There’s a line in Hannah Kent’s 2014 novel Burial Rites that describes the windows of a 19th century farmhouse. Instead of glass in the panes, stretched, veiny sheep bladders protect this Icelandic family from wintry elements. Kent paints a stark picture of rural Iceland circa 1828 using such descriptions—imagine dried seaweed stuffing your pillows!—and it is these small, specific, and unexpected details that bring her setting to life.
But where does one go to obtain such delicious factoids and scenery for your mise-en-scène?
When I was writing my own historical novel—Scandinavia! Early 1900’s!—I discovered the fascinating world of nineteenth century travel guides found on Google books (books.google.com). These guides were where I read about British adventurers nibbling on “tinned vegetables,” visits to a “mountain seter”, commentary on a “trotting match on ice”, and details about how “fish heads [were] boiled into a sort of stew and given to the horses” during times when hay was scarce—it turns out Norwegian ponies liked this form of food very much. In A Winter Jaunt to Norway (1894) the author, Mrs. Alec Tweedie (Ethel), gives us wonderful insights into gender expectations in the late 19th century. She describes the clerk laughing at the idea of two ladies (Ethel and her sister) securing tickets for travel to Christiana “as none but commercial travellers ever venture there between October and May.” Scandinavian day-wear is also delectably described: a Tellemachen girl wears an “embroidered horse-girth” around her waist in addition to an embroidered stomacher and black embroidered skirt. It turns out those wonderful Hans Dahl paintings of the Norwegian countryside aren’t just fantasy—people actually dressed like that!
These anecdotes along with others (“Norwegian beds are not made for laying straight; they are always at least a foot too short for even a medium sized person”) I typed into my ever-expanding document named coololdtimeyjunk.docx.
But not everything went in.
Some words, names, phrases, and descriptions just feel more old-timey than others. According to the “Tiffany effect” even if a certain thing is historically accurate, if it feels inaccurate the reader will begin to doubt the author’s credibility. Tiffany, after all, is a perfectly historically accurate medieval name and should belong in any medieval-set story, but it feels like it shouldn’t be.
If faced with a choice: side with feeling over accuracy.
Collect phrases. They create feelings. When deciding on a motorcar for my heroine to buy for her best friend, I chose a model with a steering tiller even though vehicles with steering wheels were perfectly common in the early 1900s. Likewise, I’ll use tinned-vegetables even though canned varieties existed.
Have you ever seen that Family Guy episode where Brian is dating someone older, and she has all these really specific names for types of furniture? Davenport, Chesterfield, Divan…Chifferobe. People born in previous centuries were all about giving names to each variation of table, hutch, or bureau. Antique auction websites are a great place to go to learn the names of things. How much cooler does it sound to sit at an escritoire rather than at a desk?
Also flowers. Especially in the 1800’s, everyone knew what plants were what. A roadway lined with yellow coltsfoot and purple lupine makes such a stronger picture than one lined with yellow and purple blossoms. Be sure to use the common name of the time, though, rather than the scientific name or the modern term.
If your novel’s town is fictional, you can still use historical research to make your world building feel realistically specific. For instance, when you go to books.google.com and type in “Stavanger”, then select “tools” and limit the search options to the 19th century or before, you’ll find Bennett’s Handbook for Travellers in Norway which will inform you that “posting rates are always reckoned at the rate of fifteen øre per Kil. Per horse” and “buildings are ornamented with abundant carvings” while “the costume of both men and women is picturesque… and the silver ornaments both men and women wear are characteristic of Norse workmanship.” With tidbits like that, your author brain juice is bound to be activated. What kind of carvings? Carvings of what? What do these silver ornaments look like and how are they worn? Hit the historical architecture and costume websites in search of photos.
If you’re up for paying money for books, the Taschen reprint of Auguste Racinet’s Le Costume Historique (1876) is basically the only book about clothes you’ll ever need. If you (like me) are fully committed to free-only stuff, you can find the original 19th century Racinet for the cost of zero francs on google books. People who don’t speak French need not be worried about missing out. The illustrations are what’s important. Scroll and screenshot to your heart’s content.
But a world is made up of more than sheep bladder windows, Davenports, and horses eating fish-heads. People have jobs. And trade journals are great places to learn about jobs and the ever-important terminology used by professionals of the time. In Vol. XVIII of Medical Brief (1890), I came across the use of medicament (such a delightfully archaic term for any substance used for medical treatment). Similarly, druggist rather than pharmacist or chemist has that wonderfully vintage sound to it.
