Nidaros Cathedral - Trondheim, Norway

Nidaros Cathedral - Trondheim, Norway

 OK, peeps – continuing with our discussion of the Historical Novel Society’s conference that took place in Chicago this past week.
I attended one session on “Setting as Character.” Panelists for this one were Icelandic novelist Solveig Eggerz, our panelist from an earlier discussion C. W. Gortner, and YA novelist Judson Roberts, who’s a guy after my own heart since he writes about Vikings too. Judson, man, you rock!
So, can setting be a character? In historical fiction, what role does setting play? 
Our panelists agreed on some basics:
  • Place can drive a story as much as any character
  • It should definitely invite the reader to go and see it, to travel there
  • It should not take over the book
  • The bottom line is, what does the setting mean to your characters? Not to you, the author, but to your characters?

Then they differed in some other areas:

  • Solveig confessed to being a minimalist when it comes to setting
  • Judson said that he takes care of it during the rewrite
  • C.W. decides what to keep based on what his character needs; he said he tends to write more description in earlier drafts, then weeds it out. He said he asks What does your character see?

The issue of how to research our settings came up. After all, in writing historical fiction, our research issues confront distances of both place and time. So, how to research ancient Egypt? Or, in my case, how to research Norway’s civil war era of the late 12th century? And what about those pesky heretics, the Waldensians, who play such a role in my work?

Here’s what our panelists had to suggest to authors of historical fiction:

  • Yes, you guessed it, travel there when possible. This means see as much as possible, dig around in archives. And talk to people who have lived in the place a long time. They’ll be able to give you harder to find tidbits like superstitions, local folklore, etc.
  • Judson suggested that you find a contemporary source that allows you to “hear” the voices from that culture.
  • Solveig fessed up, though – in spite of everything, so much still has to be product of your imagination; she specifically warned against generic settings, which aren’t credible
  • C.W. picked up on this, noting there was a difference between an anonymous setting and a generic one. (OK – I confess that I was intrigued at this, because I hadn’t considered such a difference.)
  • If you do change things, list the changes in your author’s notes. This way, readers don’t question whether or not your actually did your research.
  • When using primary sources in your research, be sure to keep in mind the author’s intention in writing (so all of you who think that my hot Viking pals were up to nothing but rape and pillage, kindly bear in mind that this history was written by Christian monks who got kicked around by the Vikings for centuries. A little bitter, are we?)
  • Also (and yes, I’ll be owing folks at my alma mater the University of Texas) when kind folks at the universities help you out with some of the details, send them a gift and acknowledge them in your work. These folks have been generous with their intellect – they’re sharing with you and your readers something that is near and dear to them. Be sure to publicly acknowledge them for it.
  • And last, but by no means least – do stuff hands on. Sometimes, there’s just no substitute for trying out things on your own. (And since I’m researching barbarian, Viking hotness, I couldn’t agree more. I definitely need to research manly Vikingness hands on.) I’ll be awarding Unofficial HNS awards late next week, and I have to say that for this segment, C.W. related a bit of advice that I could only applaud, especially after I picked my lower jaw up off the carpet. But more on this next week (C.W.’s advice, not my jaw!)

So anyways, sports fans – that was the gist of this segment. I’ve got tons more from the HNS conference, and I’ve also found a romance cover of a buff Viking dude in leather hot pants.

Which to write about? The conference? Or a way-built Viking dude in hot pants? 

Oh, the decision!!!! More later. And I’ll leave you with this little picture, in case there’s any question whatsoever about the setting of my novel, cause you can never have too much Barbarian Hotness:

I'm getting this put on T-shirts

I'm getting this put on T-shirts