I learned the most damning news at the recent Historical Novel Society conference: visiting every country where my stories take place is NOT required. Shut the front door! What? Boo, hiss! Of course traveling to a story's location is required; how else can readers obtain an authentic feel for a place in time if the writer hasn't even seen the sites? Sensory detail; the touch, feel, smell and even tastes of a locale establish themselves in a reader's mind through thorough exploration. Now, how am I supposed to justify any little jaunt as "research" if I'm not required to go? This question took me back to a moment where my nephew suffered some major disappointment that really affected his two-year old life (something about some broken toy) and with the saddest face ever seen on a kid, he wondered, "Now, what I gonna do?"
Well, according to the presenters Sophie Perinot (The Sister Queens) Eliza Knight (The Highlander's Triumph), Kathryn Johnson and Adelaida Lucena de Lower (The Red Ribbon) and the moderator, Stephanie Dray (Lily of the Nile) of Location, Location: Transporting Readers to Historical Settings, authors who can't travel to their settings in historical fiction should still keep calm and write on. Ladies, you shattered my world (or at least the little lies I tell myself to justify certain repeated trips).
There are practical reasons why accessibility to a site is not always possible. As Stephanie mentioned, the locations of her novels are in ruins and underwater or in places where travel is not safe. Kathryn and Eliza suggested in those instances an author can relying on virtual tours, Google Earth and YouTube tours. While setting feeds into the authenticity of a novel, lack of access to a particular site shouldn't discourage an author. Adelaida added that it also possible to substitute a particular geographic location. If you can have access to a site, then details come alive. Sophie said jot down or photograph those things you won't see later (unless you can easily revisit), the feel of the building material or the streets beneath your feet, and the available vantage points from various locales within your setting.
All the presenters agreed on several points:
- Even where the details aid a story, don't get bogged down in them. Your reader will be tempted and likely will skim the dreaded information dump, instead, include only those details of place and time which are compelling.
- Historical settings change over time. If you're using a detail, make sure it’s pertinent and did exist in the period you've chosen.
- Balance the desire to convey information about a setting with the reality of your characters. He or she should not suddenly notice things that they would ordinarily take for granted, no matter how unique the item may be.
- Location isn't just about setting. The emotions that characters experiences in a particular location can engage readers. If your character is imprisoned, mentioning the thick stone walls, iron bars and the small, confined space helps convey the proper mood.
- Your readers will fall in love with the setting if you have.
- If you've done the research into a location well, you can establish yourself as an authority and thereby gain readers trust.
Next up, one of my favorite topics - historical fiction outside the mainstream. It's not just all Tudors and Regency, you know.