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Narrative as Time Machine: Five Tools for World Building in Historical Fiction Part 1

Here's part 1 of an essay based on Presenter Tim Weed's fabulous talk at Muse 2014:

Consider the opening paragraph of Mary Renault’s classic novel, The King Must Die:

“The Citadel of Troizen, where the Palace stands, was built by giants before anyone remembers. But the Palace was built by my great-grandfather. At sunrise, if you look at it from Kalauria across the strait, the columns glow fire-red and the walls are golden. It shines bright against the dark woods on the mountainside.”

Can you see this? It’s important to the author that you can. Otherwise you’re not rooted in the story, and you will quickly lose interest. Authors take note: the more fantastical or distant in time the world you are creating, the more you must infuse that world with vividly familiar and universally recognizable details. In the passage I just quoted, Renault uses a time-tested method for achieving a sense of the familiar and recognizable: a vivid description of nature, in this case a spectacular mountain sunrise. Which leads us to,

World Building Tool #1: Vivid Descriptions of Nature

I would argue that landscape description is an essential tool for all fiction writers, not just those wishing to engage in time travel. Why? Well, we all know natural landscapes instinctively, even if we’ve been born and raised in cities. Nature is primal; its patterns and spectacles are written into our DNA. It’s universally recognizable to us, so compelling portrayals of it tap into deeply resonant emotional responses. And because nature is relatively unchanging, landscape descriptions transcend time. They provide us with a reliable, scenic, and well-built bridge to the past – or to the future, if you ever decide you want to press the fast-forward button and write sci-fi – or to a completely invented world, if you decide you want to write fantasy. (Let’s not forget that JRR Tolkien is one of the greatest nature writers in the history of fiction.)

A few more examples:

From Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles:

“Later, Achilles sleeps next to me. Odysseus’ storm has come, and the coarse fabric of the tent wall trembles with its force. I hear the stinging slap, over and over, of waves reproaching the shore.”

From James Welch’s Fool’s Crow:

“He pushed aside the boughs covering the entrance and looked out into the grey light. He had slept well in his small shelter, but now his breath told him it was very cold -- and still. He heard the croak again and looked up into the trees. The sky was lighter above them. The granite face of the great mountain loomed through the trees, and the yellow light of the Sun Chief struck the very top. He rolled out and stood up, and there in the pine where he had placed the meat sat a fat raven.”

World Building Tool #2: Accurate Portrayal of Recognizable Human Emotions

This one sounds easy, but it’s not. If you can evoke emotional states in your characters that not are only plausible, but vividly true, the reader can’t help but be transported into the world of the story. From Edith Wharton’s seminal historical novel, The Age of Innocence:

“The longing was with him day and night, an incessant undefinable craving, like the sudden whim of a sick man for food and drink once tasted and long since forgotten.”

Can you relate to this? What, have you never been in love?

From John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman:

“He put on his most formal self as he came down to the hall. Mrs. Endicott stood at the door to her office, her mouth already open to speak. But Charles, with a briskly polite “I thank you, ma’am” was past her and into the night before she could complete her question; or notice his frock coat lacked a button.

He walked blindly away through a new downpour of rain. He noticed it no more than where he was going. His greatest desire was darkness, invisibility, oblivion in which to regain calm.”

From Gore Vidal’s Burr:

“I have always preferred women to men. I think that sets me apart, don’t you?”

Knowing exactly what he meant, I agreed. New York gentlemen spend far more time with one another in bars and taverns than in mixed company. Lately they have taken to forming clubs from which women are banned.

“I cannot -- simply -- be without the company of a woman.”

“But you’ve had no wife . . . ”

“Since before you were born. But then I have not lacked for . . . gentle companionship.” He gives me a swift grin; suddenly in the pale light he looked to be a randy boy of fourteen. Then he abruptly became his usual self; full of dignity save for that curious unexpected wit. I always find his brilliance disturbing. We do not want the old to be sharper than we. It is bad enough that they were there first, and got the best things.

Is this clear? It’s good writing, basically. We’re trying to portray human emotion in way that will make our reader exclaim, “Ah yes. How true!

World Building Tool #3: Incorporating the Exotic

The previous two elements of world building were all about grounding the reader in the familiar. The next one is about the opposite: it’s about transporting the reader to an unfamiliar place. Earlier, I alluded to the importance of “vicarious experience” in historical fiction. This is the “pornography” of the genre, if you like, and your readers will need some of it or a lot of it depending on the expectations you’ve set up in terms of where your book falls on the spectrum we talked about in the beginning. Vicarious experience is one of the innocent joys of historical fiction. No matter where you come down on the spectrum, you really can’t ignore it. From Dorothy Dunnett’s Here be Dragons:

“Accustomed to forest trails and deer tracks, he found it strange to be traveling along a road wide enough for several horsemen to ride abreast. Stranger still to him were the villages, each with its green and market cross, its surprisingly substantial stone church surrounded by a cluster of thatched cottages and an occasional fishpond . . . It was midday before he was within sight of the walls of Shrewsbury Castle. He drew rein, awed. Castle keep and soaring church spires, a fortified arched bridge spanning the River Severn, and the roofs of more houses than he could begin to count.”

Doesn’t this seem exotic to you? It’s exotic for the point of view character too, but from opposite directions in time: for him its grand and modern, while for us it’s a scene brought back to life from the mists of the primordial past.

From Kenneth Roberts’ Arundel:

“In the spring there are quantities of salmon running upstream, easy to take with a spear because of the narrowness of the river bed. When the salmon are finished there are fat eels lying in the current riffles at low tide, so thick that in an hour one boy with a trident may fill a barrel, which is a feat I have frequently accomplished, being addicted to smoked eel with a gallon of cider before meals . . .”

So, we get it, right? A different time. Something that is foreign to our experience, but that is written so well that we can clearly imagine it. We are transported.

Stay tuned for part 2, hitting the blog on Monday!

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About the Author

Tim Weed’s first novel, Will Poole’s Island (2014), was named one of Bank Street College of Education’s Best Books of the Year. His short fiction collection, A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing (2017), made the Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize short list. Tim is the winner of a Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Award and his work has appeared at Literary Hub, The Millions, Colorado Review, Talking Points Memo, Writer's Chronicle, CRAFT, Fiction Writers Review, and elsewhere. He teaches in the Newport MFA, where he directs the program's annual Havana residency, and serves as a featured expert for National Geographic in Patagonia, Portugal, and Spain.

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