Whisking the Reader Away with a Historical Setting

DCP_0145From the ancient streets of Babylon to the smoky speakeasies of the Prohibition Era, historical settings are a favorite of readers and writers alike. Whether a story is built around a significant event in history (like the Bite Me series) or simply set during a well-known period (like the equally fabulous Lackadaisy), historical fiction offers the reader a chance to get lost in a world that is at once foreign and familiar.

Extensive and intimate research is the key to using a historical setting well. If your story is set during the Napoleonic Wars, then the readers are already vaguely familiar with the world of your story. If you only tell them what they already know about your historical setting, you’re not letting the historical setting live up to its potential – and worse, you’re likely boring your reader. Instead, lead the reader into your period setting with interesting and accurate details that bring the world to life.

Obviously, you should not be so pedantic about your historic details that you turn your novel into a history lesson. The reader should be able to get a good sense of how your characters live, what kinds of work they do, and what kind of social structures they need to navigate on their way to get what they want. Even though you need to be accurate in order to create a convincing world for your reader, be careful not to get so involved with the setting that you under-develop your original ideas. The idea with historical fiction is not to tell the reader “what really happened,” but rather to tell the reader “what really could have happened.”

Well-researched historical settings give the reader an exciting, engaging tour of times long past. While major events can and should influence your narrative, intimate details about everyday life are what will make the story vivid and interesting.

Fiddler on the roof

Pied wagtail

Pied wagtail in winter plumage

Actually not a fiddler but a wagger.

This is a Pied Wagtail, a frequent sight by the house.

It wags its tail up and down to regain its balance after landing.

An apt name, which actually describes what something or someone does, is an oasis in the muddle of language.

Golden apples of a dream

Ripening persimmons

Ripening persimmons

I once wrote a poem about picking apples and likened the topmost, unreachable apples to the ‘golden apples of a dream’.

The fruits in the photo are smooth, golden, dreamlike – and reachable since the tree is still quite small.

Golden apples feature  in Greek and Norse mythology and are believed to refer variously to quinces, tomatoes and oranges; not persimmons. Ah well.

Our persimmons are of the astringent variety which are only edible when ripe and gloopy.

A few of them are sitting in a bag to ripen alongside some ripe apples while the rest are unashamedly serving as ornaments.

They really are the perfect winter ornaments because the leaves turn coppery red and set off the orange globes.

There’s a different, non-astringent variety of persimmon which I tasted today – absolutely delicious. Like melon only sweeter.

Rosy view

View from afar

Viewed from afar

Bordered by pink Autumn roses, our town nestles in the valley below.

From here it looks idyllic.

The Carabinieri never give parking fines; the butcher doesn’t overcharge for his sausages; the Post Office computer never gives up the ghost after you’ve queued for an hour.

A far cry from reality.


One - two - three Carabinieri

One – two – three Carabinieri

The red and black bugs we call fire beetles are nicknamed ‘Carabinieri’ in Italy.

This is because the uniform of Italy’s national police force is red and black.

One CarabinierE, or many CarabinierI (as here inside this lantern).

Talking about them in English, however can we distinguish between the singular and the plural?


Spare lines of a praying mantis

Spare lines of a praying mantis

A futuristic bicycle?

A lean and mean robotic steed of fibreglass?

No, just a praying mantis displaying its angularities.

Breakfast flowers




This is butter-and-eggs, more soberly known as yellow toadflax.

It should be distinguished from bacon-and-eggs, the nickname of bird’s-foot trefoil, which has red tips to the buds.

These flowers must have been named by people out very early in the morning and thinking about their breakfast.



Not making quince jam


Quince tree with props under its laden branches

Quince tree with props under its laden branches

“I think to have a quince tree and not to make quince jam shows such strength of character.”

So remarks Vera in the short story ‘The quince tree’ by Saki, satirical writer of the early twentieth century.

I guess we’re going to be weak again, and succumb to making jam, jelly and cake with our quinces.

Wasps waste nothing

Wasp on fennel

Wasp on fennel

Wasps are quick to profit from a quince smashed open by a wild boar.

They attack a stricken butterfly in seconds and suck it dry.

Here fennel flowers provide a rare source of autumn nectar.

Wasps waste nothing.

Apartment living

Sculpture in mud

Sculpture in mud

This is a monument to the industry of the mud dauber wasp.

Unfortunately it can’t stay there, on the lid of our pool motor filter.

In any case the empty holes suggest some of the larvae have grown up, pupated and gone.

I wonder if any of them said ‘Hi’ to each other?