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How a Time Period Can Serve as a Character
Written by
She Writes
October 2018
Written by
She Writes
October 2018

This is a guest post from Ann Howard Creel, author of The River Widow

In many historical novels, the setting is so alive and present it feels like another character in the book. There’s no simple answer as to how authors accomplish this, but most likely the setting becomes a character when it’s well-developed and described, and the story could not have taken place during any other time in history. 

The Time Period You Choose Shouldn't Be Random

Stringent rules regarding fiction are meant to be broken; in fact, many of the best novels come about when an author bends the rules. But in historical fiction, it’s best if the time period is not random—instead, it should be essential. If you’re a historical fiction author, avoid coming up with a story and then deciding on the place and time period. Much of the criticism leveled at historical novels comes when readers and reviewers feel as if the story could’ve happened anywhere, anytime. 

The 4 Elements of Setting

Think of setting as comprised of four main elements: time, place, history, and social and cultural atmosphere. An old saying maintains that history repeats itself, and while that may be true in general terms, nothing reoccurs in the exact same way, and authors benefit from honing in on what’s unique and most memorable about a specific time and place.

In my new novel, The River Widow, the setting’s four elements are the year 1937, the Ohio River Valley, its history of flooding, and the Great Depression. History gave birth to this novel. When I came upon accounts of the Great Flood of 1937, an image formed in my mind—a woman accidentally killing her abusive husband and using the flood to get rid of his body. I have no idea why it happened; it just did, and my best story ideas have come in similar ways.  

If you’re fictionalizing the life of a real person, your setting is already in place. You have only to choose the times and events that impacted your character the most and then bring them to life vividly. But if you’re creating characters and are stumped for an idea, rather than deciding on a story first, try focusing on a historical setting that fascinates you and go in search of a trigger.  Imagine what it must have been like to live then. Ask yourself “What if?” regarding the events of the day, and go against the grain if possible. The idea for my novel, The Whiskey Tea, was born when I was reading about the men rumrunning along the East Coast during Prohibition, and I asked myself, “What if a rebellious woman became a rumrunner?” Ideally, the time-period provides tone and social context, too. So, for example, let’s say you’re interested in the development of the American suburbs during the 1950s, but instead of finding a safe and value-driven environment, a single mother who moves there is ostracized and then terrorized. Let your ideas flow.

Letting Setting Drive Plot

In The River Widow, the flood and its aftermath provided the setting. The year had to be 1937. I could choose the exact location, but the book had to take place somewhere along the flooded Ohio River Valley. Its history had to be that of a flood-prone locale with little protective measures in place. The Depression added culture and atmosphere. The struggles endured by those during the 1930s felt like a gift, because after the flood, my character had to be living during hard times, when powerful people held undue influence in small communities, when there was a divide between the haves and have-nots, and when society gave few rights to women. The Depression was a great fit.

Now let’s say you’ve come up with an ideal setting for your book, and your characters and story evolve around it. The time period is essential. Now you must make it feel present, vivid, and fully experienced by the reader. To do this, develop the setting the same way you develop characters. Every setting has a physical look. Every setting has a feel. Every setting has personality traits. And every setting has a history. Just like your characters.

Bringing Setting to Life

Rather than describing the setting in one big chunk, give glimpses throughout the book. And be sure to utilize all the senses. Tell the reader not only how it looks, but also how it smells, sounds, tastes, and feels. The atmosphere can be used to enhance character emotions, whether they be alike or opposite. Draw comparisons and contrasts between the characters and the culture and society of the day. Use metaphors and similes, and try to put your setting in some kind of movement or transition, be it physical, societal, cultural, or emotional. A dynamic place is more interesting than a stagnant one.

The River Widow’s setting was rife with opportunities for sensory description. The flood was massive, angry, bitterly cold, and swift. It smelled of death, tasted of river and earth, roared in one’s ears, and froze skin. Then, after the flood, the Ohio River Valley went into full rebuilding mode; it was almost the opposite of stagnant. Its appearance had been completely altered, and the smells were of foul water and mildew, then fresh paint and recently cut lumber. The sounds went from sloshing water to the hammering of nails. The tastes changed from anything that was available to freshly made bread and sawdust. But the Depression kept plaguing most people, and so in the midst of transforming the location’s physical state, all the social problems and inequalities remained much the same. A sense of suppression remained, and I used this to help develop my theme.

If you’re a historical fiction author, allow setting to drive your story and develop it as you would the major players in the book. Active, stimulating settings make for stronger novels, and remember that in the best historical fiction, the setting is a living, breathing, changing, and feeling character along with your human ones.

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  • Marybeth Holleman

    Excellent advice! Thank you for articulating what I've sensed about the importance of setting, especially in historical novels.