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12 December 2007

Building a Literary World

“World building” tends to be a phrase we associate with fantasy and science fiction novels. And yet every writer has to build the world of his or her novel, and for the historical novelist this is a particular challenge. One of the things I love about historical fiction is feeling as though I’ve stepped into the world of the book. As historical novelists we need to not only understand the broader context of the eras in which our books are set—the political situation, the economic shifts, the intricacies of social convention--but also to be able to use specific details to bring the world to life—the smell of a particular type of snuff, the way a gown fastens, the taste of treacle pudding, the rattle of an inn sign in a gust of wind, the shadows interior carriage lamps cast on watered silk upholstery, the glow of candlelight reflected in the polished veneer of a Sheraton writing table.

Beyond bringing an historical era to life, as historical novelists our world building often extends to specific buildings our characters live in, and the history of those buildings and the people who inhabit them. When I began work on “Secrets of a Lady,” I had a quite detailed outline of the plot. I had done sketches of the main characters, family trees, notes on the key plot points. But then I got to Chapter 2, in which Charles and Mélanie (the hero and heroine) realize their six-year-old son is missing. Their first thought is that he’s hiding (he got in trouble earlier in the day for fighting with his sister), so they organize a search of the house. Of course for the search they wake up all the household. Having written a number of Regency-set books, I had a general idea about the composition of their staff—a butler, footmen, a cook, housemaids. But for this scene, I needed to settle on specifics. How many footmen? A butler and a housekeeper or just a butler? A cook or a French chef? How many housemaids? How many kitchen maids? I ended up with Higgins, the butler; Mrs. Esrkine, the cook (a Scottish name, because Charles is Scots); Addison, Charles’s valet (who’s been with him since Oxford); Blanca, Mélanie’s maid (who came from Spain with her); Morag and Lucy, the housemaids (again, Scottish); William and Michael, the footmen (Michael came from Charles’s grandfather’s estate in Ireland); Polly, the laundry maid; Jeanie, the kitchen maid; and Kip, the boot boy; in addition to Laura Dudley, the governess, who first alerts them to the fact that their son Colin is missing (Laura’s name was Sarah Cummings in this early draft; I changed her name when I realized the role she would play in subsequent books and her name didn’t seem to fit, but that’s another story).


Having identified and named the characters who would search the house, I needed a floor plan of the house to describe the serach. I sketched one out, floor by floor, which was a good thing, as I was writing a series and would be returning to this setting often. When I began the book, the Frasers’ house was in South Audley Street, just off Berkeley Square. Later, while writing the book, I went on a research trip to London and found a beautiful house on Berkeley Square which became my exterior model for Charles and Mélanie’s house, and I moved their direction to Berkeley Square.



My next book, “Beneath a Silent Moon” (which will be reissued in trade this May) takes place largely in Charles’s family home on the Perthshire coast in Scotland. For this book, I needed to do a floor plan not only of the house but of its grounds and out buildings. To do the floor plan, I needed to know the house’s history, when it had originally been built, when it had been added to and modified. And that meant knowing the history of my fictional Fraser family. Exploring Charles’s family was part of my inspiration for writing the book, so as I developed the book I went back and forth between working out the history of the Fraser family (for instance, I decided Charles’s father was a poor relation, who bought the estate after the death of godfather and distant cousin) and the history of the house.


I went to Scotland on a research trip in the early stages of writing “Beneath a Silent Moon.” My good friend, fellow writer, and critique partner, Penelope Williamson, and I spent a fabulous two weeks traveling round Scotland, visiting a wonderful succession of castles and country houses. Bits and pieces of a lot of those castles and country houses went into the creation of Charles’s family home.
I based it primarily on Drum Castle in Perthshire and Dunrobin Castle, farther north in Ross-shire. It was Penny, over dinner in a lovely country house hotel, who suggested the name Dunmykel for the estate. It seemed right, and I liked it because one of my close friends is named Michael (though he goes by his middle name). In addition to creating the main house, historical era by historical era, I worked out the lay out of the grounds (primarily the creation of Charles's mother, inspired largely by those at Dunrobin), and other building such as the sixteenth-century chapel (inspired by a chapel at Drum). By the end of the trip, my fictional Dunmykel and its history had fallen into place. “…a turreted mass against the blue sky, washed white by the sunlight. The thirteenth-century tower, the fifteenth-century north wing, the seventeenth-century central block and south wing, all overlaid by the embellishments and improvements of the eighteenth century. A jumble of eras, layered one on top of the other, like a tangle of memories.”


