Treat Time As The Fourth Dimension

Time adds a fourth dimension to your setting, as important as the three dimensions that characterize the place. Day or night, summer or winter, today or two hundred years ago—you can use time to establish an atmosphere, provide complications, and influence the characters' choices and actions.

As time passes, the characteristics of a place change. When you write a story set in the past or the future, your concern is not the physical, sociological, and psychological aspects of the setting as they are now, but as they were then or as they will become.

Until we are all issued crystal balls, your predictions for the future are as valid as anyone's. If your story takes place many years from now, let your inventiveness fly; what you have is an imaginary setting and the same considerations apply. You have somewhat less license if you are projecting a real place forward just a decade or two. You'll want to extrapolate what's to come from what already exists. To determine what can reasonably be anticipated, couple your knowledge of the place as it is today with your awareness of cultural, political, economic, and technological trends. Of course readers can do this, too. If you deviate too far from conclusions they've drawn, you'll have to persuade them that a logical sequence of events has taken your chosen locale from the known now to your fantasy of then.

With a historical setting you have all the demands for accuracy that a real setting entails, plus the added challenge of getting the period details right. Whatever decade or century you choose, there are bound to be readers who are familiar with it and who will catch your anachronisms and other errors. To make your story true to its time, you will need to know the period as well as you know the place. The physical, sociological, and psychological environments of a given locale can alter immeasurably over the years, and the amount of time required for major change to take place can be surprisingly short.

The more remote in time and place your setting is, the harder it becomes to research the details that support a three-dimensional presentation of the setting. Major events, such as battles and coronations, are well documented, and you may find information on the lives of the noble, rich, and famous. What's not easy to learn is how ordinary folks in distant times conducted their daily lives—how they did their laundry and what they ate for breakfast.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of a time period to understand and convey is the collective social behavior, knowledge, and attitudes—the mind-set—of the people you're writing about. A common error is to impose today's beliefs and opinions (for example, that all humans are created equal, or that romantic love is a proper basis for marriage) on characters who live in a time or place where science or philosophy or religion do not yet permit such notions to be entertained. Not only would people of the past not have agreed with many modern ideas, they could not even have conceived of them. In much the same way, we find it difficult to comprehend what it would be like to base our lives on the absolute, perfect knowledge that the earth is flat and that a chariot of fire called the sun races around it.

"Getting the mind-set right is the hardest part of writing historical fiction," says Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, whose has written stories set on six continents and in most centuries from Etruscan times to the present. "The tricky part is not knowing what people did, but what they thought they were doing."

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