Show the historical setting, don’t tell us about it

It’s kind of odd how my shelved 18th and 19th century historicals were so much more historically accurate than the earliest drafts of my 20th century historicals, when I was actually older during my first forays into 20th century historical. Maybe it was just that I was more steeped in the 18th and 19th centuries.

There are a myriad of problems with my earliest drafts of my Atlantic City books, but one of the most glaring is that they really come across like early 1990s stories that just happen to be set during the 1940s. Really, as an adult reading back over the first drafts, the only thing that really gives me any clue of the historical setting is the occasional mention of the war, or maybe a fashion like zoot suits.

I’m really excited about going to finally transcribe Saga I of Cinnimin, which will involve quite a bit of rewriting, editing, fleshing-out, revising, restructuring, and polishing. I’m going to combine most of the Parts (since they really interlock, most picking up right where the other left off), and perhaps have only a Part I and Part II, one for 1941-45 and the other for 1946-50. This means writing that new Part II pretty much from scratch.

The war isn’t really deeply felt for much of Saga I, seriously. There are some mentions here and there of rationing, a silly scene showing local Japanese-Americans being deported (even though that only happened on the West Coast), some major battles, one scrap metal collection, and of course Sparky’s friends and their friends back in Europe. Other than that, these characters essentially function like there’s no war.

For any historical, we need to be shown the historical backdrop. Don’t just tell us the characters are annoyed with War Bonds campaigns, ration books, and no nylons. That divorces us from the historical setting. And seriously, these characters, even for being young, come across like really selfish and unpatriotic at a time when the American public was overwhelmingly supportive of whatever measures it took to win the war. That’s a bit much even considering I always deliberately wrote them as anti-goody-goodies in a satire!

Sagas II, III, and even IV also suffer from this problem. There’s just not enough historical flavoring outside of major events like Vietnam or McCarthyism. At least I can blame this on having only been a teenager when I wrote the first drafts. A good historical has to capture cultural and social flavoring, not just the major newslines.

The last book in my now-shelved WTCOAC series is set from June-September 1950. The “historical” bits consist of silly things like poodle skirts, sock hops, and the extremely anachronistic, forced “dawn of rock.” Oh, and 17-year-old Dinah, who’s run away to England after getting knocked up, is taking Thalidomide. I really didn’t know how to do my research or check that something existed in a certain year. To my 13-year-old self, the culture of 1950 was more like that of, say, 1958.

While I do feel that there’s too much emphasis on ONLY showing these days, I agree that there are times when outright telling the reader something wastes an opportunity to show it. It does more towards developing the overall setting, and doesn’t feel like a huge infodump.

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5 comments on “Show the historical setting, don’t tell us about it

  1. Julie Luek says:

    Great advice. I love reading a book that can paint the pictures for me so I see the setting, especially one that takes place historically– gives me such a vivid context.

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  2. There’s a lot you can do with the setting to really bring the time into play, especially if you involve all five senses.

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  3. I’m impressed by anyone who can write historical stories.

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  4. I think this is an aspect that takes training. The brain eventually gets programmed in structuring scenes so that details are experienced rather than told. It’s one of those balances all good writers reach for, no matter the time period of their tale. =)

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  5. […] An important reminder to show, don’t tell2) Learn how to focus on what matters3) Figure out if writing is actually for you4) Forget […]

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