- John Le Carré used the Cold War, the Berlin Wall and the real-life unmasking of a double agent to create a compelling setting in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.
- Isabel Allende’s The House Of The Spirits, a family saga partially inspired by the PInochet dictatorship, is set against decades of political and social upheaval in post-colonial Chile.
- Alexander Solzhenitsyn drew on his experiences in the forced-labor camps of the Soviet prison system to create world wide bestsellers in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago.
Whether your book is set in the conservative Eisenhower Fifties, the stylish Kennedy Sixties, Nixon’s Watergate and the gloomy Carter Seventies, the glitzy Reagan Eighties, or the Anxious-Age-of-the-Present, each period offers the writer its own specific backdrop and sound track. Trudeau’s Canada, Thatcher’s England, de Gaulle’s France, Ho Chi Minh’s China, Mubarak’s Egypt, Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany—all evoke powerful memories and feelings years after the events took place.
Characters need to be firmly anchored in a specific time and place. Even sci-fi and fantasy need social, cultural and political specifics to engage the reader. George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter draw their power from their authors’ ability to create credible details of an invented world.
If you research and then judiciously set up the specifics of time and place, you will expand and enrich your fiction. Invoking the relevant cultural, political and social details will draw your reader into recognizable settings against which your characters can act out their dilemmas, frustrations and successes.
You shouldn’t give your reader a history lesson—that’s Doris Kearns Goodwin’s job—but you do want to give your characters a relatable world in which to live. Your characters can be—and should be—shaped by the attitudes of whatever period you choose to write about.
- Peggy and Joan in Mad Men deal with the casual sexism of the 1960’s.
- The characters in Downton Abbey are caught up in a long-gone post-Edwardian upstairs-downstairs world.
- Patsy and Edina, the fashion victims in Ab Fab, booze it up, get high and keep up with nutty trends as they attempt to recreate their younger, glory days in Swinging London.
- Carrie and Brody in Homeland are enmeshed in a paranoid present complete with bi-polar disorder, psycho-active drugs and a hero who might also be a terrorist.
- Elizabeth Moss’s character in Top Of The Lake searches for a missing and pregnant twelve-year-old in a remote, misogynistic area of contemporary New Zealand.
By using cultural history, high or low, past or current, your characters will become dimensional as they reflect the world around them. They can be limited by it—or they can rebel against it. Some will choose to drop out, some will learn to manipulate it, others will challenge it, some will be defeated and still others will triumph despite the barriers they face.
Are you writing about a period in which people feel positive about the future and confident about their prospects? Or are your characters coping with the Depression of the Thirties or the financial crisis or downsizing of the recent past and present? How they think and feel and what they do to deal with opportunity (or lack thereof) offers a potent way to explore and expand the inner and outer lives of the people you’re writing about.
Early Elvis, swinging Sinatra, Abbey Road Beatles, Motown Soul, Latino Salsa, Madonna’s Material Girl, Gangsta Rap, Lady Gaga’s and/or Rihanna’s latest immediately evoke times and places your reader will find familiar.
- Did your heroine’s first serious romance—maybe with her tweedy, pipe-smoking Literature Professor—begin and end to Mozart?
- Did your MC come of age when Michael Jackson was moon-walking?
- Did that bad-boy rascal of a boyfriend give your heroine heartache only Patsy Cline could express?
Then there’s wardrobe:
- Garter belts or Spanx?
- Turtlenecks or bustiers?
- Lip gloss or va-va-voom Marilyn Monroe red lipstick?
- A natural Fro, an old-fashioned perm, a blow dry bob or a Gwyneth dead straight ‘do?
- Punky pink streaks, Bergdorf’s blonde or let-it-all-hang-out grey?
- A hedge fund titan in a five-thousand-dollar suit?
- A dude in jeans and a pack of cigarettes in the rolled-up sleeve of a T-shirt?
- A genius techie billionaire in hoodie and sneakers?
- Are their clothes worn ironically? Or un-?
Choices in clothing, makeup and hairstyles telegraph different personalities and different attitudes. A wise writer will make use of each telling detail as s/he creates characters readers will relate to.
Writers don’t need to know everything but they do need to be interested in everything from the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s to today’s California surfers.
Research used to mean trips to the library, flipping through card catalogs and then waiting for the books to be pulled from the stacks. Research once meant slogging through microfilm, piles of old newspapers and magazines. It was time-consuming and often frustrating. Now, thanks to the web and Google, just about anything we want to know is instantly available.
Our world—past and present—is rich in incident, personality and conflict. It’s an oyster with a different pearl for every book, each character and every writer. An open mind and lively curiosity, a habit of reading widely, your own unique memories, passions and interests, plus basic research are your friends.
Embrace them and use them thoughtfully. Your readers will love you for it.
What about you, scriveners? What details do you use to anchor your book in time and place? Are there books that have more detail than you'd like? Do you read for setting as well as story?
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