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How to use Authentic Historical Detail to Trigger Emotions and Memories in Your Reader

29 November 2017

From Ruth Harris on Anne R. Allen’s Blog

Writers of historical fiction, whether Regency, Middle Ages, Victorian use the markers of the era—clothes, furniture, manners, leaders, resisters, war, peace, prosperity, recession—to create character, conflict, and plot.

Writers of fiction set in more contemporary times can use these powerful assets to add depth and texture as well. Adding authentic historical detail to novels will trigger a rich web of personal memories and associations. Those will engage readers in an emotionally profound way.

From the dot-com bubble of 2000 to the housing crisis of 2007, from passing fads to mega trends, the social and cultural settings of a story give us ways to draw readers into our stories. From fidget spinners, Beanie Babies and hula hoops to Madonna, Madoff and Zuckerberg, each specific detail evokes personal memories.

. . . .

  • The buttoned-down Eisenhower Fifties, the Man In The Grey Flannel Suit and “Togetherness” evoke memories a past era
  • The stylish Kennedy Sixties was note for Twiggy, the Cuban missile crisis—and the assassination of the president
  • The gloomy Carter Seventies brought recession and the “me” decade
  • The glitzy Reagan Eighties meant a rebounding economy and “Reagan Red”

. . . .

As you invoke relevant cultural, political and social trends in your stories, you will draw your reader into recognizable and relatable settings against which your characters’ problems and pleasures can play out.

The days when Nice Girls Didn’t morphed gradually but inevitably into the present when Nice Girls Do—and sometimes even post the video.

The years when girls who got inconveniently pregnant were sent away in shame has become today’s Single Mom.

. . . .

We’re not writing non-fiction. I’m not talking about giving your reader a history lesson—that’s Doris Kearns Goodwin’s job—but you do want to give your characters a recognizable world in which to live.

But your characters can—and should be—shaped by the attitudes of whatever setting and period you choose to write about.

Link to the rest at Ruth Harris on Anne R. Allen’s Blog

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5 Comments to “How to use Authentic Historical Detail to Trigger Emotions and Memories in Your Reader”

  1. Spent the last two days visiting the Taj Mahal, and found a scam which could have destroyed it – right before the timeframe of the book I’m writing in Sep. 2005.

    No clue – and then I realized the world was still reeling from 9/11 in the same timeframe.

    Now, to condense hours of video, hundreds of pages, more than 100 photographs, newspaper account then and since, and all those fascinating first-person accounts that are essentially what Trip Advisor reviews provide – into the tiniest bit of information for a scene. And not make that an info dump. Aargh!

    But it really helped to make the trip in space and time.

    And I wonder where my time goes.

  2. Surprising details often bring a setting alive more than n stereotyped details. I mean, you don’t want to paint a false picture, but certain things will pull the reader deeper instead of letting them stay detached.

    I still remember when I took archeology class, and we were looking at pots that weren’t “good enough” for museum display. And the pots had fingerprints in them! It had never occurred to me, even though it was obviously going to be true about something handmade, that hands would have touched it. But it made those potters real to me.

    • I would have been fascinated by the fingerprints, and looked at them carefully to see if they were similar to modern ones or not. What a treat!

      • Yup, I was moving my hands around to see what position they would have been in. (Without actually touching them.)

        The other surprising detail was that a lot of the more damaged pots were being held together inside by not-very-sticky masking tape. It didn’t hurt the shards, and could be easily removed later.

    • I love that. A history blogger posted pictures of ancient Roman toy soldiers that she saw at a museum in Germany. The museum had set them next to a modern action figure, which were the same size. A few people noticed that one of the soldiers had the “wrong” shield, which suggested the toy represented an enemy or mercenary fighter.

      Perhaps 2000 years ago there was a Hasbro company — “Hasbrvs” — that manufactured the equivalent of GI Joe and Cobra dolls. I like such details; I have a scene in a WIP where a character observes her little cousins playing with their toy soldiers. I agree those little nuggets can make a story come alive.

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