Writing Scenes You Haven’t Seen

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

1. Senses

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.

2. Setting

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.

3. Detail

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.

4. Dialogue

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.

Tell me your opinion: How do you go about creating settings you have never personally experienced?

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About Patrick Ross | @PatrickRWrites

Patrick Ross is a professional storyteller. A longtime journalist, blogger, and creative writer, his first book Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road was published in October 2014 by Black Rose Writing. For four years he has blogged about writing, creativity, and living an art-committed life on The Artist's Road. He earned an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches creative writing with The Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and online with The Loft Literary Center. His wife and two teenage children tolerate his need to honor his muse through writing, which is particularly impressive since they often show up in his prose.


  1. Thank you so much for inviting me to share a sneak peek of my MFA lecture here on Wordplay! I’m honored to return as a guest blogger.

  2. Thank you so much for stopping by, Patrick!

  3. Would love to hear a recording of your presentation, Patrick. Remember… the audience will be nourished by your very presence as much as by the content. So have fun with it.

  4. Great and thorough advice on creating any scenes… and especially historical ones. When I write a scene, I always remind myself that the “little stuff” (what’s on the walls, how heavy the silverware is) matters because that’s how an individual experiences life. In writing historical pieces, I try to make this “stuff” carry extra weight of conveying time/place as well as theme.

  5. Amazing post! I found this very interesting because I just finished a “two part-er” on my blog about if you should write “only what you know” or broaden your creativity. This goes to prove that adequate research can help you create an authentic environment for your characters and make a believable story, even though, in this case, you might not have lived in that time period. Very encouraging post, thank you, Mr. Ross!

  6. @PJ Reece, I just learned my lecture is scheduled for 8:45 am on Saturday, July 6, mere hours before graduation. Not sure how many of my classmates will recover from the previous evening’s debauchery to attend, but it will be recorded. Thanks for the encouragement!

    @Alex, yes to using the “little stuff.” As readers, we don’t necessarily register all of them, but collectively they create the sense of authenticity.

    @Sarah Ellen, thank you for your kind words! It really is all about research. I’ll check out your posts.

  7. Love these insights, Patrick. All four elements are so important. Some writers tend to focus on one or two of them more than the others. But all four support each other and are what really make a scene come to life when used together. Great post!

  8. Your advice comes at the perfect time. Recently I read about an incident that took place in my hometown during the Great Depression, and I just started writing a story around it. Hopefully I’ll get that “sense of the real” from the research that I do. There’s a site I found via the Library of Congress — American Memories. It’s full of American history treasures. Best of all, I have a church load of elderly friends who lived in my town during the Depression. I can’t wait to sit down with some of them and get their memories on paper. Thank you for this post.

  9. @Jessica McCann Thank you for your comment. Your feedback really matters to me, because you are so skilled at writing historical fiction that puts me in the past. All, I encourage you to read Jessica’s All Different Kinds of Free, on the saga of a free black woman prior to the Civil War who finds herself dragged back into the South and put in slavery: http://www.amazon.com/Different-Kinds-Free-Jessica-McCann/dp/1611940052/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1371994113&sr=8-1&keywords=jessica+mccann

  10. @darsba You’re an inspiration! You heard about something from the past that sparked a creative passion in you; began to write your own version of it; and dove in to research, both online and in person with eyewitnesses. That’s fantastic! Please do me a favor and check in at The Artist’s Road in a few months to let me know how you’re progressing; I’m very excited for you.

  11. You are so correct about the research being important, Patrick. Reading everything available about the historical period the writer begins to get an overall picture of the four elements you mention, and most importantly, the actual historical character’s possible nature, which than gives rise the that character’s voice.
    Well done!

  12. Wonderful post! My current story was written in Chicago. I went there once years ago for a conference, but didn’t get outside much. I was fortunate enough to find a wonderful photographer on Flickr who took amazing pictures of the buildings and neighborhoods that really moved me. I’m very visual, so that helped me with writing the emotion and feel of the places in my story.

    The jazz club was a little different. I dreamed about it several times and was fortunate enough for it to be very vivid in my mind. I wrote down every detail of my dreams which really helped later when I wrote the scenes that took place there.

  13. Patrick – I love these helpful hints, especially as I consider writing my next novel to include both a contemporary setting and a historical one. I admit: I’m a little daunted by the task, but your insight makes it seem a bit more bearable. Thanks, Kim, for a great guest post.

  14. Thanks. I love to read what other historical fiction authors do. I also rely heavily on maps and knowing the transportation system. (My books are set in cities in the 1910s.) City directories and tourist books are beside me as I write. Another thing I do is watch the language. Readers say my books hit a true historical note, and maybe this little thing makes a difference. I look up words and expressions that are common to us, but not might not be used in 1910, usually at online etymology.com. For example, you can have a date, but you can’t date. Yet. “Date” isn’t a verb in 1910. So you “keep company.” Little things! Thanks again for a good post.

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