Welcome, Ursula Hartlein, historical fiction writer extraordinaire. And thank you for so generously taking the time to answer this question: If you could share one piece of writing advice with other writers, what would it be?
Thank you, Teresa, for inviting me to be on your blog! One piece of advice I’d give to other writers would be to use your setting as more than just inconsequential window-dressing. Weave it so deeply into the narrative it becomes like its own character.
One of the things which most strikes me about the earliest drafts of books I began when I was a lot younger is how the settings seem like little more than minor details. I was guilty of the Gossip Girl in period clothes mistake I see too often now. At least my excuse was that I was really young and didn’t know any better. For some reason, my 18th and 19th century stories had much better worldbuilding, perhaps because I was more familiar with those eras. It took a long time for me to get to that level with my 20th century historicals, and stop writing them as largely contemporary stories which just happened to be set in the past.
You should spend as much time as it takes getting familiar with the setting, so you know how to write it well. Don’t just use a city, neighborhood, or era because you think it’s cool or required. For example, not all stories set in England have to be set in London, not all stories about immigrants to the U.S. have to be set in the Lower East Side, and a story set during your childhood or teenage decade shouldn’t be a trip down memory lane to name-drop your favorite bands, TV shows, and fashions.
You also don’t want to overwhelm your story with so many details it feels more like a comprehensive history lesson or showing off your hometown or favorite city. Pick the most important events, fashions, social movements, etc., of a given era, which make sense for your characters. Even in a long book with an ensemble cast, what are the odds every single member of that family and circle of friends would be touched by all the events of the era? It’s also overkill to have your characters constantly visiting all the city’s landmarks, name-dropping streets, and hanging out in trendy bistros and clubs. Learning how much to season your book with is a delicate dance. But you never want to give the impression this story could take place anywhere or at any time, and thus waste a great setting like Shanghai in the 1920s or Cairo in the 12th century. This applies to sci-fi and fantasy too. Even if it’s soft sci-fi or lighter fantasy, you still chose that setting for a reason.
Ursula Hartlein, who also writes as Carrie-Anne Brownian, is a proud native Pittsburgher, who’s lived most of her life in Upstate New York. Her degree in history and Russian and East European Studies has been a great help in writing historical fiction, both intense and more light-hearted. She dreams of one day earning a Ph.D. in 20th century Russian history, with a focus on GULAG and the Great Terror, and of having her own small farm on several acres of land.
As Ursula Hartlein, she’s the author of And Jakob Flew the Fiend Away, set from 1940–46 in The Netherlands, and You Cannot Kill a Swan: The Love Story of Lyuba and Ivan, a sweeping saga set from 1917–24. As Carrie-Anne Brownian, she’s the author of Little Ragdoll, set from 1959–74 in New York, and has had work published in the anthologies Campaigner Challenges 2011, edited by Katharina Gerlach and Rachael Harrie; Overcoming Adversity: An Anthology for Andrew, edited by Nick Wilford; How I Found the Right Path, edited by Carrie Butler and PK Hrezo; The Insecure Writer’s Support Group Guide to Publishing and Beyond; and The Cat Who Chose Us and Other Cat Stories.
http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00OVGJ7NU (You Cannot Kill a Swan: The Love Story of Lyuba and Ivan)