Writing Advice

Time Travel for Writers

By Dave King

Ever since a 3rd-millennium BC Sumerian scribe set The Epic of Gilgamesh in the golden past, historical novels have held a powerful attraction. Today, historical settings open up immense opportunities for drama. Great events like the collapse of the Roman Empire, the black plague, or the Mongol invasion of Japan can be thrilling, but even everyday life often involved survival of famine, slavery, or petty wars. And jumping into the heads of the people who have shaped our world — Socrates, Lao Tzu, Queen Elizabeth — is always fun.

Yet far too many historical writers just use the old settings as a backdrop. Their characters may wear togas or tunics or ruff collars or bustles, but they are really modern people playing dress-up. Even readers who don't notice that the characters are out of place are unconsciously aware of something wrong, and those who do are robbed of one of the great joys of historical novels — actually visiting the past.

So how do you handle your historical era so that it's more than just a stage set? How do you make your readers feel like they're actually there? How do you time travel in print?

Everyday Life

Of course, you know better than to have your medieval European hero and villain get into a gunfight. On the other hand, you don't really have to make sure, for instance, that Italian opera had become popular in London by June, 1711 — you're writing a novel, not a dissertation. Besides, occasional anachronisms have been around since Shakespeare had a character in Julius Caesar say that the hour had just struck eight, fourteen centuries before the mechanical clock was invented. But even if you get the basic facts right, you need to do more if you want to put your readers into the head and heart of a historical character. You need to capture the thousands of ways in which the texture and feel of everyday life in the past was different.

Housing. "Home sweet home" was not what we would call comfortable. Until the last century, window glass was a luxury item — it was taxed as an extravagance in England — and wasn't available in many cultures. Chimneys only made their appearance in medieval Europe. In cold climates before then, it was almost impossible to get truly warm and breathe at the same time. No one had screens, so insects (and lizards and snakes and various other vermin) were free to come and go. The number of mice you had depended on the efficiency of your cat.

Food. The past tasted different. Unless you actually lived in the far east, spices were expensive and rarely used. Many of the foods now taken for granted in Europe came from the new world — your fifth-century Irish monks should not be eating potatoes. The apple traveled in the opposite direction, so make sure your pre-Columbian Mayans are munching native fruit. Most people's diet was monotonous, and the wealthy often went to extremes to generate interesting flavors.

Clothing. Check the details of your period and place before you dress your characters. Are they wearing silk, cotton, linen or wool? Before the invention of aniline dyes, brightly-colored cloth of any kind was hard to find, so if you put your renaissance Venetian maiden in a bright green gown, make sure her daddy is rich. Some colors weren't even available to the rich. The only way to get a deep blue or purple was from a dye made from mussels, which was so expensive it was usually reserved for royalty. In some places, sumptuary laws dictated who was allowed to wear what.

Labor. The amenities of life took work, and everyone except the very poor had servants to take care of basic necessities. When the Dashwood family in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility lost their fortune, they had to give up the townhouse, the piano, the atlas and society and retire to a small cottage in the country — with only two servants. If your heroine spends a lot of time running around solving your mystery, make sure she has the staff to keep the home fires burning.

Sounds. Pre-industrial time included lots of silence — days filled with birdsong and nights with insect chatter, with never a passing airplane or a neighbor's boombox within earshot. Even noise sounded different. Iron-shod horses drawing ironbound wagon wheels over cobblestones is a very different sort of traffic din than taxis jockeying for position.

Hygiene. The use of soap and water varied considerably from culture to culture and era to era. Regular bathing was part of daily life in ancient Rome and central Africa, for instance, while a hot bath was considered a sin in parts of Medieval Europe. Laundry was an immense amount of work everywhere and was done much less frequently in the past. In the days before germ theory, people were far less concerned with doing the dishes, handwashing, and making sure the privy was downhill from the well.

The little details. Money was less common than today — many cultures minted no small change — and barter and bargaining were essential business skills. All furniture was handmade and often prohibitively expensive. So were books — Charlemagne's library, then considered one of the finest in the world, contained fewer volumes than most modern used bookstores. Before the Arabic number system took over the globe, it took a specialist to solve arithmetic problems that today's schoolchildren would find easy — consider the difference between "2438 - 763" and "MMCDXXXVIII - DCCLXIII."

Everyday Viewpoints

Beyond the everyday details are the differences in the way people of the past viewed life — the basic assumptions they made about the world and their place in it. Every era has blind spots, from the divinity of the emperor to manifest destiny to driving three tons of SUV to the store for a quart of milk. Remember, these blind spots were shared even by intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive people — Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. One of the hardest and most rewarding tasks facing any historical novelist is to create sympathetic characters who are still creatures of their era.

Class. In many times and places, class systems ruled everyone's sense of identity. Upper and lower classes typically lived in different neighborhoods, sometimes spoke different languages, and in India were almost considered different species. The belief, shared by many cultures, that God assigned one's place meant that few even considered rising above their station. And the gap between the classes was not simply a matter of arbitrary prejudice or power politics. The rich were usually taller and healthier than everyone else because they had the best nutrition. They could also afford the servants for bathing and laundry, so they often didn't stink as much as the lower orders. Your sixteenth-century Samurai might treat his inferiors with kindness and respect, but he should never treat them as equals. Such a thing would never have occurred to him — or them.