Dunmykel became in a sense a metaphor for the tangled lives and histories of the characters in "Beneath a Silent Moon", and the layers or memories and secrets they hold between them and coneal from one another. By the time I finished the book, I could understand why Charles loved the house so. It’s a setting I’m eager to return to.

As a writer of historical fiction, do you enjoy building the world of your books? Do you create floor plans and family trees and lists of staff and family members, collect photographs, or use other techniques to build your setting? As a reader, are there literary houses that linger in memory? Are there books in which the details about the family and household staff are particularly vivid?

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18 Comments:

Anonymous Sarah said...

How fascinating! I love collecting information, though I rarely get a chance to use all I find, and as a reader, I find it really makes a difference when the author has visited a place, or has personal experience of what they are describing - there is a natural quality to the words that sometimes has to be forced with purely academic research.

As to houses, I would say Manderley, in DuMaurier's 'Rebecca', is an obvious choice, with the closed-off wing, and the cottage by the sea. And for a twentieth century setting, the New York brownstone in Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe series has always seemed so incredibly vivid to me, including the staff!

6:54 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

When I'm researching/world building for my novels, if I see places that I want for my books, I photograph them or buy postcards if they won't let you photograph it, which is particularly true of interiors. I also take copious notes if I can't photograph the location.

I'm not much of a chart person. I like to get a very visceral feel for my characters' surroundings and then jump in. Characters names, and often their backgrounds, pop into (or out of) my head like Athena, fully formed from the head of Zeus. But I do very little prep work on their backstory, other than to make a note when something about them pops into my brain.

No. 1 Royal Crescent was the location for Lady Dalrymple's home in my historical fiction time-travel, BY A LADY, though I've visited a few late Georgian kitchens and homes (there's a wonderful restored house in Dublin from the 1790s that is now a museum).

I also have some "coffee-table" books on Georgian interiors, gardens, on Bath (where I've been several times, but it doesn't hurt to immerse yourself in a photo of a specific location) when you haven't been there in a while.

My contemporary fiction is set in NYC where I've lived all my life, except for my 4-year stint upstate at Cornell Univ. I've been complimented on the "you are there" details, the whole feel of the city, its pulse, its denizens, etc. Well -- yeah. I know all of that intimately. And it drives me nuts when I read books or scenes set in NYC where the author has the traffic going in the wrong direction, or some such tip-off that they researched the location online.

7:07 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Sarah, Manderley is definitely the fictional house that comes most immediately to my mind (and not the just the house, but the grounds, and the cliffs, and the cottage as you say). The house in "Atonement" was incredibly vivid as well (I haven't seen the film of "Atonement" yet, but from the preview, the settings and characters looking astonishingly like I pictured them as I was reading the book).

Amanda, I love photographs, and I have lots of coffee table books with pictures of interiors. Also, the guide books you can buy at every historic country home. I have a whole collection of them from my research trip to Scotland (with my own handwritten notes as we walked through the houses). I based Dunmykel's interior on rooms from various houses and also a great coffee table book on Scottish country houses.

Your comments about New York, remind me that world building can be as much of a challenge in a contemporary-set novel. It drives me nuts when things are incorrect in a place I've lived in or know well too. I've spent a fair amount of time in New York, but I'd be very nervous writing a book set there. Besides lots of research, I'd probably ask you to read it and tell me where I got things wrong :-).

