Compelling fiction is driven by scene. We can feel omnipotent when writing a fictional scene, wielding complete control over every detail, every action, every sensory experience. But there are limits to that power; what we include must seem real to the readers. Creating a sense of the “real” is a particular challenge for writers of historical fiction, who must stay true the facts of the places and times in which their stories are set. Where can that writer find inspiration?
Lessons From Biographers
Many modern biographies read like novels. The father of the genre, Thomas Boswell, filled Life of Johnson with scenes, but he was present for them. Today’s biographers, like Simon Winchester, construct scenes based on research.
Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman tells the intertwined stories of Dr. James Murray, the creator of the Oxford English Dictionary, and Dr. W.C. Minor, a convicted murderer who contributed to the OED from his cell in an English insane asylum. In the opening chapter of the book, Winchester brings us to a moonlit Saturday morning in 1872 in which we witness—first from the point of view of Minor, and then from the victim—Minor’s cold-blooded act of murder. Winchester taps into the novelist’s arsenal to bring this scene to life.
4 Elements of a Historical Scene
The quiet morning is interrupted by revolver shots that “echoed through the cold and smokily damp night air.” He obtained these details from the written report of a police constable. Winchester also folds in sensory details that were consistent for the time and place. He notes that the killing took place near the Red Lion Brewery, the chimneys of which were known to waft a “sickly smell of yeast and hops” over the neighborhood.
The victim—an innocent night-shift worker at the brewery who was a stranger to Minor—is depicted as “slipping and sliding on frost-slick cobbles,” details both from contemporary accounts and Winchester’s research of what the neighborhood was like in 1872. The victim walks under bright gas lamps, which Winchester knows from his research had only recently been installed.
We witness the victim rise just before two a.m. to dress for his shift, donning “a threadbare greatcoat over the kind of smock-jacket that Victorians called a slop, a tattered gray shirt, corduroy trousers tied at the ankle with twine, heavy socks, and black boots.” He cobbles that description from eyewitnesses and from the victim’s widow, who watched him dress and later gave interviews to the media.
Winchester provides us a lengthy back-and-forth between a constable and the murderer just after the victim has been killed, again taken from police accounts. “Whom did you fire at?” the constable asks him. “‘It was a man,’ he said, with a note of disdain. ‘You do not suppose I would be so cowardly as to shoot a woman!’” We know these words may not have been recorded completely accurately even at the time, but because of the depth of research Winchester has demonstrated, we trust them.
Winchester must work with what can be known. He can read police reports, newspapers, diaries, and other contemporary works that provide details about the time and place. He may feel a London murder would be more “authentic” if it were raining, for example, but a quick look at an almanac would tell him it wasn’t.
What You Can Do
Anyone writing historical fiction will have to research the time and place of the novel. You’ll be studying everything from architecture to attire, from the manner of speech to the style of décor. One way to gain a comfort level with creating a fictional scene is to start by recreating an actual one.
Gather up everything you can on some historical moment that coincides with your novel. Piece together every detail you can find—using senses, setting, detail, and dialogue—and make that real event come to life.
Then, when you turn to creating your fictional scenes, you’ll have a sense of what you can incorporate from your exercise to add a sense of the “real” to your scenes. Your readers will appreciate it.