Gender. Though gender roles were more rigidly defined nearly everywhere in the past, enough exceptions occurred that you should check before you make all your female characters either victims or proto-feminists. History is salted with queens who weilded genuine political power, from Hatshepsut to Zenobia to Elizabeth, and a fair number of woman warriors crop up in both fact (Heroditus's amazons) and fiction (Bradamant from Ariosto's Orlando Furioso). The monasteries that were the main centers of learning and influence in early medieval Ireland and Saxony were as likely to be ruled by an abbess as an abbot. Even when a woman's role in society was more curtailed, those roles were often satisfying. The "housewife" of a Victorian British manor house managed a staff the size of a small corporation. And remember, even in blatantly patriarchial societies, intelligent, sophisticated women often accepted the status quo to some extent. Your Restoration heroine might disobey the husband she's sworn to obey, but she should feel some qualms about it.

Inner life. In some ways the unconscious did not exist before Freud. Minor mental problems were written off as eccentricities (Samuel Johnson was almost certainly obsessive-compulsive) and major ones were often cast in religious terms (epilepsy was a form of demon possession). Your twelfth-century Scots highland chief should not be getting in touch with the wee bairn within. When he feels depressed, he should smear on some woad and take on the English.

Everyday Language

Avoid the common trap of excessive formality. The people of the past spoke Hindi or Farsi or Latin as fluently and easily as we speak English, and contractions were not invented by Edison. And no "Yonder is the castle of my father." Our present-day ear for archaic language may be shaped by Shakespeare and the King James Bible, but people only spoke Elizabethan English during Elizabeth's day.

Your characters should use idioms and metaphors that arise from the era you're writing about. If you introduce a new character, let your narrator be reminded of a real or fictional person of the period. When you're describing a lavishly dressed character, consider what sorts of people overdressed back then — newly-minted bishops or the emperor's new favorite or Londoners of no breeding who'd gotten rich in trade. And consider what images would spring most readily to mind for your characters. In Arundel, Kenneth Roberts evokes life on the frontier in Colonial America by having his narrator describe someone's clothing as being the color of a fern just after the first frost.

A quick way to create a sense of an earlier era is to include an occasional archaic word. If your hero and villain are fighting it out with glaive and falchion, it sounds like they're in the middle ages. Even during times and cultures that have nothing to do with English, using a bit of period jargon — the precise word for a specific type of yarn or a detail of animal husbandry — can put your readers into the heads of people with different priorities from us.

A Final Note

For all the differences between ourselves and our ancestors, they weren't stupid. They thought as deeply and as well as we do. They simply thought in different ways or about different things. Yes, we know more about the world than they did, but they often knew more than we give them credit for.

According to the thirteenth-century South English Legendary, the sphere of the fixed stars is so far away that you cannot reach it if you travel 40 miles a day for 8000 years. To modern ears, this is a ridiculously small number — about 117 million miles, not much further than the sun. But if you remember that, in the middle ages, 40 miles was about as far as you could travel in a day, and 8000 years was the known age of the universe, then the Legendary is saying that you could travel as fast as you can imagine for as long as you can imagine, and you still wouldn't reach the stars.

Which is exactly right.


The best way to get all the details right is research, research, research. Steep yourself in the historical sources from and about the era you're focusing on. I especially recommend:

  • C. S. Lewis' The Discarded Image and E. M. W. Tillyard's The Elizabethan World View: two explorations of the way the world appeared in the past by sympathetic experts.
  • The New Shorter OED: Lists when a word first appears in English and how long it was in use, making it a wonderful resource for finding language that matches your century.
  • The best online source for obscure original documents from ancient and medieval Europe is at Fordham University (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html). I recommend Hrosvitha of Gandersheim, the dark-ages Saxon nun who wrote comedic plays.
  • Where literacy is widespread, you can usually find collections of letters or diaries. James Boswell's London Diary is a personal favorite.
  • Period novels can be a source of everyday detail, though the most basic details are usually assumed by the author. Still, you want to know what your characters were reading.
  • For Europe, newspapers and period magazines dating back to the eighteenth century are an even better source of everyday detail than novels. The advertisements in The Spectator (1710-1712) are great fun.
  • Check out period comedies, from Aristophanes to Gilbert and Sullivan. You can tell a lot about a historical era from what they laughed at.
  • Archaeological sources often offer glimpses of period ephemera, from graffiti scratched into the pyramids by ancient Greek tourists to marginal notes in medieval manuscripts. I own a fourth-century Roman bronze coin in which someone drove a knife point through the emperor's face — an early form of political polling.
  • Books of theatrical costume design are a quick and easy reference for what people were wearing when.
  • Finally, read historical novelists who do it well. Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael books have their flaws (the romances all look alike, for instance) but she does bring the Medieval English mindset to life. The same could be said for Lindsey Davis' Marcus Didius Falco books set in ancient Rome or Mary Renault's books set in ancient Greece. Patrick O'Brian, in the Aubrey/Maturin novels, uses archaic language more effectively than any historical author I've ever read, though Georgette Heyer is a close second. Kenneth Roberts' novels of the American Revolution capture an eighteenth century mindset beautifully and are a good example of the value of research — look at the extensive bibliographic sources at the back of Arundel. And Susan Price's The Sterkarm Handshake, though science fiction, creates an entirely plausible cultural clash between the sixteenth century and the present.

top of page