5 Tips for Writing Visual Historical Settings

Today’s guest post is by Historical Fiction author, Stephanie Carroll.

People like historical novels because they like to be transported to another time and place. Thus, setting is one of the most important factors to consider. When working on setting, there should be one goal in mind:  Visualization.

Most people don’t think about it, but when they read, they are visualizing. When a reader doesn’t have to work to visualize, they will feel as if they are actually in that other time and place. This is what is called transporting your reader. If a reader can’t envision anything in the story, he or she may get bored, distracted, or stop reading altogether. It is up to the author to provide the proper cues, so here are five tips for writing visual historical settings:



1. Understand Micro-Settings.

When considering setting, a lot of people think of things like nineteenth century Missouri or Gothic Revival house, but these are macro-settings. The story doesn’t just take place in a Gothic Revival house—each scene takes place in a specific location in the house. These specific locations are what I call micro-settings.

Micro-settings include both the background and foreground, or if you want to think about it like a play, the backdrop and the props. It’s important to keep both aspects in mind. With contemporary fiction, readers can pull from their visual experiences to picture settings without much information from the author. Historical readers don’t have enough visual exposure with historical worlds to conjure up the setting without author assistance.

2. Use the Right Words.

It’s common to associate description with adjectives and adverbs because they are defined as “descriptive” words. The problem is that they don’t create strong visuals. It’s actually concrete nouns and verbs that create imagery.

Adjectives: The soft teacake tasted sweet.

Verbs & Nouns: The cinnamon teacake crumbled in my mouth.

Both sentences are describing the same details, soft and sweet, but the second sentence is stronger visually because it uses concrete (specific) nouns and verbs. Adjectives have their purpose too, but not in place of verbs and nouns. If you are interested in this or similar techniques, Constance Hale’s book Sin and Syntax goes into much more depth.


3. Use the Rule of Three.

Sometimes writers fear that the reader has to have every detail before they start the scene, but that’s not the case when using the rule of three. The human brain doesn’t need every single detail to create an image. It only needs three specific details and the mind fills in the rest. It works even better if you incorporate some of the other five senses besides sight.

Let’s try this out! The scene is a historical garden: We walked down the path lined with holly bushes and watched the swans, but then a croquet ball rolled up to my feet.

Did you see it? Well, maybe it’s just really easy to describe a garden. Okay, let’s see if I can do it again but create a different garden: White roses entangled themselves up the side of the crumbling gazebo and the maple tree’s roots crept across the floor.

Did you see a different garden? And that’s without incorporating other senses! What happens to that picture if you add a cool breeze, the smell of moist earth just after the first rain, or the soft chatter of birds huddled in their nests?

Now, I’m not saying you should only ever give three details, but the point is that you don’t have to describe everything before you start your scene. Three is all you need to get an image started in the reader’s mind, and then you can sprinkle in more as you go.


4. Incorporate Details through Action.

There are two types of description: Static and Active. Static description is when you describe the way something looks as if your characters were standing back and observing it. Active description is when you describe something as if your characters are interacting with it.

Static: The giant tree had rough bark.

Active: I touched the rough bark and the giant loomed above me.

There aren’t any new details about the tree in the second sentence, but it’s stronger visually simply because the character is interacting with the setting. Static description is sometimes necessary, like if you are describing a building, but if your characters can interact with their setting, hold off on the details until they can touch, hear, smell, or taste them.


5. Include the Humdrum Details.

Details that might seem humdrum in contemporary novels are important for historicals. Historical readers want to know what it was like to live day to day in a different time. The feeling of scrubbing laundry on a washboard and the process of lighting a gas lamp create a sense of being in another time.

How well you do this falls back on your research. You can get daily details from museums, historical advertisements, journals, letters, or from books like The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Middle Ages by Sherrilyn Kenyon or What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool or Everyday Life from Prohibition Through World War II by Marc McCutcheon. There’s no questioning it, the best historicals start with great research!

Hope these five tips were helpful!

Can you add to this? What do you do to create visual historical settings?

About Stephanie Carroll

Stephanie Carroll writes American Victorian and Gilded Age fiction. Her novel A White Room was featured as a Notable Page Turner in Shelf Unbound Magazine and named 2013’s Best Cross-Genre title by USA Book News. Her short story “Forget Me Not” was recently featured in Legacy: An Anthology, and she also writes a blog for Military Wives and Girlfriends called Unhinged & Empowered. Learn more and receive free historical goodies at her website www.stephaniecarroll.net. Visit her @CarrollBooks on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest!


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