View Full Version : Setting your story in a different time period

03-04-2007, 03:30 PM
If you plan to set your story in a time period that is long past, what's the best way to get a feel for the customs and vernacular of that era? Would it be best to read work published during that time period, or are there actually books dedicated to the slang and lifestyle of various generations?

03-04-2007, 03:36 PM
There are many books about certain time periods and locations, for example, Everyday Life in Colonial America. I think I would lean towards them for research.

Whether reading works published during the time period will help or not is hard to say. It sort of . . . depends. Certainly one can learn a lot about England in the middle 1800s from reading Dickens, and maybe Canterbury Tales would help someone interested in the middle ages.

Soccer Mom
03-04-2007, 11:37 PM
I say, do both. I am planning a story set in medieval times and I am boning up on the period by reading as much about it as I can. But reading works written during that time can also help you get a feel for the language of the time. A caveat: don't confuse the written word of a time period with the spoken word. Reading something published by a high born scholar isn't going to give you a feel for the street venacular of an urchin.

03-05-2007, 12:10 AM
It seems obvious, but things to avoid when writing a story set in another time include movies, television, and novels written at a later time but set in the same time you're planning to set your work in.

Some of these products come from authors or production companies taking great pains to get every detail right. Others stem from people who didn't care, so long as it looked cool. Unless you can tell the difference, avoid 'em altogether, at least in terms of regarding them as easy reference materials.

Maryn, who sees young writers attempt this shortcut too often

03-18-2007, 01:16 AM
One for 19th century England is called What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-The Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England


03-18-2007, 01:37 AM
I once read a great book about the life in the court o Versailles. It just went through the day to day habits of people. It's really interesting.

I know someone here said to avoid movies, but I think they can be rather useful depending obviously on the film. I've already recommended this before, and I am sure some people may disagree as this film varied critically, but I think Marie Antoinette (the Sofia Coppola film) was really interesting to watch. Here was an attempt to do a period piece but make it feel possibly how it might have actually felt, giving it many parallels with modern life and behaviour while still keeping to the traditions of Versailles. There isn't a lot of dialogue in it, but it is an interesting exercise on trying to de-mystify the past and make the people of that time seem "just like us".

just a suggestion!

Silver King
03-18-2007, 04:23 AM
Greatfish, when are you going to start displaying an avatar of a great fish? ;)

03-18-2007, 05:04 AM
A related question: Does a story set in the past automatically be considered "historical"?

03-18-2007, 12:00 PM
For me, the answer is both yes and no. Yes, in that the past is historical. No, because 'historical' to me does not mean 'based on things that happened in history'. For example, if I pick up a 'historical mystery', I expect it to be set in a time period in the past, but not necessarily to mention any big events in that time period. That is, I don't expect the book to mention any specific historical events, whereas I would (for example) expect a history book to mention them.
Gosh, I hope this makes sense. I think I've confused myself writing it. :)

Linda Adams
03-18-2007, 04:37 PM
A related question: Does a story set in the past automatically be considered "historical"?

I think there is a big difference between a book written as a historical novel and a genre book with a historical setting. The historical book would be about a specific area of history and focus, while the genre book would be more focused on the genre. There are, for example, romances in historical settings. I think a fan of historical novels like Killer Angels might read a Civil War romance and like the CW details, wish there were more, and be completely bored by the romantic storyline. Whereas your romance reader would enjoy the storyline and like being transported to a different place and time with just the right amount of historical details.

03-23-2007, 12:48 PM
If it's an era when relatively modern English was spoken, reading a novel or story written at the time can help you get the basics, such as courtesies (how to address your superior/inferior, for instance) right. You don't want to slavishly copy speech patterns or manners (after all, that writer may have been taking literary license), but a few key phrases or actions from the era can make a historically-set story come alive... or, if broken, they can kill the mood entirely.

03-23-2007, 02:42 PM
Besides reading books about/from the era, I would recommend visiting museums with exhibitions about the era if possible. This is a fun way to do research and it’s safe to assume, that a museum has the facts right.

04-26-2007, 08:22 AM
SoccerMom- I have a book that is on the history of Warwick Castle in England. It gives all kinds of interesting info on different periods and how it affected the castle and inhabitants. Trying searching other castles for medieval stuff. I am writing about post WWII in Wales. Luckily I am on a website, and asked some of the seniors what they remembered. For instance: still rationing in the 50's!

04-28-2007, 01:06 PM
I'm contributing three chapters to manuscript (yikes, due date is June 1). My research period is 1620-1650 - Strawberry Banke (NH area), near the Bay Colony. The key to period writing is exhaustive research, especially if you are depending on historical fact. However, we writers have been know to cut some corners, I know one published civil war novelist who created a female character and kept the character pregnant over a 20 year span.