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  • Writer's pictureRachel Demeter

How to Write a Compelling Historical Setting

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

Historical castle

When I sit down to write a story set in a bygone era, I find myself captivated by the challenge of bringing the past to life in a way that my engages readers and transports them to a different time. Crafting a compelling historical setting goes far beyond description; it involves weaving historical details seamlessly into the narrative, making the past feel vivid and tangible. In this blog post, I'll share my tips for how to write a compelling historical setting that captures the imagination of readers.

1. Immerse Yourself in Research

To write convincingly about a historical period, you must immerse yourself in thorough research. Start by delving into primary sources such as letters, diaries, newspapers, and official documents from the time period you're focusing on. These invaluable resources provide firsthand accounts and insights that textbooks might miss.

For instance, when I was The Frost of Springtime, I read actual diaries of the Communards of 1871. For Finding Gabriel, I read Napolean's personal letters and journal.

Newspapers also will help you get a sense of the language, social issues, and daily life of that era. Incorporating snippets of real advertisements, news headlines, and anecdotes in my narrative added an authentic layer to the setting.

2. Embrace the Details

Details are the building blocks of a convincing historical setting. Whether it's the texture of fabric, the scent of a particular flower, or the clatter of horse-drawn carriages on cobblestone streets, infuse your narrative with sensory-rich descriptions that transport readers.

Imagine you're writing a story set in ancient Rome. Instead of merely mentioning a market, paint a picture by describing the vibrant tapestry of colors from the various stalls, the aroma of exotic spices hanging in the air, and the melodic hum of haggling.

3. Language and Dialogue

Crafting authentic dialogue is crucial for immersing readers in a historical era. I find that reading literature from the time period helps me internalize the language nuances, slang, and expressions that were prevalent. However, striking a balance between authenticity and readability is key. You don't want your characters to sound like they're reciting a history lesson.

For instance, if I were writing a story set during the Renaissance, I'd incorporate some period-appropriate phrases and sentence structures while ensuring that the dialogue remains accessible to modern readers.

4. Show, Don't Tell

The age-old adage of "show, don't tell" is especially important when it comes to historical settings. Instead of directly stating facts about the era, show them through character actions, interactions, and observations.

Let's say you're writing about a medieval castle. Instead of describing the castle as "old" and "magnificent," reveal its age through the weathered stones, the creak of ancient doors, and the play of light and shadow on its towering walls.

5. Blend Historical Figures and Fiction

Intertwining historical figures with fictional characters can add depth and authenticity to your story. This technique allows you to showcase how everyday people interacted with notable figures and events of the time.

Let's say you're writing a story set during the American Revolution. Why not have your protagonist cross paths with historical figures like Benjamin Franklin, or participate in events like the Boston Tea Party? This provides a personal perspective on a well-known historical period.

In Finding Gabriel, Napoleon Bonaparte makes several appearances!

6. Convey Social Norms and Customs

Understanding the social norms, customs, and taboos of a historical era is crucial for character interactions and plot developments. These norms can influence everything from clothing choices to acceptable behavior in different settings.

For example, if you're writing about a story set in the Victorian era, it's essential to grasp the strict etiquette of the time, such as how men and women interacted, the rules of courtship, and the roles of different social classes.

Conclusion: How to Write a Compelling Historical Setting

Crafting a compelling historical setting requires a combination of meticulous research, attention to detail, and a dash of creative flair. By immersing yourself in the time period, embracing authentic details, and blending real history with fictional elements, you can transport your readers to a different era and make history come alive on the pages of your story. So, the next time you embark on a historical writing journey, remember these tips and watch your setting transform into a vivid, captivating backdrop for your narrative.

Happy writing!

Want to be Swept Away?

I write epic historical novels with sweeping, Gothic settings that'll transport you to a bygone era. Check out my books on Amazon.


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