World Building in Historical Fiction - Maryanne Fantalis

This month, we're talking about world building, which is just another way of asking, how do we writers make the reader feel immersed in the world of the story?

As a writer of historical fiction, this is a particularly important question.

Not only do you have to introduce your reader to the characters, the stakes, the plot -- in short, all of the things you always have to do as an author -- you have to bring the reader into a world that they may have no familiarity with at all. Zero. None.

Everything from clothing to food to transportation to going to the bathroom is probably different in your historical world.

Here's an example.

This morning, when I got ready to go out, I took a shower. I put on a bra and underwear, socks, jeans, a tee shirt, and sneakers.

You understood every one of those words, right? I didn't have to explain any of that. Our common experience in the modern world gives us a shorthand.

Now let's think about the world of late medieval England in which I set my stories. When my character wakes up in the morning, what would she do to get ready for the day?

You have no idea, do you?

I mean, when she woke up, what was her bed even like? Did you ever think about that?

I have to explain it to you, but in such a way that doesn't bore you to death, that doesn't sound like I'm just showing off how much freaking research I had to do to write this freaking book, and also in a way that doesn't sound strange and stilted from my character's perspective.

Because, honestly, what if I had written this above?

This morning, when I got ready to go out, I stepped into the large tile- and glass-enclosed box in the bathing cubicle attached to my bedchamber and turned the knobs on the wall. A rapid gush of water descended from the round spray nozzle high on the wall, gradually becoming warm to the touch. Relishing the spray dancing on my skin, I lathered myself with a palm-sized bar of a scented fat-and-lye mixture, quickly washing away the sweat and dirt of the previous day and night, as was customary in my culture.

Weird, right? Who describes their daily hygiene like this? I'll bet you've read sci-fi that sounded like that and you skimmed over it. Because -- ewwww.

So when you're talking about an unfamiliar place and time, you have to balance the weird with the necessary.

For example, when Kathryn, the main character in FINDING KATE, went outside of the house, she put on a pair of wooden overshoes called pattens to protect her delicate indoor shoes, made of silk or kidskin. She had to mention that. It's part of her world (as is the fact that her streets are mostly rutted dirt, and only paved in the rich part of town, which is literally half a street).

These beautiful pattens were hand-made by an SCA member named Lady Ursula von Memmingen.
You can see the research and design here:

So, although in a modern context, I could say I put on my sneakers but I didn't have to describe them to you, my main character couldn't quite do that. I had to describe her footwear, but subtly.

I did it by giving out little hints, not all at once.

In an early description, another character gives her a once-over, not kindly, and she feels his creepy gaze crawl "from the modest lace veil over my hair to the wooden pattens covering my silk slippers." She is dressed as an entirely respectable young lady going to church, but the things he's saying about her are very much at odds with the way she looks and acts -- very unfair to poor Kathryn! Anyway, the point is, there are the pattens, slipped on over her indoor silk slippers. So you can tell, very early in the book, that she's rich enough to wear silk, and that when she goes out of the house, she's not letting that silk touch the ground. 

Every time she leaves the house, she makes a point of slipping into those outdoor shoes, so the reader understands that this is habit for her. It's how she lives.

The hardest part of worldbuilding, for me, as a historical author, is not so much finding the answers. The research is the fun part (#procrastinating). It's finding ways to bring readers into the world without making it mind-numbingly boring for them. There's nothing worse than a novel that grinds to a halt so that the author can info-dump all the cool things they learned about the historical period. You know what I'm talking about. Two straight pages of a feast, amiright?

What are your favorite ways to work historical details into your writing? What struggles do you have? How do you keep the facts from weighing down the story?


  1. Very nicely written. My friend Kathy Lynn Emerson has shown me some of the reference books purchased over the years for her medieval fiction and it's pretty impressive how much attention to detail goes into getting it right without sounding like a textbook.

    1. Thanks! I also have shelves of books that I keep for research, but the internet (and smart friends!) are a writer's other great gift.

  2. This is great. In one of my novels, a reviewer said my research was too apparent and now I understand why!

    1. It's a delicate balance, Patty, and hard to find. I'd be happy to talk to you more about it if you'd like to reach out.


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