to the 14-seater lavatory at Hampton Court Palace.  I remember these things and then temper them -- because we don't want all our illusions shattered at once, do we?  Tudor times were so romantic.

And it was dark.  I have to remember camping trips in high mountains to be able to imagine how dark it would have been.  No streetlights.  No airplanes.  Few lighted windows.  People went to bed when it got dark because candles were expensive.  Only the rich could afford to have late parties -- and even they were probably dimly lit -- cavernous spaces barely penetrated by torches and candles.  And all of the lighting would have smoked -- causing a haze and (yes) smell.  Tallow candles for the poor stank of...well...fat.  Beeswax candles used by the rich probably smelled better.

But the things that intrigue me most -- and that I try my best to build into my world -- were the gaudy fabrics and blindingly colorful tapestries.  The remnants of these that we see today are probably but pale shadows to what the palaces really looked like.  The tapestries were huge, detailed and colorful.  Henry's would have had silver and gold threads throughout -- another sign of wealth.  And the clothing would have rivaled them.  Dyes were outrageously expensive, and people liked to make an impressive show (kind of like the Oscars or the Grammys today, but showing less skin).  I want to use this gaudiness to balance what we would probably think of as squalor.  And then try hard not to pass 20th century judgement.

I love the world my characters inhabit.  It is strange and frightening and repulsive and beautiful.  I would never want to live there.  But I have fun building it.


Yech, the smells. I wouldn't want to live there, either. Makes me glad the only time-travel possible is through fiction.

It is interesting to consider that we oft look at things with our "current day" glasses.

But reading your post reminds me of why things like the black plague could be a scourge of epidemic proportions.

Yes, Angela! And why they considered water an unhealthy drink. They mostly drank ale, which had to be boiled before it fermented. At least, that was their excuse.

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