Narrative as Time Machine: Five Tools for World Building in Historical Fiction Part 2

Here's part 2 of an essay based on Presenter Tim Weed's fabulous craft talk at Muse 2014. Missed part 1? No problem! Just click here.


World Building Tool #4: Defamiliarization

Defamiliarization is a critical tool for all fiction writers, but especially for those writing historical fiction, where the risk of falling into clichés is particularly acute. Consider this passage from Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient:

“The last mediaeval war was fought in Italy in 1943 and 1944. Fortress towns and great promontories which had been battled over since the eighth century had the armies of new kings flung carelessly against them. Around the outcrops of rocks were the traffic of stretchers, butchered vineyards, where, if you dug deep beneath the tank ruts you found blood-axe and spear. Monterchi, Cortona, Urbino, Arezzo, Sandepolcro, Anghiari. And then the coast. Cats slept in the gun turrets looking south.”

Why is this an example of defamiliarization? Because it shows us something familiar, even clichéd, in a compelling new light. In the process, it makes us wake up and pay attention. Ondaatje transforms the Italian theatre of WWII into something new and surprising. It’s a mediaeval war: the butchered vineyards, the blood-axes and spears buried beneath the tank ruts. Best of all, for me, are the cats sleeping in the gun turrets. This is why Ondaatje is so good.

From Bernard Cornwell, Sharpe’s Rifles:

“The dryest building was a stone barn, built on rock pillars that were meant to keep vermin at bay, and with a roof surmounted by crosses so that, from a distance, it looked like a small crude church. The ruined house and byres yielded dam and fungus-ridden timbers that, split and shredded with cartridge powder, were coaxed into a fire that slowly warmed the wounded men.”

He could have just written, “they built a fire.” Fungus-ridden timbers split and shredded with cartridge powder? It’s different way to build a fire.

And now we come to a very important point:

Q: What do all the world-building examples we’ve discussed so far have in common?

A: Vivid, concrete, specific detail, which is the lifeblood, the gods’ nectar, of fiction.

That's right. Vivid, concrete, specific detail. If there is one simple key to world-building, this is it.


Word Building Tool #5: Use Period Details - But Sparingly

Consider this made-up passage, which is brimming with period detail:

“He walked down the street, his beaverskin top hat like a bobbing stovepipe, his shiny black Kramer’s Brother’s boots clacking against the ship’s-ballast cobble stones.”

This passage may strike you as awkward or funny, but it’s representative of a habit that’s all too common in lesser or apprentice historical fiction. Remember: period details must make sense given what’s happening in the story and the point of view character’s emotional state. They can’t feel “show-offy” or cut-and-pasted from the writer’s journal. Don’t fall into the trap of simply cataloguing your research. Stay away, in other words, from the historical “info dump.”

Here’s an example of period detail used more effectively, again from The Age of Innocence:

“He stood silent, beating his stick nervously against his boot-top . . ."

This is the first time in the novel we’ve had a reference to a walking stick, or to boots, both of which were of course ubiquitous in the period Wharton was writing. But it makes sense that we wouldn’t hear much about, because what self-respecting point of view character is actually going to look down and notice his own clothing or everyday accessories? Wharton’s character is not noticing them, he’s using them, and in a way that is expressive of both his character and his emotional state.



Summing Up

The best world-building passages in historical fiction, of course, combine several or even all of the above tools at once. They weave the familiar with the exotic, the recognizable with the unknown. They use period details sparingly, never gratuitously or in a way that seems intended just to showcase the author’s research. These passages are gritty and vivid enough to awaken our imaginations, so that we can’t help but be transported back in time to the world of the story.

To illustrate this point, let’s read three final passages. The first two are also from The Age of Innocence (obviously, I love this book) and the third is from Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier’s runaway bestseller published in 1997.

“The figure at the end of the pier had not moved. For a long moment the young man stood half way down the bank, gazing at the bay furrowed with the coming and going of sailboats, yacht-launches, fishing-craft and the trailing black coal-barges hauled by noisy tugs. The lady in the summer-house seemed to be held by the same sight. Beyond the grey bastions of Fort Adams a long-drawn sunset was splintering up into a thousand fires, and the radiance caught the sail of a catboat as it beat out through the channel between the Lime Rock and the shore.”

 “The next morning, when Archer got out of the Fall River train, he emerged upon a steaming midsummer Boston. The streets near the station were full of the smell of beer and coffee and decaying fruit and a shirt-sleeved populace moved through them with the intimate abandon of boarders going down the passage to the bathroom.”

“It was a cold day and the mud of the road was near frozen to the condition of slurry. Some of the men were barefoot. Many wore homemade uniforms in the mute colors that plant dyes make. The Federals were arrayed on the field before them, all newly outfitted. Bright and shiny in factory-made uniforms, new boots. When the Federals charged,
the men behind the wall held their fire and taunted them and one called out, Come on closer, I want them boots.”

Q: What do these passages have in common?

A: They’re beautifully written, even poetic. They blend vivid, well-drawn sensory observations of the natural world with deftly chosen and carefully limited period detail. They weave the familiar with the exotic, the recognizable with the strange, and they are gritty and vivid enough to awaken our imaginations, so that we can’t help but be transported back in time to the world of the story.

And that is how the worlds of the past are made.

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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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