The Little Details that Make Historical Fiction Come to Life

Thieves’ Quarry, the second book in the Thieftaker Chronicles, my historical urban fantasy series, set in pre-Revolutionary Boston, came out from Tor Books on July 2, and is now available from all booksellers as well as Audible.com in audio book format. It was a fun book for me to write, not least because I am a pretty keen history geek (I have a Ph.D. in U.S. History) and I got to do a ton of research and share with my readers loads of cool details about life in Colonial Boston.

We use all sorts of details to make our settings come alive, and to make our readers feel that they have been transported to a different time and place. Some are more obvious than others; some are subtle, even tiny, but incredibly effective. We have all read books (and perhaps written some) that rely on the most visible manifestations of historical setting. I have written medieval fantasies and filled them with castles, with swords and daggers, with siege machines. I’ve put my men and women in appropriate garb, had them eating off of trenchers, and God knows I’ve written about more horses than I care to remember.

In the Thieftaker books, I’ve taken the same approach, at least in part. The streets of my Colonial Boston are paved with cobblestones, crowded with wharf men and day laborers, horse-drawn chaises and carriages, and in Thieves’ Quarry with red-coated British Regulars. The soldiers carry muskets fixed with bayonets, some of the toughs my hero encounters use flint-lock pistols, while others just rely on knives. My wealthier characters live in well-appointed houses in Boston’s North End or on Beacon Hill. Ethan Kaille, my hero, lives in a ramshackle room above a cooper’s shop. He wears a waistcoat, breeches, a linen shirt, and, of course, a tricorn hat.

Shelter, transportation, clothing, weaponry: the staples of those of us who write historical fiction and fantasy. But what about those smaller things I mentioned before? What other sorts of details can we use to set the scene for our historical novels?

1) History. Yeah, okay. That probably sounds too obvious to be worth considering. But think about it for a moment: the events that shape history trickle down into the lives of us all. Our characters don’t have to be fighting in a war to be aware of its impact; they don’t have to see a king or president take power to comment on the fact that it happened. In the Thieftaker books, Ethan is a witness to important events — the Stamp Act riots in Thieftaker; the occupation of Boston in Thieves’ Quarry — but he also is aware of other happenings. He remarks that the war with the French (what we call the French and Indian War) has harmed Boston’s economy. There is talk of the Grenville Acts in the tavern he frequents. He has encounters with Samuel Adams. Events that we think of as “historical” are a part of his life, and that makes his world that much more real to my readers.

2) Music. Music in one form or another is a part of every human culture and every historical era. I found a listing of songs that were popular in each period of American history and have been able to sprinkle titles into my narratives. From Thieves’ Quarry: “The great room was packed with men and more than a couple of women, all of whom were laughing uproariously and singing ‘Jolly Mortals Fill Your Glasses.’” From Thieftaker: “A horse-drawn chaise rattled by in the distance, and a dog barked. Closer, a man sang ‘Rail No More, Ye Learned Asses,’ loudly and off pitch, the familiar lyrics slurred together.” The titles are authentic, and they make my world seem (and sound) that much more real.

3. Food. It is tempting to rely on old standbys when writing historical fiction, or when setting fantasies in quasi-medieval worlds. Fowl, fish, stews, cheeses and bread. But a few key details can go a long way toward lending authenticity to your characters’ diets. People in pre-Revolutionary Boston did eat a lot of stew; fish stew, to be more precise. And in the 1750s and 1760s they had taken to calling these stews “chowders.” That was a nice detail to add in. They also ate oysters, not as a delicacy, but as a staple, and in large amounts. And in addition to drinking ales and Madeira wine, they drank what were called flips: concoctions made from hot beer, eggs, sugar, spices, and a bit of rum. It sounds weird to me, but it was very popular at the time, which, of course, is the point.

4. Sport. This is one that I haven’t used as much as I should, mostly because the Thieftaker books coincide with key historical events, and during riots or the commencement of armed occupations, people tend to be less consumed with sports, games, and other distractions. But these are a part of human life as well, and have been for centuries. Showing our main characters, or even bit players, engaged in what were at the time popular pastimes, is another way of making our settings seem real and multi-dimensional. Actually, now that I think about it, there is mention of a public hanging in Thieftaker, one that actually did take place in 1764. I suppose that is recreation of a sort . . .

History manifests itself in many ways, and historical settings can insinuate themselves into our readers’ minds through a variety of details large and small. Next time you’re working in a historical setting or even in an imagined one for, say, an alternate world fantasy, try to think of unconventional details that might enrich the experience for your audience. They’ll appreciate it, and you might learn a thing or two, just as I did.

David B. Coe
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://www.dbjackson-author.com

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  1. 1. EKCarmel

    As someone who likes history (now that I’m out of school!), I find I enjoy learning it much better in service to a good story. I know it makes me sound like such a nerd, but I look events up after reading a novel to see what were the actual historical facts. (Don’t have to do that with yours, though!)

    I enjoyed Thieftaker and Thieves’ Quarry for many reasons, but one was definitely your ability to make the reader feel present in that time and place, standing right next to the characters.

    As a writer, I’m certainly paying attention to how that’s accomplished. Thank you!

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Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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