Lesson No. 2: Historic Settings in Historic Novels

As we turn now to looking closer at historic settings, there are a couple of things to take into consideration. In one sense, to successfully replicate a place in the past, it’s the goal to weave a careful balance of details into the setting. Often the piece can end up being too weighted with the facts. There is nothing worse when you spot a writer trying to use all their research. Not everything you learn/research will go in to creating setting.


Historic Settings You Know

We’ll look at two kinds of historic settings. The first, and easiest, is the setting of places that you are already familiar with, without having lived in the historical past. This would be general places, a lake, a mountain, a beach house. Having been to these places in the present, you can assume quite a lot. The key, however, is to make considerations for the past. For instance, you might create a scene where the setting is a log cabin in the Concord woods, circa 1800s. You can make assumptions, what trees and wildlife might be present, (maples, oaks, blue jays). The element of adjustment might be the size of the trees—maybe they are first-growth and bigger, or a certain species of fish or bird will inhabit the trees, but are now extinct.

Reconstruction Setting

The other kind of setting is called reconstruction. It is when you fully attempt to reconstruct a particular place in the past. Queen Elizabeth’s bedroom. A Dust Bowl mother’s sod home. This is where research comes into play, and as it becomes available to you, you can then incorporate it into the piece.

One essential consideration is to pick items in the setting that will in turn accentuate your characters, while at the same time coloring the story. So if we were looking at reconstructing Queen Elizabeth’s bedroom, we would want to look at her jewelry or keepsakes, rather than what color the bedspread is. Period details are also key. Rather than say there is a chair, you might describe a particular decoration on the chair popular in her time.

If you’re lucky to visit an actual home, or the location, it will serve you greatly in reconstructing a historic setting. For instance, I was surprised in visiting an 18th century home how the floor slanted so much, or how cold the rooms were, even with huge fireplaces.

Photographs are also tools to help with the process, or maps.

Mood and Setting

Mood is another key element in setting. Here is another place where imagination and assumption can help inform the fiction. Unless you can visit a sod home, you might not know what it actually felt like to be in one. Was it really cold in the winter, or was it, with a good fire, very warm? Was it dark? Did it stink? Were there bugs everywhere or mice? You could search out Dust Bowl narratives to answer some of these questions, but you might also allow the character to decide. Say the sod house is immensely dark, then you might have your character reflect, “Despite the darkness, the lack of windows to shed normal light into our home, I felt like the room was brightened with the news of a new baby girl.”

Mood and setting go hand-in-hand. As you draw in the details, what you deem important to evoke, will create mood.

Details That Inform

Other things to consider in the setting are elements that show rather than tell key information. I think it’s important to let the reader know right away what the time period is, where it is, and so forth. But you don’t want to always rely on a calendar on the wall, or the character saying, “What’s today’s date? Is it October 31, 1942?” So how can you use the setting to inform the story?

Find a few items that are particular only to that time period. For instance, if you are writing in 1876, you could easily remark or include your characters witnessing (or hearing about) Bell’s first transmission of the telephone. Lighting is another way of denoting time period—oil, lantern, electricity, and so forth. Church bells, holidays, events can also be used to show the reader the time period. “Elizabeth’s coronation was put off when her rival, Queen Mary, led a rebellion into the town square…” The reader can assume it is around 1558, or at the least, that it is Tudor England.

See what you learn from this example: “Outside, the children run door-to-door in costumes. A pirate with a real oil lantern came running to my door. I gave him a caramel apple and a shiny button to replace the one missing from his shoe.”

Hill Beyond the Hill

Let’s look at another concept, one I call, “hill beyond the hill.” When you’re drawing out setting, you want to not only include the immediate area, but also what is outside and around it, essentially what is on the next hill, and the hill after that, and the hill after that. Your reader will love you, if you allow them to see the big picture.

Using the Dust Bowl woman’s sod house, as an example, we can start the setting with the house. But what is around it? A garden? A road… where does the road lead? Is the road dirt or one through the tall grass? Where is the nearest town? What does the woman see when she looks out her door? Who are her neighbors?

Even if you aren’t sure, or the character isn’t sure, you can make assumptions. “Dahlia couldn’t see a single neighbor, and only heard it rumored that there might be one three miles east of the dirt trail that led to a family burial ground.”

Final Thoughts

Setting is the tool in a historic piece to give the reader the authentic feeling of transportation—the more real you can make it, the more your reader will truly feel they are in authoritative hands. The key is to shade and color the piece, rather than weigh it down with too many facts and relics. Allow your imagination to fill in the information you don’t know. If you aren’t sure about something leave it off. Better to not include something that to have it be wrong. I once stuck a peanut wagon in a story, before peanuts were popular on streets! The newspaper would’ve been the safer thing.


The two chapters assigned for the reading, Gone With the Wind and Jean M. Auel – 1 – The Clan Of The Cave Bear will serve you when considering historical detail and presenting setting. Pay attention to which details make you, as the reader, feel like you’re in the past. Mitchell recreates the Civil War south in the late 1800s, while Auel takes to the prehistoric era.

Reading Questions

 (Answers can be informal, in paragraph form, and no more than two pages. Make sure to back up your claims with examples from the book.)

  • How did the author successfully convey the historical period?
  • What details were you drawn to that made you feel in the time period?
  • What didn’t work for you?
  • Was there a point where you felt out of the time period?


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Colleen Morrissey is an author, scholar, and teacher from Omaha, Nebraska. She achieved her B.A. in English at the University of Iowa and her M.A. in English literature at the University of Kansas. She is currently working toward her Ph.D. in English Literature at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. Her dissertation, which she will defend in spring 2018, explores 19th-century British literature and culture. She was awarded an O. Henry Prize in 2014 and has been a Best American Short Stories Notable. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Southeast Review, Cincinnati Review, Monkeybicycle (print and audio), and others; her creative nonfiction has appeared in Confrontation; her scholarly writing is forthcoming in the Iowa Journal for Cultural Studies and an edited volume on British women writers; her poetry has appeared in Parcel and Blue Island Review.