Much of the research we’ve gone over so far provides us with visual elements. In order to bring a world to life, however, we need smell, taste, texture, sound, and other sensory details. These factors are a little harder to come by and sometimes require imagination to avoid cliché. Can we please have a moratorium on hooves upon cobblestone? Contrary to so many books, not every town was paved with cobblestone. In fact, there was a period where some villages experimented with paving their streets with wood blocks. What would it sound like, then to have a shod horse walking or trotting over wood. And what type of wood would your town use? Cedar? Pine? Birch? Would it be oiled or stained? If so, what might be used to preserve the road? And what would that resin smell like?
Sometimes our brains need help in coming up with ways to describe evocative sensory details. The random word generator is one way to get un-stuck. If you’re coming up with a way to describe a smell, visit https://wordcounter.net/random-word-generator, select “100”, select “nouns only,” and then scan down the list while jotting down any noun that might remotely smell like the thing you are describing. Two words together often make a great descriptor. I just ran the generator and decided my tailor shop smells like copper and goat. Maybe someone spilled some milk in the alleyway out back and the tailor’s assistant tracked the scent inside? It’s so random, it just might be right.
1. Think about your setting. If it’s fictional, choose a town or city in the world that you can use as inspiration. Be careful, though, to not apply cultural appropriation. (What’s cultural appropriation and why is it bad? Watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KXejDhRGOuI ) Then, go to books.google.com and type in that town’s name. After clicking the blue search button, go to “Tools” then click “Any time” and choose the time frame you want to research. See if there are any travel guides or books about people visiting that town during that time period. As you read, jot down 5-10 unique words, descriptions, and details you might use in your novel.
2. What occupation is represented in your story? See if you can find a historical trade journal on google books for that profession and try to find at least five words or phrases that are rarely used today.
3. Go to 1stdibs.com and find at least one period-appropriate piece of furniture or decorative object that could be a prop in your novel.
4. Find a setting-appropriate costume in Le Costume Historique and describe it in 2-5 sentences.
5. Use the random word generator to find 5-10 descriptive ways to illustrate the non-visual sensory details of a scene—sound, smell, taste, texture.
Don’t be the victim of clichés and generalities. Be specific. Preferably somewhat random. Ideally a little weird. Our preconceived notions about everything in historical settings is probably wrong, so take the time to google-books how things really were.
“You can leave my apartment key on the Davenport.” https://youtu.be/Hhs4l7V-MW0?t=270
Don’t freak out at the French, just scroll for the pictures: https://www.google.com/books/edition/Le_costume_historique/8coOAQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1
This is basically Amazon for billionaires: https://www.1stdibs.com/furniture/
LOL, this guy has such strong opinions on how 19th century gentlemen should part their hair. Chill, my man: https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=uL89AAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&pg=GBS.PA3
Actually quite a few 19th century books deal with non-allo-cis-het-normative topics. Of course, there’s a lot to unpack about the way queer identities are approached, but this book (and a few others out there) do have some positive-skewing messages: https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=1ir78o5rrR8C&printsec=frontcover&pg=GBS.PP1
I have a lot of 19th century sex books. This one isn’t even the weirdest: https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=EKRZAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&pg=GBS.PA3
When your words aren’t wording: https://wordcounter.net/random-word-generator
If you were born Jan. 6th, in 1200 A.D. your name is now Tiffany. I don’t make the rules: https://wordwenches.typepad.com/word_wenches/2018/04/the-tiffany-efffect.html
Budgets and annual reports from local municipalities are a great way to learn about construction materials used during your time period. Here’s more info about Chicago in 1891 than you will ever need: https://www.google.com/books/edition/Annual_Report_Chicago_Public_Works/RwcAAAAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1
Carly Heath is a writer and illustrator originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. She has a B.A. from San Francisco State, and an M.F.A. from Chapman University. Her work has been published in Meridian, named first runner-up for New Letters’ Alexander Cappon Fiction Prize, shortlisted for an Aeon Award, and selected for Best Gay Stories 2017. Her writing tends to explore complex friendships, feminism, social justice, and identity. She’s represented by Steven Chudney.