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Tips for writing a novel set in the past

Novels set in the past can be tricky. Why? Because to be convincing and create authenticity you have to get your facts right! Imagine reading a book set in Celtic Britain featuring rabbits frolicking in the fields at dusk. What’s wrong with that? Well, as rabbits were introduced much later by the Romans and only established wild colonies during the 12th century, seeing them frolicking in fields in Celtic times would be impossible. And readers can be sticklers for such detail, especially in historical novels. Don’t think they won’t notice – they will!

So, depending on how far in the past you want to set your novel, you will have to carry out extensive research into every aspect of life at that time.

What to research

You’ll really need to research every aspect of your chosen era and should think about and thoroughly research the following:

  • architecture – make sure your building descriptions match the era. Think about

    - what interior designs were fashionable
    - how many rooms people typically had
    - what heating and lighting they used
    - what colour bricks were used

  • The architecture also reflected the predominant thinking of the time. For example, churches erected during the time of The Protectorate under Cromwell in the 1600s are described as being plain, practical, simple, austere and humble reflecting the puritan thinking of the time.

  • religious beliefs – the prevailing attitudes of society are also shaped by the religious influences of the time. So, to use the previous example, during the time of Cromwell, people were expected to live by his example and be puritans themselves. So hard work would get you into heaven and frivolous enjoyment was frowned upon. Sport, theatres and inns were banned and citizens were expected to fast for one day, once a month.

  • language – the way people talk will differ depending on when your novel is set. Think about today – we have a whole host of words related to modern technology, such as phones, computers and the like, that would not have existed in the past. To make your dialogue authentic you need to make sure you use the same words and phrases used at the time.

  • fashion – think about what colours and styles were in fashion. Did most people wear hats? What were the hairstyles of the time? Did men have beards and moustache’s? What materials were available? What fastenings were used? And what were the clothing protocols for funerals, weddings etc?

  • food – the diet would have been vastly different for anyone living in times past. There’d be no fast food outlets to get a quick burger and chips from, no supermarkets to stock up on convenience foods or Greggs pasties to grab and go. Think about what foods would be regularly eaten and what the normal meal would be for the type of people you are writing about. And, importantly, what time they’d be eaten.

  • socio-economic status – what was the economic status of the average person in your time period. If, for instance, you set your novel in the time of the great depression in the USA, how much would a labourer get and what would that buy him? And, even if he had the money, what would be available to buy?

 

Once you’ve researched the daily business of life in another time, it’s time to delve deeper to flesh out your characters. For instance, if your character is a doctor, dentist or vet you’ll also have to research how they conducted their business, what terminology and equipment they used and who their clients would have been.

See part 2 for where to research your novel set in the past.

If reading this has inspired you to write a novel set in the past our Novel and Short Story Writing will help you to plan, research, write and submit it for pulication. Request free details now with no obligation to enrol.

 

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Lizbeth Crawford"My debut novel, Hate To Love You, by Elise Alden (my pen name for contemporary and historical romance), received three offers of publication. I went with Harlequin Carina Press.

"So, thank you Writers Bureau, to which I am extremely grateful. The Novel and Short Story course gave me the tools I needed to write my first novel."

Lizbeth Crawford

 
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