Sunday, July 12, 2015

Setting in Historical Fiction by Darlene Beck Jacobson

While setting is important in everything we write, it takes on special significance when writing historical fiction. If we want children to really feel part of a long ago time and place, it is necessary to ground them into the setting by using sensory details. Think of it as time travel in reverse...going BACK in time to make an unfamiliar place seem familiar.  Setting essentially becomes a character in the story.
      In my MG historical WHEELS OF CHANGE, I had to show the workings of a carriage barn and forge.  This place was the heroine Emily's favorite hang out, so I wanted modern kids to feel what she feels when she's there.  Here is the setting taken from chapter one with Emily narrating:

      I dance across the sawdust-covered floor past Sam, Papa’s woodworker.  His saw hums like a busy beehive, slicing planks of wood.   I pick up handfuls of the slivers, inhaling their fresh-cut fragrance.  The slivers stick to my sweaty palms; I wipe my hands on my dress to loosen them.  The slivers stick there as well, like they’ve found a home. Mama would frown at my soot-and-sawdust gown. I duck behind a post, breathing in the sweet wood and varnish smells.
            I glide back to the forge and lean on a wooden carriage wheel propped up next to Henry’s work area. Even in this soot-covered space, things are neat and tidy, nothing out of place.   
Pulsing waves of heat makes it feel like summer year round.  The fire needs to burn red hot to be the right temperature for bending iron.  I stare into the fire’s belly, watching it move and change colors as if it were a living thing.  Some folks might think the forge is dark and dreary with only one small window.   But the fire is like a beacon that lights up the whole barn and makes it shimmer.  Papa’s barn without the forge would be like Mama’s house without the kitchen.  The heart would be gone.
         The rhythmic tapping of Henry’s hammer is a symphony.  If I had but one wish, here it is – to be a blacksmith.

By using all the senses, we get to feel, see, smell, hear and almost taste the essence of a carriage barn and forge. We are there with Emily as her familiar world becomes ours.



  1. You are so right, and your writing is an excellent example of how to bring time and place alive using all the senses!

  2. Thanks for commenting Marcia. Setting is one of my favorite things to write about...plot not so much. That's an area that I struggle with.

  3. I LOVED WHEELS OF CHANGE. And I'm with you--far prefer writing description. These days, though, I'm forcing myself to focus on plot!

  4. I love the "pulsing waves of heat"!