Places That Don’t Exist (Anymore)

(A/N: Post title is a play on the song Places That Don’t Exist by Conjure One.)

Two of the first things people want to know upon learning I’m writing is historical fiction novel is where and when it takes place.

The answers, for the record, is England in the early 1200s, but there’s so much more involved in creating a story setting in any genre than just choosing an era and location on a map.  There’s even more to it than just descriptions of what the building and scenery look like.

In his book Characters & Viewpoint, science fiction author Orson Scott Card refers to the setting of a story as the milieu, which he defines as the following:

The milieu is the world surrounding characters – the landscape, the interior spaces, the surrounding cultures[,] … everything from weather to traffic laws.  [It] includes all the physical locations that are used … with all the sights, smells, and sounds that come with the territory.  The milieu also includes the culture – the customs, laws, social roles and public expectations that limit and illuminate all that a character things and feels and says and does. (pp. 48-49).

Readers love to feel as though they’ve been transported into the world of the story.  A large part of that is achieved by creating an authentic setting.  One thing a writer can do to better capture both the structure and mood of where his/her story takes place is to visit the site in real life.  Reference books and Google Maps, after all, can only take you so far.

I indeed visited that part of England where my novel-in-progress is set, however, my novel-in-progress is historical fiction, which means the locale I toured through last summer is a much different place now than it was eight hundred years ago. The specific era of my story setting is long bygone, and very little in its modern incarnation can be back-cast to the past.

This thus leads me to wonder: when it comes to the task of creating a sense of place out of places that don’t exist anymore, is my job as a historical fiction writer easier or more difficult than that of writers of other genres?

Dressing a historical set

In my opinion, the answer is both.

It’s easier in that no one – not even medieval historians – knows for 100% certain what life, living conditions, and the local environment was like back then.  Therefore, the chance of being called out for getting the setting wrong is hopefully reasonably low, especially if I adhere to three guidelines I’ve devised for re-creating historical locales:

  1. Make appropriate use of an appropriate number of historical research sources
  2. In the case of gaps in recorded history, don’t fill in that gap with anything that didn’t occur somewhere else during the same era (i.e. make it credible)
  3. If making the above in-credible, hand-wave like hell and pray no one notices.

This is in contrast to stories set in more modern times where even if people haven’t experienced a particular location personally, they can probably call up a fair approximation based on similarities to places they have witnessed firsthand.

However, there’s a downside to working within a setting of which the average person can neither confirm nor dispute its accuracy: the fact that the setting is likely to be so alien and divergent from modern (North American) sensibilities and knowledge and ways of life, it may prove impossible to truly sink the reader into it.

I have a guideline for that as well: I make the main character act as a tour guide.

The “MICE” quotient

In Characters & Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card states that there are four basic factors present in every story to varying degrees of emphasis.  One of these factors, as discussed above, is the milieu,which, when emphasized to a greater extent than the other three factors (ideas, events, and characters, hence the acronym MICE) results in a milieu story.

In a pure milieu story, so much attention is paid to the setting’s description, history, and culture, it more or less becomes a character in its own right, in some cases, overshadowing the development and action of the people characters in the story.

A classic example of this is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  Middle Earth is the true star of this story, while the plot concerning the ring is merely a device for moving a group of largely non-differentiated characters from one end of the setting to another.

The Rough Guide to unfamiliar settings

Pure milieu stories are actually quite rare, as modern literary preferences tend to favour stories that emphasize any of the other three story factors ahead of milieu (e.g. mysteries are idea stories, thrillers are event stories, and coming-of-age stories emphasize character).

Historical fiction, however, still places great importance on milieu, for the whole point of the genre is to demonstrate how life in the past differed from life in our modern age.

And how people differed from our modern age.  Thus, just as the setting becomes a character in a pure milieu story, in historical fiction, the characters become projections of the setting, reacting and interacting with it, and essentially living the location.

This is true of all genres to some extent, that characters reflect the influence of their surroundings.  But in milieu stories especially, the personality traits of the characters often lack context without a solid explanation and interaction with the story’s setting since it’s often so structurally and socially different from the modern world.

(This is why I mentioned in a previous post that I’m generally less interested in specific historical figures than the society that gave rise to them.  Call it a case of me siding against nature in the old nature-nurture argument, but I find that especially in distant-past stories, without a detailed presentation of the cultural setting especially, the personality traits of the characters don’t make much sense and lack modern-day relatability.)

According to Card,

The characters’ own attitudes and expectations are part of the cultural ambience, and their very strangeness and unfamiliarity is part of the readers’ experience of the milieu.  The characters will be chosen not just for their intrinsic interest, but also because they typify certain kinds or classes of people within the culture.  The characters are meant to fascinate us, not because we understand them or share their desires, but because of their strangeness, and what they can teach us about an alien culture. (p. 50).

The characters in historical fiction thus make the unfamiliar more comprehensible by filtering it through a human experience we can all, if not totally relate to, at least empathize with on some level as one human being to another.

For regardless of where a story takes place – whether it’s a place that doesn’t exist anymore or not – humanness is something that never disappears.


Writers of any genre, does your story take place in an existing locale, one that’s entirely made up, or one that used to be but doesn’t exist anymore?  What methods do you have for helping the reader feel like s/he is really there?  Have you observed any good techniques in novels you’ve read?  Consider leaving a comment.

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4 thoughts on “Places That Don’t Exist (Anymore)

  1. Hello Janna
    I more or less write historical fiction also…you’ve visited my site and viewed the Civil War reenactor photos. Giving that away my writing is mostly Civil War or post Civil War Western. I almost think that I became a reenactor to experience the history in a different way…really live it. We wear clothing made from the same materials & patterened from the same garments. When writing in that genre, I almost feel like I have been there, I’ve been shot at thousands of times, stood bravely in the mouth of cannon, slept cold, damp and hungry, been awakened during the night to stand guard on damp & foggy nights…charged by mounted Cavalry & replused their charge.

    All of this is beside the point though…do you folks have renaissance faires there in BC (?) ??? If you are willing, I am sure that by talking with some of those good people they would let you play along for a time. If that is not your thing, just visiting and spending the day at one would allow you to smell the smells & hear the sounds and the langauge that would have been used then. You would see children playing the games of the times and women doing the chores that they would have done.
    Something to think about anyway…a chance to also add feeling to your story as if you have witnessed it with your own eyes.


  2. Hi Chris,
    You’re right – historical reenactment societies are a great way for historical fiction writers to get a feel for what life was like in their era of interest. I did take in a Ren Faire once upon a time, as well the historical reenactments at Warwick Castle during my England trip last summer. Both were pretty exciting and educational (even though they both post-dated the specific years I’m writing about by a century or so), and only served to increase my interest the Middle Ages.

    I can’t believe you’ve been shot at! That shows serious dedication to your interest in history, and must lend some real verisimilitude to your writing. Such an interesting era.


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