9:28 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

In working with period detail (past or future) I think that a little bit of bandwidth goes a long way (I got this from computer theorist Brenda Laurel, who did her early academic work on theater). In dreams as in theater, there's that moment when a few potted plants become the Forest of Arden.

Which isn't to say that I don't love visiting locations -- I do, as I've written about here, and I certainly pored over illustrations in Diderot's Encyclopedia for the chateau kitchen in The Bookseller's Daughter.

But I think I do the legwork simply to find the right plant (or even the right pot) -- that'll click the button of my imagination. Again, returning to computers: years ago I was quite taken by reading cyberpunk genius novelist William Gibson's protests that his celebrated near-futurescapes are only about a quarter of an inch thick.

9:56 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Pam, I think, at least for me, it's not the amount of detail so much as the specificity of detail that builds a world and pulls me into a setting. So finding the right plant or the right type of coat cuff or hair pin can really bring the context of a book to life. That said, i do like a fair amount of detail (but I'd say your books have a fair amount of detail :-).

10:19 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Glad it seems like a lot, Tracy. One of the things I think we have to be careful about is wearing our erudition lightly -- I remember a historical novel that in many ways I liked, which insisted upon referring to the king's (George III) fifteen children, as though the characters were counting 'em each time they mentioned 'em. I try to scrub my manuscripts of that sort of stuff, but it's a fine line to tread, isn't it, between a sense of immediacy (what would that character take the time to say at that moment?) and the pleasure of amplitude, not to speak of the fact that readers really want to learn things.

11:13 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

It's an interesting question, Pam. I think a lot of it is what details pull the reader into the world of the book and what details are simply the author showing off--and as an author who's done a lot of research and wants to use it, it's hard to know sometimes :-). But i love to read a book and not only be able to picture the scenes but to feel I could follow a character through a door off the page and stay in a fully-realized world (which sort of goes to your parallel of theatrical illusion, because there are stage sets that convey that quality).

11:24 AM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

A setting that sticks with me is Tara - I suppose because of Scarlet's emotional connection with the place. Else, I don't remember settings right now, maybe because of the fact that I see historical houses and other places all the time. I have some Fantasy locations that I remember, though, from Tolkien to Tad Williams; it's one of the marks of a good Fantasy writer for me, to create memorable places.

As writer, I have to deal with the fact that Roman military camps look alike all over the empire, and even villas follow a pattern, though there's some leeway with country estates. German and Celtic settings are more fun because archaeology has still not found out everything about them since wood seldom preserves well. So I can decide to give Arminius a hall that's closer to Hrothgar than the typical Germanic longhouse-and-stable, for one because he'd have too much cattle to keep in one place, second because he doesn't need to keep them close for warmth since he is rich enough to buy hangings and furs aplenty, and third because he needs a representative place.

What plays a role in my books is landscape and the way characters react to it. The German woods and Highland mountains are almost a character of their own, and that goes all the way to the aspect how a Roman fort takes a particular look because of the setting, why Vindolanda is different from Housesteads and the Saalburg different from Osterburken. That's why I love to visit the places I write about, even if there are only some stones left. That, and the atmosphere of the landscape.

On the other hand, the patterened Roman architecture allows me to transfer the Wachenheim/Rhine country estate to southern Britain, and have a mental image of the aula palatina in Trier when I describe the interior of Augustus' palace hall. It's a mixture of research and imagination.

12:06 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I agree with Sarah that this is all fascinating. I'm about to start my first historical novel set in the 1890's, and I'm about to embark on the fun stuff of creating my fictional world. I agree that Manderley is particularly vivid, and also the girls school in Libba Bray's trilogy. I love reading first person accounts, particularly when both Jennie Jerome and Consuelo Vanderbilt first arrived at Blenheim Palace. They both had different reactions, Consuleo because she was going to be the chateleine of the whole thing, and Jennie, feeling like a guest.

