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The Importance of Setting in Historical Fiction by Maggie Richell-Davies

I am pleased that the award-winning English historical novelist Maggie Richell-Davies has taken time out of her busy schedule today to explain the importance of setting in historical fiction. Thank you for your time and for sharing your expertise, Maggie.

Thank you for inviting me to your blog today, Val. I feel very strongly about setting In historical fiction because it is perhaps the most important literary element. Your reader needs to be transported into a specific time in the past, emotionally and imaginatively. A convincing setting, plus an ability to get into the minds of the characters in accordance with their times, is critical.

When writing my historical thriller set in the 18th century, I wanted to drop my reader into the chasm that existed between life upstairs and life downstairs in regency London. Unlike Bridgerton, The Servant was a darker tale than one of muslin gowns and dashing men in scarlet coats.

Hannah, my heroine, is a Huguenot orphan dumped in the poorhouse by her stepmother. The odds are stacked against her, but she is not only resourceful, but educated. Her ability to read, however, leads her to uncover secrets about the aristocrat for whom she subsequently has to work - and puts her in terrible danger.

Research is necessary if fictional characters and settings are to be portrayed as if they could actually have happened. One big mistake can destroy the belief of the reader in your setting. I recently drafted a short story set in Stirling during the Jacobite rebellion which had a girl taking refuge in a priest’s hole. Fortunately, a Scottish friend pointed out before it went to press that priest’s holes never existed in Scotland.

The challenge is using your research lightly. Readers of historical fiction love authentic detail, but does your reader need to know that Regency men sometimes pulled the long tails of their shirts up between their legs, instead of wearing underpants?

An evocative setting should also help your reader care about your lead character and, in a thriller, create apprehension on her behalf. It can also set the tone and mood of what will unfold in the coming pages.

Using Dickens as an example, I therefore kicked off The Servant with my young heroine defenceless, poverty-stricken and vulnerable to exploitation. The picture painted is of hardships frequently suffered by the destitute, especially vulnerable young girls.

‘Let’s have a proper look at you.’

I step within touching distance. The visitor has eaten something strong-smelling and her breath, and what is happening, jolt me back to being ten years old.

Toasted cheese. The mouth-watering odour had hit us as we were hustled into the room. Mary and I had been dragged from bed and hurried, barefoot, to the overseer’s quarters. There was a stranger with her, in a satin gown too bright for her face. From the plates and porter bottles on the table, they had just shared a meal.

‘The dark-haired one’s the looker, with them green eyes,’ said the visitor.

‘A handful, though.’

The stranger yanked up my shift and, when I resisted, gave me a slap. ‘Keep still’. Fingers searched, hurting, and I bared my teeth.

The blow from the overseer knocked me to the hearthrug. Inches from my face was a brass toasting fork and I lunged for it.

‘Don’t you dare!’ A foot stamped on my wrist.

I froze, the taste in my mouth bitter. Knowing I could be handled by strangers, like a donkey at a horse fair, and do nothing.

Toasted cheese was a popular light meal in the 18th century (still is!) and porter was a bitter beer brewed from malt. Woven in is foreshadowing of things to come in Hannah’s future. But the reader needs to be patient.

When subsequently, in Chapter Two, Hannah is sent to a new position in the house of an aristocrat, I wanted the picture of an establishment which felt wrong and disquieting. I achieve this (I hope!) through showing the concern of her companion, Mrs Lamb (the kindly housekeeper from her previous employment) at what she sees, and from the hostile reception Hannah receives from Mrs Chalke, her new mistress:

Mrs Lamb looks up from the written directions in her hand to the tall, narrow house at our journey’s end and frowns.

‘What was Mistress Buttermere thinking? Sending you here.’

Set behind spiked railings, a mere yard from the public street, it is not somewhere you would expect an aristocrat to live. Paint on the dark green front door is chipped and flaking. The windows are grimy, with heavy curtains drawn tight across those at ground level despite the sunny morning.

Mrs Lamb leads me down the steps to the servants’ entrance and raps at a tarnished knocker.

‘Perhaps there’s a magic carpet inside,’ I murmur, ‘and I’ll climb onto it and fly away.’

‘The only carpets you’ll find in there will likely need vigorous beating.’

A rattle of bolts announces the opening of the door.

‘Mistress Chalke…’ Mrs Lamb starts in surprise at its being answered by the lady of the house.

‘Good. You’ve brought the girl.’ A hand grips my wrist and I catch a last glimpse of Mrs Lamb’s startled eyes as I am jerked inside and the door is slammed behind me.

Hannah’s welcome doesn’t augur well, does it? Especially when we go on to picture the interior of the house:

Then I am in the kitchen of my new home, a place that stinks of old meals and rancid fat. Dirty dishes overflow the stone sink. The fire is a bare glimmer.

Mistress Chalke looms over me, her mouth turned down. Its preferred position, I decide. ‘Don’t just stand there. Make yourself useful.’

‘Yes, ma’am.’

I drop my carpet bag and start poking the embers. There is sea coal in a bucket and I add a few pieces before grabbing the leather bellows and pumping hard. With only my wits and what Mrs Lamb has taught me, I must satisfy this hard-faced woman.

‘You need to know my house rules. No followers. On pain of dismissal. And don’t jabber to anyone about our affairs or you’re out on the street. Next door’s maidservant has a nose the length of a poker. But she’ll get it smashed if she sticks it in our business.’

