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16 April 2007

The Landscape of a Novel

I'm writing a contemporary novella right now, which gives me plenty of mental space to contemplate the state of the modern historical novel. This is my "down time" -- when I'm writing contemporaries, I do my historical plotting, planning, and pondering.

Lots of pondering.

In a recent chat with the very talented Kensington Brava author Diane Whiteside, we discussed world building in the modern historical. With many publishers cutting page counts every year, authors are forced to produce shorter books. There isn't a lot of room to roam. In the interest of squeezing plot, characterization, and sexual tension into a book, something has to give.

Sometimes it's the world building that's sacrificed. When push comes to shove, the historical landscape can end up feeling a lot like our contemporary world, except there are fireplaces instead of central heating.

When it comes to world building, Elizabeth George is one of the best. (For those of you who aren't familiar with her work, George writes mystery novels set in contemporary England). George's books are long -- Outlander long -- but she could world build even without length. You can open one of her novels to any page, read any sentence, and immediately know you're in contemporary England. Here's an example, from In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner:

Jeremy Britton sat in the parlor. As it was half past ten, he was thoroughly blotto, head on his chest and a cigarette burning down between his fingers. Julian crossed the room and removed the fag from his father's hand. Jeremy didn't stir.

I've never read this particular book, but from these three sentences, picked at random, I can see that this is a dysfunctional British family, probably once wealthy, with an alcoholic father about to ruin the family and a son wearily taking care of things as best he can. The words she chooses and the details she includes -- the cigarette on the verge of starting the house on fire -- conveys a sense of impending doom. Even in this simple scene of a man slumped over drunk in a chair, she tells us a lot about the history of these people and the circumstances of their lives.

Every word counts. Every word is used to full effect. It's something I aim for in my own writing -- to choose the details that are significant, that convey the landscape of the book to the reader. To build the world for the reader purely through the eyes of the character.

George recently published a non-fiction book on the craft of writing fiction called Write Away. In the book, George devotes several chapters to what she calls the "landscape" of the novel. Landscape (as she defines it) is bigger than setting. Landscape is the larger history of the fictional world -- the personal history of not just the characters, but their entire family; the specifics of the weather in their era, and how it impinges on them; the history that's led up to the present time; all the little habits and details that you would take for granted if you were a person living in that particular place during that particular time.

I'm working on building the landscape for my next Regency novel -- a landscape where the family history is built on duty instead of personal fulfillment; where keeping up appearances is more important than the truth; where nothing is what it seems; where the elegant manor is a prison that looks like a palace. And I hope to follow Elizabeth George's example and make every word, every detail, every scene, show the landscape of history that led up to the little slice of Regency England that my characters inhabit.

I'd love to hear examples from romance novels, or any other thoughts you'd like to share.

Best to all,
Doreen

7 Comments:

Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Ok, I'm back from Disneyland (all I can say is it rocks to be able to drink and California Adventures and then go ride Pirates of the Caribbean tipsy!).

Heyer creates a "landscape" for her world that really works. It's part of world building, IMO. Julia Ross does this amazingly well, too.

9:27 AM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

I'm a huge fan of Elizabeth George's tomes (and PD James's, too). I've read every one of them more than once. And her "Write Away" is like my bible. I find Terry Brook's "Sometimes the Magic Happens" a corollary to George's book on writing. Setting up the ordinary world in which our characters move is as much about the characters, as it is about the history, society, and culture of the place.

11:57 AM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Yeah, Heyer is one of the masters at world building. Do you think it was easier for her because she was writing at a point that was so close to the time she wrote in? Her readers didn't have to stretch so far to understand her landscape.

Keira, thanks for the tip about "Sometimes the Magic Happens." I'll definitely check it out!

12:50 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I love the notion of landscape, Doreen; I think it's better than "world." Thanks.

4:26 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Welcome home, Pam!

4:44 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks, Doreen. New York was wonderful.

10:15 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Heyer was writing in the 1920s-1960s, I don't think that was really all that much closer than now. I just think she was amazingly gifted (and she was one of the writers who created the genre, so she was starting with a much blanker canvas, if you know what I mean.

9:10 AM  

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