World-Building in Your Historical Novel

history-booksThink world-building is only about sci-fi locales three universes over, where the days are 61 hours long, only the rich may drink the red water, and babies not born in sets of identical triplets are killed at the age of five?

Think again.

If you’re writing historical fiction—comfortably defined, for world-building purposes, as any story set anywhere from a few years before the time of publication to farther back—you must build a time-quirky realm that is as thorough and consistent as what we see in chapter 12 of Book I and chapter 34 of Book III of your sci-fi series. Add to that the requirement of maintaining historical accuracy, while not giving in to false perceptions of what we think is historically accurate, and you’ve got quite a job on your hands—with sometimes only half the fun coming up with the red water’ll give you.old-fashioned-phone

Depending upon when your story is set, world-building for historical fiction can be both exhilarating for the things you learn (like that Washington Irving was already a wildly popular international storyteller in the 1820s) and tedious for the minutiae you’ll have to examine to get it right (like that call-waiting didn’t exist in 1973, making emergency breakthroughs, sending someone to knock on the door, or calling repeatedly until the line was clear the only way to reach a person who wouldn’t get off their phone).

So, how do you go about it?

Have fun first. Write your story as it comes to you, without worrying about minor details like the kinds of birds that inhabited 1820s France or the length of a woman’s dress in 1860s Chicago. Plug in what works to keep your creativity flowing. “A bird shat on Pierre,” or “Mary-Margaret had no clean clothes and wore yesterday’s dress to meet Mr. Matthews,” will do for now. Later, you can add “sparrow” or tell us it was a maxi-dress (if it’s relevant to the story).


Woman’s dress in 1840s Norway

Yes, you will do the critical research for anything necessary for the premise of your story before you write a word. You’d certainly want to know whether women were permitted to work as bankers in 1920s Norway before you tell the story of a female banker who takes down the Norwegian economy in 1921. You can tell your story either way, but you’ll need to know that key historical fact so you can realistically spin your yarn and find a legitimate way to get your star female into that bank. When it comes to smaller details, though, just write what works for your flow and make a note to check and change minor facts in future rounds of editing.

Make history stand out. Remember, you’re world-building. The only way to build an historical world is to make the history come alive. Readers should hear the wood creaking on your seventeenth century ship, smell the horse manure in your Western town, work sixteen-hour days in your loud 1890s factory, die grotesque deaths devoid of medical and modern comforts if they caught the Plague in 1345, and otherwise eat, wear, live in, shun, adore, worship, and despise the things of the period in the manner of the period.

Never miss an opportunity to remind the reader when the story takes place. Maybe your village idiot is “missing a few sails on his boat” or your hero walked 12 miles over nasty, unpaved terrain to save his friend after the hero’s horse died on him. No one should drive, work, sleep, poop, or die without you sprinkling the event with some touch of your book’s historical world, even if it’s as simple as your heroine paying ten cents for a cup of coffee or your protagonist’s mother standing in line to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on opening night.

Stay out of the rabbit hole. In the quest to build your world, the more you research things like what type of tea or perfume existed in an earlier time, what kind of gun a person might have toted, or how a person may have traveled, the more likely you are to click your mouse down into depths only rabbits explore and gather specks of minutia dirt that don’t drive your story forward. Research is a contagion unto itself. Find out one thing, it leads you to another, and then ten million others.

rabbit-holeThe length of the average German shepherd’s hair is much less interesting than the fact that one such beast is guarding the prisoners who hope to escape. Resist the urge to tell the reader, “Shep shook the snow off his two-inch-long coat.” And the reader probably doesn’t need to know that it snowed 182 days in Boston in 1785, no matter how hard you scrounged and scraped and clicked for that tidbit. An “endless winter” or “it snowed again” may paint a better picture. Study your subject as much as you need to in order to tell a good story, but don’t take your reader behind the scenes and show them the “making of your novel” by bogging them down with interesting but irrelevant facts that you’re sharing mostly to substantiate how you got the interesting and relevant facts.

