Five Tips on Setting the Mood for Writing Historical Fiction


 Set design

Getting in the Mood

One of the most difficult aspects of writing historical fiction, at least for me, is world-building. It is a bit like dressing a stage for a group of actors. You are creating an unfamiliar environment for your readers within which your characters are given free-reign to perform their assigned roles. Although challenging, it can also be the most fun. But it requires getting into the right mood.

I suspect that I am not alone in saying that I heartily enjoy the research involved. It is unlikely that I would have chosen the genre if that were not the case. But the purpose of this blog is not to discuss research sources and techniques. Instead, I would like to initiate a discussion on how one creates a mood, or mind-set, if you will, to utilize the research once it has been compiled to create a convincing and, hopefully, accurate world. I say mind-set because the writer must have the world vividly in his or her imagination before it can be committed to paper.

So I will start the conversation by giving you five ways that I use to “get in the mood” to world-build. I hope that we can learn from each other and that you will tell me what works for you in the comments.

1) De-clutter the Work Space – Once I have started writing I don’t want to be inordinately delayed in finding that one piece of information I need that I know is in there somewhere. I get those unpaid bills and junk mail out of the way. If it doesn’t relate to the current writing project, I get it off the desk.

2) Organize the Research – I am old school in that I generally want hard copy sources whenever I can get them. If I own the book, it goes on the shelf above my desk. If not, I print out or copy the relevant passages and put them in a 3” to 5” binder. The binder has multiple tabs (often 30 or more) that will vary by project. Things like Costume, Agriculture, Transportation, Architecture, Currency, Maps, etc. Cities and towns that feature prominently will have their own tabs, as will key historical events that are integral to the story.

My Research Binder

My Research Binder

3) Draw It – It is no coincidence that many books that are based upon historical events have maps inside the front and back covers. J.R.R Tolkien was a big believer in drawing his world before he described it to his readers. Extensive surviving maps, sketches, and paintings of his fictional Middle Earth attest to this fact. I don’t have the artistic talent of Tolkien, but I can still draw out the floor plan of the manor house inhabited by my main character. I spent half a day mapping out the village that supported the manor before I started writing. Where is the mill pond in relation to the smithy? How long would it take to walk from the north field to the tithe barn? Could you see the manor house from the front door of the village church? I like to imagine this environment in great detail so that I can visualize the character’s surroundings at every point in the story.

I am also a big believer in developing a visual timeline of the story. This is especially helpful if your story is tied to actual historical events. I find myself referring back to this timeline quite often during the writing.

I am also a big believer in developing a visual timeline of the story.

4) Gather Tactile Inspiration – I find great inspiration in handling objects that are from the period I am writing about. It gives me an almost mystical connection to the people and events in the story. My current project is set in Medieval England and France and follows two soldiers during the Crécy campaign. I already owned a number of good reproduction weapons from the period but I was able to pick up several inexpensive items on EBay that served as inspiration pieces for me. Over time I have accumulated a silver penny from the period, a piece of Medieval tile, an iron caltrop (a nasty little spiked object that was often scattered on medieval battlefields to hobble attacking soldiers and horses), a medieval horseshoe, a bit, and a spur. One scene in the book called for the protagonist to go on a pilgrimage. I picked up a few reproduction pilgrim badges for inspiration (I have since purchased a couple of actual period badges). I think you get the point. Often, tactile inspiration can help you get into the minds of your characters.

Some of My Inspiration Pieces

Some of My Inspiration Pieces

5) Keep Learning – As the story develops, I sometimes need to step back for a few days and conduct additional research on an upcoming scene. I often come across new resource materials that I had missed earlier. Don’t feel bad about pausing for a time and synthesizing this new material into your existing research. This often requires adding new tabs to the research binder. But it also helps me to keep the writing fresh. I like to share what I am learning and it adds vital new detail to the world I am creating. Inevitably, this often requires revisions. But that is a topic for another post.

So there you have it—my five tips on setting the mood for writing historical fiction. I am sure that you have some ideas of your own.

Drop me a note in the comments and let me know what works for you.


8 thoughts on “Five Tips on Setting the Mood for Writing Historical Fiction

  1. I like all these tips. I do them too, but maybe a little less…. well.
    My three ring binder is a mishmash of copied pages, scribbled notes and old shopping lists. Tabs? What are those?
    As to drawing–there you have me. Nothings helps me more with world building then sketching things out. I’ve also recently discovered a great tip– storyboarding. No magazine is safe in my house. I’ve begun scrounging for character look alikes and setting inspirations. It’s a poor mans’s version of “tactile inspiration.”

  2. I would say that I primarily use steps 4-5 in my world building attempts. I’ve recently been working on a timeline that touches on various parts of human history, but most of my stories primarily take place within my favorite eras. Also I look at various historical and anthroplogical, and scienentific sources to add new elements to the material. Recently I started to draw a world map which actually helped give me an idea of who lived where and next to who.

  3. I think these tips are applicable to other fiction arenas too. I found also that travelling in different countries and observing all of the daily tasks that people do can be enormously inspiring; scenes can arise out of domesticity that would otherwise be unthought of, for example, watching women wash clothes in ditches, or pounding spices or making oil by hand; also, the buildings in such countries can do the same. A trip to somewhere like Morocco for example, would reveal a lot of artisan skills no longer used in the western world that once were… and people in these countries often seem to interact in ways that are far more ‘human’ (meaning full of eye and body contact, innuendo, meaning and depth). You have a very engaging way of writing by the way, I’ve enjoyed reading your posts and intend to follow.

    • Thanks for the comment. I like your suggestion. I can remember some years ago visiting a small village in Romania and watching several men building a wall. They were pounding clay into wooden molds and making their own bricks. Not something you would see very often in the US.

  4. We had our honeymoon in Romania, in a tiny village in Transylvania just over the Carpathian mountains. Absolutely magic place. And that was in the middle of autumn! Freezing! But soooo beautiful. I intend to go back one day in spring or summer.

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