With a twitch of camphor and ill-temper from her skirts, Mistress Chalke leaves and I grit my teeth, for I am bound to this place for a year.

Grease from an iron pot sticks to my fingers as I fill it with water and hang it over the fire. A shadow looms in the dimness of the scullery doorway and my heart jumps, but it is only an old crone. A gaunt bundle of rags I can smell across the room. More like a beggar off the street than a servant in a decent household.

‘I am Peg,’ she says, showing teeth like a broken fence.

She reminds me of a cur, hurt so often that only starvation will tempt it within kicking distance. Her bucket of slopping water is heavy and when she sets it down to lean against a chair, I see that she drags a crippled leg.

‘One more thing.’

Mistress Buttermere never interfered in domestic arrangements, but this household threatens to be different. Mistress Chalke’s eyes dart past me, to Peg. ‘Away from that chair! Before I kick you off it.’

Peg seizes a cloth from her pail and shrinks to her knees. A glimpse of bare leg beneath a torn petticoat reveals men’s boots stuffed with rags to stop them slipping off her feet.

My new mistress beckons me. ‘Come.’

I follow her into a hall, gloomy from dark-red wallpaper and those drawn curtains.

‘That door is the master’s book room.’ She points. ‘You are never allowed in there.’

‘Not even to clean? Or lay the fire?’

‘Of course, you must clean.’ Her eyes narrow. ‘And naturally you must see to the fire. But you must never be in there unsupervised. It is kept locked.’

‘Yes, ma’am. I understand.’

I do not, of course, understand anything except that life here will be a nightmare.

But at least they have a book room. Not a proper library, for I cannot imagine this shabby house having anything like the Buttermere library. It even boasted a wooden lectern, like those in church, with a volume of Dr Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary on display. Whenever I dusted, I would pluck a new word to learn and savour, happy as a lady selecting a sugared almond.

‘Well, then,’ says Mistress Chalke. ‘We understand one another. But do what you’re told. Or I’ll flay the back off you.’

The setting should be like a painting, providing so much more than a backdrop to your story. Because the Buttermere family are moving to York, Hannah must leave a position where she felt safe after her years in the poorhouse and also part with a motherly housekeeper who had taken her under her wing. And this aristocrat’s house is a world away from ballrooms lit by dazzling wax candles. Hannah is plunging into the unknown. I needed my reader to sympathise with her – and worry about what might be kept behind that locked door.

Hannah’s new employer – we don’t see him yet – is a disgraced aristocrat fallen on hard times. His locked room contains books and we already know (though her new employers do not) that Hannah can read. Will this be relevant? Of course, it will….

Not all my settings are so dour, of course. That would make the story too depressing. So when Hannah goes to a local bookshop on an errand, I take my reader with her into the sunshine of a nearby square:

… as I turn into the square, I hear someone whistling merrily. The day is bright as a new penny and feels like a holiday, making me wish the booksellers further away, to prolong my outing. I have always loved to walk. It is a time to let my imagination soar. A pretence at being free.

The shop has small glass panes through which I get a tantalising glimpse of books and prints. The hanging sign shows the silhouette of a bewigged gentleman clutching a little girl’s hand while studying another book.

A young man is perched at the top of a ladder, cleaning the upstairs windows. The merry whistler. He looks to be making a proper job of it as I smell the sharpness of vinegar in the water in his bucket and hear the squeak of his cloth against the glass. He is astonishingly handsome, with fair and wavy hair, restrained at his nape with a navy ribbon.

Startling blue eyes smile down at me as I step towards the doorway.

‘Mind my water don’t splash your clean cap, little miss.’

This setting provides light relief, though in time Hannah will discover that the bookshop has its own dark secrets, signalled by its hanging sign. And even the friendly young man is not all he seems…

Each writer has their own way of dealing with settings. My own rules are:

· Get the big facts right

· Keep it simple and don’t overload with facts

· Avoid cliches and anachronisms

· Scatter foreshadowing clues lightly

· Get someone you trust to read your work before sending it out

· Accept criticism when it is kindly meant

· But ignore said criticism if you have faith in what you’ve written

I’d love to know if you found this helpful. Either through Val or my social media contacts below.

The Author

Winner of the Historical Writers' Award 2020 Unpublished Novel Award with The Servant, Maggie was born on the North-East coast of England and has a first-class honours degree from the Open University.

Her page-turning thriller was inspired by a visit to London's Foundling Hospital Museum - with its heart-breaking stories about the tokens desperate women left there in the hope that they might, one day, be able to reclaim their child - and research into the exploitation of women and girls in 18th century London.

Details of how she came to write Hannah's story are on her website, below.

Maggie has had short stories published and been shortlisted for Bridport Flash and the Olga Sinclair and Joan Hessayon Awards. She is a member of the Historical Writers' Association and of the Romantic Novelists' Association.

She lives in Royal Tunbridge Wells with husband, Mike, but also worked for a number of years in Peru, Africa and the United States.

The Links


Twitter: @maggiedavieswr1

Instagram: maggiedavieswriting

Tiktok: maggiedavies999

And if you want to know if I succeeded with my settings in The Servant, Hannah’s story is free to read on Kindle Unlimited or only £0.99 for the eBook until the end of September 2023.

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