Watch your mouth, or rather your characters’ mouths. One word showing up too early for its time can distract the reader and destroy your credibility as a competent writer who’s going to take good care of the reader. Make no assumptions. It’s easy to drop the word “lunch” into your prose and keep moving, but in, say, 1822, people ate dinner at noon and not lunch. They ate supper in the evening and not dinner. They suffered from consumption not tuberculosis.


Your Viking should not “push the envelope” since the term comes from the concept of aviators pushing aircraft to perform at or beyond safety limits, and, last your reader checked, there were no aviators during the time of Vikings. Is it a train or a trolley? Or a streetcar? Is it a buggy or a wagon? Or both? Has it always been called a “nickel”? Did women carry purses in 1859 or was “purse” a way to describe the little bag men used for their coins? No refrigeration in your novel? The fish should smell bad. Really bad. And what about “mounds of evidence”? Were there “mounds” of evidence in 1673, or did we start envisioning “mounds” when we could see a prosecutor waving his or her hands to describe them in movies and on television? Maybe it’s a term from British law dating back to the time of the Magna Carta. Find out. Don’t assume. A word as simple as “boat” can get you into trouble if the common reference in 1742 was ship or vessel. The good news is, most dictionaries not only give you the origin of the word, but they also name the year the word first appeared. It can take less than a minute to check and avoid embarrassment.

Ignore “history”. Write history. Most readers watch movies and television, two media that haven’t always placed a premium on accuracy in the portrayal of historical periods of time. Meanwhile, all readers live now. Unfortunately (well, not the living now part), this means your reader carries into your book lots of Faux History Baggage and stubborn perceptions about “how things were” based on how they are now, or how they are portrayed now.


This photo shows that bicycles freely used roads that streetcars and/or trolleys also used. This is a fact that an author might use that a reader might question (“Bikes and streetcars? The bicyclists would get hit!”) that is nevertheless true.

It may be hard to convince Jane Reader that churches owned slaves or that women disguised as men sneaked into the Civil War or that women had to fight to work as secretaries when it was an all-male profession since these concepts are rarely depicted in the visual arts or discussed in line at the grocery store. (I wrote a book about 1830s Missouri farm slaves and received a 4-star review in which the reviewer withheld the fifth star because of a perceived failure on my part to have the slave characters talk in a broad dialect “more reflective” of slavery. Presumably, the reviewer drew his/her notions of the way slaves talked from TV and movies that focus on Southern slavery. In real life, there were city slaves, mid-western slaves, and farm slaves on small farmsteads, who spoke the mainstream English of the city folks and farm-/slave-owners. I’m glad I wrote it the way I did because my way was historically accurate. While I left that reader thinking I fell short, I exposed others to a different slice of history who said, “I didn’t even do the math on slavery that wasn’t in the south and what that looked like.” I like to think their time was a little better spent for getting to walk away with something they didn’t know before.)  Copping to misperceptions about facts and history because you think it will make an easier read or you’ll face less resistance from the doubtful reader robs the reader of one of the best reasons to read: learning. The average reader would much rather find out some cool, fun fact they never knew than have you perpetuate the myth so that they don’t have to think while they read. Meanwhile, you’re bound to be busted because some reader out there is going to know their history and throw your book against the wall when you say something that’s inaccurate.

researchkeyHave fun. Some more. Take as much time as you desire (or as much time as your deadline permits) researching the history that will be on full display in your fiction. Sift, grift, and lift facts out of the crevices of the Internet, encyclopedias, newspapers, and lexicons at your disposal. Rub your palms together with glee when you discover some morsel you know it will delight your readers to learn.

So much of what you find won’t make the final cut, but in order to get the best nuggets, you have to dig like nobody’s watching (even that editor who has you on the aforementioned deadline). Take the pressure off to find the right textures and tidbits and enjoy the journey of fact-gathering. You may not get to invent red water, but you’ll have just as much fun helping your serial killer disguise his actions under cover of the events at Pearl Harbor. Just make sure they happen on December 7, 1941. EL


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