Writing techniques for immersive Historical Fiction


All readers of fiction crave an immersive reading experience

You know the sensation; the physical and temporal space around you seeps away and you are immersed into the storyworld. The characters spring into existence, the setting seems as real as the chair you sat down on a moment ago. The smells, sounds, buildings, forests, creatures—and danger—surround you.

Conjuring an immersive reading experience for a Historical Fiction is more difficult than with a contemporary setting, because readers lack the tacit knowledge, the construction materials, to create the storyworld. As a reader, you must assimilate an order of magnitude more information before the storyworld has sufficient spatial and temporal mass to immerse yourself in.

Reading is a performance

It is the reader who creates the storyworld; writers merely provide the plan for construction and the guideposts for transportation there. Wolfgang Iser in The Act of Reading suggests that if the plans for a storyworld are “…organised in too overt a manner, …we as readers will either reject the book out of boredom, or will resent the attempt to render us completely passive.”

The reader must become the conductor, taking the raw notes from the page and forming them into a performed symphony.

So what narrative devices and techniques can lead a reader to create an immersive reading experience?

Simultaneous Narration or First Person-Present Tense

All narrative modes offer potential for immersion, but Henry James specifically argued for the superiority of Simultaneous Narration as “…it manages to efface the boundary between narrator and character, …showing what someone is in the process of thinking.” It also allows protagonists to express their “now” feelings untainted by future events; the betrayal of another character, even their own death.

Incorporating the protagonists native language

A large proportion of the narrative in English language Historical Fiction can be considered Unnatural Focalisation if either the setting or the original language, is foreign. Even a setting in the medieval period should be considered unnatural as the English language used by the characters has, in the intervening years, changed so dramatically.

By incorporating words from the native language of the characters we provide more and higher quality materials for the reader to construct and immerse themselves into the storyworld.

My current work-in-progress is set in sixteenth century España and I have experimented and formulated several techniques based on the use of Spanish language to assist the reader to create am immersive experience.

  • Using Spanish words known or recognisable to Western readers:, such as: gracias (thanks); señor, señora, señorita (Mister, Madam, Miss); hola (hello), buenos días (good day/morning), buenas noches (good night), adios (goodbye); perdón (pardon); mucho/muchos (much/many)
  • Using actual Spanish words when the reader does not need to understand them intuitively: but can guess at their meaning in context e.g.

An uproar builds outside my cell.

‘Estar, estar,’ the jailer calls.

I scramble to my feet and retreat to the far wall of the cell.

  • Beginning a chapter or section of the book with a passage written in español: then repeating the same passage translated into modern English. Here the español text can be formatted to further differentiate it from the main narrative:

Me considero bendecido de morar en estos tiempos de guerra, no en la paz, donde me estancaría en la clase campesina; languidez constante engorde my trasero y embotando mi mente…

…I am most blessed to abide in this time of war, not in peace, where I would stagnate in the peasant class; constant languor softening my arse and dulling my mind.

This technique would be used sparingly but it is effective at heightening the otherness of the storyworld.

What techniques and narrative devices have you used to assist the reader to create an immersive reading experience from your stories?

A message to me to yourself…

One of my lecturers at University was actually a popular writer in the Romance genre, under another name. He was a grammar nazi of the eleventh order but such a good orator that I could have listened to him talk about paint drying without drifting off…too much.

His pet peeve, which I have been unable to let go of myself is:

the misuse of the reflexive pronouns such as “myself” and “yourself”

How often have you said or heard:

“I will send this to yourself.”

…WTF. It’s like the speaker is trying to over formalise their language just ostracise the potentially uneducated.

Just say “I will send this to you.”

What was one of the major points behind Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” in 1946 :

“It [the English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” – George Orwell

My lecturer strode halfway up the stairs in the theater between where we sat in our uncomfortable plastic chairs, turned around and said,

“If you remember one thing from this course it has to be that self pronouns like yourself, myself, herself, himself…urgh,” he grimaced, “should not be used when they…do…not…refer…to the subject of the sentence.

Thanks Glen, mate…and no I haven’t forgotten! But I have held my tongue sometimes when I probably should not have!

Y is for Yourself

releasing your and your character’s VOICE

Photo Credit: Ian Kahn

In the writing world there are two types of VOICE:

  1. Your authorial style, that is unique if
  2. The style of speech and thought pattern or processes of a character

Authorial VOICE

We all have our favorite writers and it is this that we often  recognise from the first sentence of a work. It is more than a style of Point of View (POV) and many author’s work can be recognised from blind readings; Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer I’ve found to have a unique authorial voice.

At University and in writer’s groups I found it useful to imitate the voice of an author I admired. This exercise is like the Form/No-Form training in martial arts but eventually you must relax the form you are imitating until your own appears and it becomes something only you could have written.

It can be as enlightening to turn this exercise on its head and attempt to imitate a writer you dislike, let yourself go and become that writer; you’ll recognise some habits from your writing that you need to drop.

Character Voice

Characters, too, should have a unique voice. I’ve found that I must inhabit the character’s mind to achieve this though. I try to have a minimum of one hour put aside to write in isolation so that I have the time to reacquaint myself with the character and then inhabit them comfortably.

For antagonist or evil characters it is challenging to enter their minds but also to exit their minds unscathed.

I find songs a great source for words to use in character dialog; songs are like haiku (the better ones at least) where every word, every syllable, should be there only on merit. Most of us are lazy in our speech and we often use the incorrect word because it just pops out. If not overdone this can provide a character with a unique voice.

The same two elements of writing apply for a blog; the words should drop out of your head or heart and on to the page, only editing typographical errors.

“V” is for Voice