Guest Post by Deborah L. Williams –
“Well, as you revise, think about food, clothing, wine, and gestures,” said my friend Allison. “The manuscript needs more texture.” When Allison talks, I listen. Her book about revision has become my new go-to writing handbook.
Texture. The great challenge of writing historical fiction. How do you create texture—the sense of your characters living in an actual world that is not the world you or your readers inhabit—without big info-dumps that will lurk in the manuscript like lumps of flour in cake batter?
It’s a world-building task, just as if you were creating some kind of new kingdom on an ice planet in some outer galaxy in the year 3022, and those four nouns, tossed off by my friend in a casual conversation, can help break up those info-dumps.
I’m writing a novel at the moment set in the early 19th century, primarily in the Levant, against the background of the Napoleonic Wars. In England, Jane Austen is writing her novels, while along the Mediterranean coast, the Ottoman Empire is thriving. My main character is based on a historical figure, a woman who fled aristocratic poverty in England in hopes of finding something better “on the continent.” Her search for that elusive “something” eventually led her to Cairo, then the Syrian desert, and finally Lebanon.
The history of this book probably isn’t very well-known to many people, and so the task I have is how to create texture without overwhelming my readers. Let’s think for a minute about that “texture” thing. Perhaps texture is itself a guideline: Are you weaving a cozy sweater of a novel? A densely knotted tapestry? A paisley shawl? The details you use will help create that quality: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a tapestry; EJ Levy’s The Cape Doctor is more of a paisley shawl.
In my book, I’m hoping for more of a paisley shawl than a thick tapestry, which helps me gauge the level of detail I’m going to offer. Another gauge I use is what I think of as the “CIA question”: What do readers need to know to move forward? Do my readers need to know the intricacies of Napoleon’s battle plans, or the various armies and alliances that tried to resist his onslaughts, or which generals commanded which battalions? For what I’m writing, the answer is no; if you were writing about a soldier in Napoleon’s armies in Spain, the answer would be different.
What I need is for readers to understand the impact of these battles, the ripple effect these faraway events have on local lives, and my four nouns can help me stay specific: How might the various battles change the 1809 version of the supply chain? Were there blockades that might have made various dress fabrics difficult to procure or more expensive? For more information about clothing, I’ve been looking at the resources offered by Bernadette Banner, a dress historian whose YouTube channel about clothing and costumes is dangerously addictive. (Questions about underwear through history? About how corsets really worked? About the costumes in “Wheel of Time”? It’s all there.)
Of those four nouns, the most difficult was “gestures.” Are gestures historically inflected? And then I started to think about a dinner party, a situation that brings all those nouns together: What did people wear to those parties? Where did the food come from, and was the availability of menu items influenced by larger political/historical events? (Did soldiers come back from far-flung places with stories about exotic foods or with seeds and plants and recipes?). What kind of wine did people drink, and did rich people drink the same things as poor people? At the dinner party, do the women get to talk? Are there servants? Do people shake hands, touch each other, use multiple forks? How do they deal with things like coughing, sneezing, spilling?
The gestures we make at a dinner party—waving our hands for emphasis—also translate to verbal gestures, those verbal tics we all have, the examples or topics we continually return to. The heroine of my book will never make a sports metaphor, but she does know a lot about military strategy; her companion, a physician, bores people to tears with his constant references to the plants and herbs he collects on their travels. Did I know anything about plants before I started this book, other than that roses have thorns and pesto comes from basil? I did not.
I spent time in the gardening section of the library and reading online about the history and geography of herbal medicines. And I was lucky enough to spend time in archives where I could see actual letters these people wrote, so I have a tactile sense of the paper, their handwriting (and spelling!), the sealing wax and ink colors. Even if your characters aren’t based on real-life figures, your work might benefit from archival rummaging—even printed collections of letters from whatever period you’re working on—because letters offer a great way to hear verbal gestures, learn how people structured their sentences, how they referred to events of their era, and so forth.
In organizing those details—an illicit hand touch at dinner between two people who later become lovers; a character’s first taste of an olive, which she experiences as a kind of “salty cherry”; the physician grinding oregano that he found in Gibraltar in order to make a treatment for infections; a woman’s decision to toss her corsets and wear elaborate Arabian tunics—I hope to create the texture that enables readers to be there with my characters, to live in that world.
Food, clothing, wine, gestures: weave your details through these nouns and see what it does to the fabric of your novel.
Deborah Williams is a writer and professor based in Abu Dhabi, in the UAE. Her essays have appeared in various publications, including The Markaz Review, Brevity, The Rumpus, The Common, Hippocampus, and The New York Times. Her current work-in-progress is based on the life of the amazing Hester Stanhope, who left England in 1809 and never went back.