The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

Setting the Scene in Historical Fiction with Marc Laidlaw

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November 30, 2016
fsf-maraprClicking the picture to the left will take you straight to the purchase page for the Mar/Apr 2016 issue of F&SF, where you can find this weeks story “The Ghost Penny Post” by Marc Laidlaw. Unfortunately, the story is not available anywhere online. As far as the issue goes, I enjoyed it–especially the Cat Rambo and Sarina Dorie stories. Today we’re going to be talking about how to set the scene in historical fiction, using this story set in Early Modern England. 

The Challenge:

Setting is a tough thing sometimes: how do you clue readers in to past or future without slowing down the narrative, short of doing something obvious like giving the story a particular date or year stamp? In looking to write a few historical fictions myself, I asked this question and turned to Laidlow’s story for a detailed answer. 

The Story:

“The Ghost Penny Post” is a fun and vivid story, especially in the fairy tale moments. It includes an interesting main POV–an old-timey postal inspector looking into a mysterious mail problem. It takes the form of a mystery, mostly, but also descends into a Wonderland-like absurdity. Also, it’s a multi-pov story with narrators who range in age, profession, and their position on the conflict. Of course, we’re most interested here in how the story sets the scene for all this to occur, and it turns out it’s fairly simple. 

The Solution:

Here’s the first paragraph: “I hope London’s trust in me is not misplaced, thought Hewell as he sought his valise under roadside ferns. He spotted the leather case, still buckled, its sheaf of papers safe. Drawing it from among the fronds, he climbed out of the ditch to stand beside the carriage. Always fond of a good puzzle, Hewell was none too keen on mysteries; but events of the morning suggested more of the latter than the former were in store for his afternoon” (7).

While also kickstarting the key internal struggle, there are a few ways that this paragraph lands us in the correct(ish) era. I’ll start from the simplest and go forward from there. 

  1. Technology: Mentioning travel by horse-drawn carriage is a quick short hand for “this happened a long time ago” and strikes me as practically useful but also widely overutilized. In this instance though, it’s doing it’s job, in combination with a couple of other things. 
  2. Syntax: A more formal, grander syntax seems to be doing some work in this story (whether or not texts actually written in that era show this kind of syntax is up for some debate, based on my readings, and it can certainly go too far if you don’t keep it tightly controlled). In this first paragraph there are a few (certainly at higher density than much of the story). First, “events of the morning.” Then “none too keen” and “suggested more of the latter than the former.” This kind of syntax is almost academic, and is used selectively throughout the story. 
  3. Vocabulary: This technique is used incredibly well in just this one paragraph. The basic form is simply to use old nouns (i.e. “valise”) but I’ve always wondered how to get away with using nouns that readers might not recognize. Even when I read this first sentence, I wondered “What is a valise?” and I bounced off of that a little. What has not occurred to me before is the ability to “translate” those nouns, and if you look in the second sentence, you’ll see it there: “He spotted the leather case…” To me, that was an interesting discovery, but also if you look deeper, Laidlow also translates a word back, from a modern to an early modern word: Sentence one’s “roadside ferns” become, in the third sentence, “fronds.” These three sentences are forming a feedback loop of sorts that state “This is in olden times!” And that really impressed me. 

These three techniques are working quite elegantly, and subtly, to set the scene in the story. They also happen to be highly-usable practical moves. I plan on snapping it up as soon as I can. 

Finally: 

Perhaps ultimately, the answer to my original question was fairly simple. Old language will set a scene in olden times, but it’s also important to do part of the work. This practical example really worked for me to figure this out, though, and now I’ve got to go find all my other historical fiction stories, and see if they’re making similar moves! 

Thanks for reading! What do you think? Any favorite methods for setting the scene in historical fiction or even in far future science fiction? Any recommendations for historical fiction I should be checking out on my journey to writing it?

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