Show Your Setting

Katherine Longshore 2 Tuesday, March 11, 2014
One of the difficulties of writing historical fiction is writing about places that no longer exist.  In the years since Henry VIII came to the throne, abbeys have been torn down during the Reformation, castles destroyed during the English Civil Wars and entire villages devastated by modernization and urban sprawl.

It might be easier to invent palaces.  Everyone can picture a sandcastle perfect four-cornered stronghold.  Or a fondant-sweet Disney image with ice cream cone roofs topped with fluttering pennants.  The trouble with Tudor palaces is that they actually existed.  Which means there are tantalizing descriptions, floor plans excavated by archaeologists and even the occasional painting.
Anonymous painting of Greenwich Palace during the
reign of Henry VIII.
 Because I want to be as faithful to reality as possible, I spend days looking at online images.  I have collected out-of-print books about Tudor palaces that include floor plans, descriptions, the dates and recorded costs of building works.  I have been known to take two or three hours to find a single detail that will make a setting come to life.

Because it's the details that matter.  A person can look at the painting above and describe what they see.  A long, squarish, two (or three) story building, right on the water.... But what does it feel like to be there?  What does someone see when landing at the water front?  What would she smell?  What would the stairs have felt like--slimy?  Smooth?  Pock-marked?  What kind of stone would they have been made of (this matters!  Sandstone wears more quickly than marble!)

Once I've found a detail, that's what I cement in my character's mind.  In BRAZEN, this is Mary Howard's experience of approaching the Thames from Greenwich:

In the darkness, Madge goes down the spiral stairs without hesitation. I’m the one feeling for the edge of each riser before reaching my foot out into the abyss. At every step, I’m relieved to find solid stone beneath my slipper, and even more so when I leave the stairwell and enter the courtyard.

“Hurry up!”

Madge’s breath comes in puffs, like she’s breathing fire. She glances once at the sky and grabs my hand to drag me at a run toward the river.

Only then do I realize I can see. See her breath. I can almost see the cobbles beneath my feet and the silent wraiths and servants ignoring our indecent haste. It may not be morning yet, but it is no longer night.

On the river walk, the cold breath of the Thames hollows out my lungs and shrieks inside my nose. My eyes close involuntarily and icy-hot tears sting the corners. The frigid air suppresses the usual riverside stink, and the water is black and glassy. I wish Madge had thought to make me bring a cloak. Her hand is the only warmth I feel. I squint through the darkness for something familiar.
I chose to highlight the cold winter air (in part because Mary is susceptible to cold) and to mention the stink of the Thames (which was used as toilet, rubbish tip and handy disposal for dead animals).  The cold stone cobbles and the silent servants could really be anywhere, but by calling attention to them, I cement the reader not only in the moment, but in a setting that feels a little more real.
Whitehall Stairs, Anthony van den Wyngaerde, ca 1544
In the drawing above, you can almost get a sense of what a sprawling monstrosity Whitehall Palace was.  By all accounts, it was a rabbit warren of rooms and galleries, built one upon the other.  Henry VIII expanded and modernized the complex, adding a cock pit (for cock fighting), tennis courts, long riverside galleries.  It grew so big, it had to be expanded to the other side of an existing street.  And it was this detail that I chose to accentuate in BRAZEN.

“I hate heights,” Madge murmurs to her feet. “And I hate spiral staircases even more. When will we ever live in a bloody castle that is all on one level?”

Impatience gets the better of me and I stamp my foot. I’ve decided to act and I want to act now, before I lose my courage.

Madge frowns and I feel a rush of guilt at not being more sympathetic. I reach up to help her, but she swats my hand away. As soon as her feet hit the ground at the bottom, her expression changes and she’s Madge again. She lifts her nose like a pointer and sniffs the air.

“I know where they are,” she says. “Follow me.”

She strides across a courtyard into the shadow of the king’s privy gallery.

“You can smell them?” I laugh.

“Of course.” Madge stops so abruptly I almost run into her. She turns and looks at me expectantly. “Sweat, lust, and youthful energy. Can’t you?”

She doesn’t wait for an answer, but continues on her quest, pausing before she crosses the road and then barrels into the courtyards and galleries of the park-side recreation buildings. Madge hesitates almost imperceptibly before charging up a set of stairs, her fingers making hardly a noise as she drags them along the walls.

We look down into the largest of the tennis courts. The viewing platform is crowded with courtiers and the queen’s ladies making bets on the outcome. I slow, looking at them all, my breath coming tight and sharp. The only person not seeming to enjoy herself is Jane Seymour, hiding in the corner behind her brother.

Rather than describe the spiral staircase, I decided to show Madge (who has a fear of heights), walking down them.  Rather than write an architect's account of the courtyards, the king's privy gallery, the crossing of the road, I put Mary on the ground, in their shadows.  And rather than tell what kind of wood made the tennis court's viewing gallery, or how high it is, I populated it with courtiers, which sparks Mary's phobia of crowds.  

Your setting is as much about how your characters interact with it as it is about the place itself.  The Tiders' cave in Veronica's INTO THE STILL BLUE wouldn't be the same if it had been discovered by two modern twelve-year-olds on a treasure hunt.  The beach where Bree and Blake are bonded in Talia's SILVER actually exists, but their experience of it is what make it unique.  And Donna's descriptions of small-town Texas in both SKINNY and CAN'T LOOK AWAY make me feel like I've actually been there, because of how her characters have moved through them.  

How can you show your setting in your current WIP?  And how do you research it?  Books?  Memories?  Google maps?  What details are most important to you?  And which ones are most important to your characters?


This is an absolutely wonderful blog. I will link to it for my writing students and put Brazen on my TBR list. SOunds outstanding!!

Thank you, Carol! I hope your students find it useful!

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