We all need a roof over our heads, and this applies to the characters in historical novels no less than living people. Describing where characters live is usually one of the very best ways to set the scene and help readers visualize the events that take place in a novel. Furthermore, buildings are one aspect of the past about which we have considerable information. Many significant architectural monuments from pyramids of Egypt and the Parthenon of Athens to medieval townhouses, castles and manors, cathedrals and monasteries can still be visited today.
In addition, archaeology has combined with art history to provide us with very extensive knowledge about the lay-out of buildings both public and private. We now know a great deal about ancient and medieval construction materials and techniques. We have discovered examples of furnishings from periods as distant as the age of the pharaohs, and archeologists have discovered a wealth of knowledge about even the plumbing and heating systems of dwellings, public buildings and entire cities from the past. Some of the most exciting work done in the last quarter century has been the application of computer modelling to archaeology and the resulting visual reconstructions of how now ruined buildings looked when in use.
In short, we know a great deal particularly about the public, religious and otherwise monumental buildings of the past. While we know less about the work-a-day and humble structures for the poor, with a little research, a novelist today can usually collect sufficient information to be able to describe in adequate detail the way the characters living in almost any period would have lived, worked, and worshiped.
A historical novelist should make maximum use of this knowledge because describing a person’s environment is a useful means of drawing a reader into a novel. I like to set the scene before plunging into the action and/or dialogue, because a person in real life likewise usually takes in his/her surroundings - even if only subconsciously, and our environment effects our actions and words.
For my novels set in the distant past, furthermore, I have to assume that the average reader does not know a great deal about how people lived. It is therefore vital to provide this information to enable readers to visualize what is happening.
In the first four examples, all taken from my novel "Are They Singing in Sparta?" the descriptions of dwellings in Sparta serve the dual purpose of enabling the reader to visualize life-style and underlining the impact of status and wealth on that lifestyle. All three examples are from Are They Singing in Sparta? starting from poorest to the finest of the dwellings.
The hut was always damp, mosquito infested in the summer, and plagued with rats year-round. More than once it had been swept away in the spring or autumn floods, and they’d had to build it again, tearing up the reeds with their bare hands until they blistered and bled. But still the winters had been the worst. The wind had whistled as it blew in between the cracks, and often there were thin sheets of ice on the floor when he woke in the morning.
This simple helot cottage was the kind of ‘real house’ their mother had always dreamed about. It had only a packed-dirt floor, but the walls were baked mud and whitewashed so it was completely free of drafts and leaks. There was a wooden frame on which the thatch had been secured in thick layers, and there were no less than four windows all with wooden shutters that could be closed in winter against the cold and rain and snow. Best of all, there was a large hearth, kept burning day and night to provide light and warmth and comfort without pause.
The sheer white walls soared above his head to a ceiling with massive beams holding up a flat, white, plastered ceiling. It was frightening because he could not understand how the beams or the plaster could stay up there. Beneath his feet were real, terracotta tiles so flat and smooth and cool that it was awkward to walk on them...And there was a bed with pristine white linens stretched across it and two round, white bolsters.
The floor was a magnificent mosaic such as he had never seen in a private house before. Like the walkways around the peristyle, it was black and white tiles, but here the colors had been reserves, a white background with a pattern in black. It must have cost a fortune. But no less than the couches they were all reclining on – 12 in total. The andron was large enough to hold an entire syssitia! And each couch was of some dark wood with delicate inlays and bronze feet. The tables matched of course. The pottery they were served upon was red with black figures painted on it – not just designs and patterns but people and animals so lifelike it was possible to recognize them. Agesandros had a kylix with a four-horse chariot in the bowel. He looked in vain for a crack or chip upon it. The walls of the chamber were just as perfect: plastered and white-washed so it was impossible to see even the cracks of the stone beneath. The ceiling beams were painted and from them hung oil lamps, all burning. To keep this large andron lit like this for an hour, he estimated, they would burn more oil than his mother used in a month. So this was how the aristocracy had lived while he fought with the rats for garbage.
When describing a more familiar age, less detail is generally needed because a few words will remind the reader of something they know. Thus, for example, when describing the male protagonist’s home at the start of The Lady in the Spitfire, only a single sentence is need:
He looked around, taking in the neat rows of aluminium-sided trailers on their cinder blocks, the latter half-hidden by the piles of dirty snow from the last snowstom.
Americans familiar with a trailer park need no more. On the other hand, when describing Germany in the 1940s, I felt it would be useful to provide greater details, particularly for venues that were going to be used repeatedly in the course of the novel. By giving rather lengthy descriptions at the start of the novel, I could later with just a brief reference conjure up the complete image. Here is an example from "An Obsolete Honor."
The Feldburg’s Berlin apartment was located in one of the apartment houses on the canal...The central entrance was a very ornate doorway at the head of a short walkway flanked by a narrow, well-tended garden. The heavy wooden door with bevelled glass opened into a cool, tall entry hall. The floor, walls and curving stairway were all Italian marble. To the left and right, elaborately framed mirrors hung over decorative fireplaces with polished brass grates. The underside of the stairway, as it curved back overhead, had gilded mouldings, which framed a romantic hunting scene done in oil on canvas...The apartment [itself] occupied the entire first floor with grand representational rooms across the front of the house and living rooms stretching back in two wings around the central courtyard. The kitchen, pantry, wash-room and servant quarters occupied the rooms across the back of the house beyond the courtyard.
For a house which will not be the scene of multiple events, in contrast, I try to evoke the age and society without detail that might slow-down the pace of the book. Again from "An Obsolete Honor:"
The walls of the Halle’s apartment were covered with striped wallpaper and hung with painting and photographs in elaborate frames. The heavy, dark furniture was draped with lace of indecipherable purpose and then laden with things: vases, clocks that didn’t work, paperweights, porcelain figurines, photo albums and much, much more.
Next week I will look at how “Clothes Make the Man – Or Woman.”