I had opportunity to interview some great historical mystery writers, asking them about the importance of setting; Denise Domning, Lee Strauss, and Rhys Bowen. Here’s what they said…
From Denise Domning author of The Servant of the Crown series.
How important is setting in historical fiction versus the setting in other genres?
I can’t say that setting is any more or less important to historical fiction than any other genre as every genre has its conventions. What makes or breaks a novel is how deft an author is at conveying the expected milieu. In that, historical fiction can be unforgiving. Readers who love this genre already know their history. Beware the author who doesn’t check her facts for she will suffer the slings and arrows of critics who remind her that sycamores are an American tree and potatoes come from the New World. For the record, neither of those were my errors but I have heard from readers protesting facts that in other genres would be deemed unworthy of comment.
In historical fiction it’s not enough to be comfortable with the details of your chosen time period. You also have to get that information from your brain through your fingers and into the book in a way that doesn’t stop the flow. For me that requires writing out all the details I think I’ll need for a particular scene, say a meal in a merchant’s house. How many tables are there and how are they set? What’s on the floor? Where are the windows, if there are windows? Is there a newfangled chimney or is there a central hearth? What colors/designs are painted on the walls? What
furniture might there be besides the tables? Is there crockery? How does it smell? What sounds fill the air from nearby homes or their own workshops? Are they close enough to hear the bells from the nearest church? Are there regraters outside in the street selling goods? Is the neighboring merchant shouting out to passers-by about his wares?
Once I’ve answered those questions, I go back and tighten, tighten, tighten, eliminating this, shortening that, until there are just enough details to describe the scene without slowing the action. This is very hard to do for someone who writes history textbooks disguised as novels to educate unsuspecting readers. I want to share every cool fact I’ve learned. To protect my readers, I employ this mantra: “If I love it, take it out.”
From Lee Strauss author of the Ginger Gold and Higgins & Hawke mystery series.
*How important is the setting in historical mysteries?
I would say very. The historical backdrop is almost like a character in itself. Readers love the details and historical trivia. Otherwise, you might as well stick to a contemporary setting.
From Rhys Bowen author of the Royal Spyness mystery series.
How important is setting for historical fiction writers?
Rhys: for me setting drives many of my stories. NAUGHTY IN NICE. TIME OF FOG AND FIRE. Etc etc
And it’s important to get every detail right. I read biographies, accounts of battles, diaries, study old maps.