Friday 4 September 2020

Creating a Sense of Time and Place in an Historical Novel

Definition of setting

Setting = time + place with a sprinkling of atmosphere.



This is reasonably easy especially if you have some knowledge of the place.  I know Stuttgart and Berlin a little. I even know the Waldorf School. I don’t know Nuremberg, Jena or Rexingen. I know London but not Minehead. Photos can help, especially old photos.


This can be trickier. We haven’t yet invented the time machine.  Yet there is a plethora of material available. I find amateur photos and film footage valuable. As are diaries, letters and other texts such as bills and receipts. I have some letters for guidance as you may know.

Why amateur? Well, they just show what was rather than making some attempt to rationalise or analyse what has happened. I found the adverts in some facsimile newspapers extremely useful. They gave a lot of detail about domestic life.

There are also the normal time markers: season, weather, light, flowers, plants, news items, meal times.


Seeking experiences helps here. I think about Clara traveling when I feel the wheels under my feet on train journeys. I can feel what it was like sitting in a cattle truck or cooped up in a tiny hiding place when I visit the Holocaust Centre at Laxton, Newark, Nottinghamshire.  

Write what you know?

That’s always the advice given to writers. But how does that work for fantasy, science fiction or historical fiction? Well, you start with what you know and what you can find out. You know human nature and how it will react in certain circumstances.  

Three tools

Primary resources

These are the diaries, letters and other realia mentioned above.

Repeated experience

Get yourself locked away for a few hours. Try the war time diet. Dress up in a 1940s costume.


Just write, driven by what you know of your characters and their settings. How will your players act in these circumstances? How will the setting make them feel?  What else is now in the setting that you didn’t know before?

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