12:36 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Coo, Tracy. I actually tried making a collage to get into the historical feel of my next book. SHADOW RIDER. The artwork came out pretty well, and finding images of castles, herbs and earthy 13th century-looking things in modern magazines was not as hard as I thought.

I would love to see bits of it on the book's cover...but oh well, maybe someday . . .

9:14 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Sorry to have been away from the computer! My friend Penny (who helped research both the literary world described in my post) and I had our annual shopping in downtown San Francisco and holiday tea afternoon (a great way to turn holiday stress into holiday fun :-). Pam, after I left I was thinking about your comment "a sense of immediacy (what would that character take the time to say at that moment?)." I think a big part of world building in historical fiction is filtering the world through the eyes of the characters--not always easy, because they wouldn't always notice the details one wants to bring out.

Gabriele, I always love hearing about your research into the ancient world. I totally agree that landscape is a big part of world building. If possible, I try to visit the places I'm writing about at the time the book is set (or I set the book when I know I can make a trip--that's why "Beneath a Silent Moon" is set in June/July). I make notes about weather, light, feel of the air, vegetation. Period journals and letters from the appropriate time of year can also be a huge help.

11:19 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Elizabeth, good luck with your first book! The 1890s are a fascinating time period. As I mentioned above, I love first person accounts for capturing a setting, both the landscape the houses. I loved your description of Consuelo and Jennie's contrasting reactions to Blenheim. In a novel ,particularly with a "great house", often what really matters is the impact the house has on the principal characters. Think of Elizabeth Bennet's reaction to Pemberley, Scarlet's feelings about Tara (as mentioned), the unnamed heroine's reaction to Manderley.

11:36 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Kathrynn, what a cool idea to make a collage! Did you keep in on your desk and as you worked on the book? I often have pictures on my desk while I'm writing, but I haven't actually done a collage. It would be so great on your book cover--maybe as a sort of textured background?

11:39 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks Tracy. This is actually my first historical that I'm researching. I have several contemporary manuscripts written under the bed. I just made a list of research questions that I need to answer and I'm trying not to be daunted. Thank god for the NYPL and the New York Historical Society.

7:20 AM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

Tracy, I wish Arminius and Calgacus had kept a journal. :)

The Romans didn't keep journals, either, but it's easier to get a grip on their culture and way of thinking because of the vast amount of various written sources they left behind. And in many aspects, they were rather modern, knowing a calendar, for example and measuring time with water clocks. Dealing with cultures that didn't is a lot more fun, ;) My northern British tribes would say things like, 'in the Time of the Lambs / ere the morning mists rise / when the plover's song fades' and such to denote time. Using weather phenomenons and bird songs is amazingly accurate, I've realised.

When Arminius returns home after having spent several years as Roman officer, he has to relearn some of the signs, like saying, "when the deer go to the river at sunset" (when there's no sun to see) instead of 'the twelfth hour'.

So when I'm in the POV of a British druid or Cheruscian sword leader, I have to leave the present for something completely different. Just well I love being out in the nature (and can treat a wound with wild thyme, burdock juice and tree sap if necessary, or sleep in the heather wrapped in a plaid). :)

9:09 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Sorry, Elizabeth, I knew you had written other books--I just had a momentary mental block. It's great you're writing an historical. New York is a fabulous place to do research. From your mention of Consuelo and Jenny and Blenheim is your book about an American heiress who marries an Englishman? That's a theme/setting I've always loved. (I loved "The Buccaneers," both the book and the television adaptation).

Gabriele, the different ways of dealing with time are fascinating! That's the sort of cultural detail that can really bring the world of a book to life! (And going back to Pam's point, in comes not from description but from how the characters talk and interact).

9:35 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Actually Tracy, my book is set at a women's college, loosely based on Vassar. I'd love to do a book about a young American heiress marrying an English lord. That might be the next one!

12:04 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Vassar or the equivalent would be a great setting! I had a friend who went to Vassar, who talked about how her dorm had very wide doorways, because they were originally built to accommodate hoop skirts :-).

3:29 PM  

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