Friday, May 20, 2016

Different Cultures, Historical Settings — by Christine

The First Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris 

No matter the setting of your novel, that setting is taken into the reader’s brain through their 5 senses: 

  • Sight
  • Smell
  • Touch
  • Taste
  • Hearing


Last week I wrote on this sense for setting, probably the most evocative sense for the reader. 

Sight is a given; most writers know how to write what a setting looks like. But as you write, remember that you are building a world brick by brick, leaf by leaf in a forest, every pebble on your seaside. And, it is the use of all 5 senses that is the mortar keeping the bricks of your story world together. 

Building a world is reserved not only for science fiction or fantasy writers. True, writers of those genres must create an entire biosphere that is nothing like (or perhaps just a little like) the world we live in. But this is true also for the historical novelist, as they write about a setting that is long gone. And true for writers who want to set a story in another land, a land they’ve never set foot in.

This is where research becomes your best friend. For my British Raj trilogy I easily read around 200 books or more on British India. But for setting, I specifically researched other types of books, aside from political and historical tomes to gain historical facts, but to help me develop my story world, such as:


Through those same history books I discovered how that setting feels to the touch. I wanted to know how it feels to live in the shadow of an ancient palace that was built thousands of years ago, or close to a place where a great battle took place. I’d ask myself, “Does strolling past these artifacts on my character’s way to market or even in a modern day setting bring a certain texture to their fingertips as they brush past these edifices? How does it feel to take a taxi past something as magnificent as the Roman Colosseum?”  How do the cobblestones of a Dublin street feel beneath my characters’ footsteps?


Travel books were a great help to me in understanding how the setting feels against skin, cold, heat, texture of sand, surf, grass underfoot.

Setting is so much more than the flora and vegetation, more than mountains, deserts, jungles, woods, or sandy coasts. Setting is also about:


  • Jungle noises such as large predatory cats roaring in the night, cacophony of bird songs, insects buzzing.
  • Sand hissing on a desert floor.
  • Surf pounding a beach.
  • Wind whistling as it bleaches a white stretch of beach.
  • The jingle of taxi bells in a busy Indian market

Taste (Nice and not-so-nice)

Cookbooks (cooking aromas and tastes) Especially if you can find old cookbooks from a certain era. I lucked out the day I found an old British Raj cookbook from the 1800’s written for English women living in India.

But don't forget the not-so-nice tastes:

  • Diesel fumes from buses (how that horrid taste is in the mouth)
  • A bug flying into a character’s mouth
  • The 0verly strong taste of alcohol for a non-drinker.
  • The astringency of medicine, etc.

We don’t know what the past was like as far as the 5 senses, unless we read primary sources from those times, such as biographies and other historical or even a few environmental science journals.


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