Description is as at least as important in historical fiction as in any other kind of fiction. For an author writing about an unfamiliar period or environment (13th century Ethiopia, anyone?) descriptions are even more important because the reader cannot be expected to imagine things without more intensive assistance. In historical fiction, the author's words must often provide the images that are unnecessary in books set in our own time for which we carry around images already.
Admittedly, when talking about writing, the importance of good descriptive writing is often overlooked. I think this is because description is more a means to an end than an objective in itself. The key elements of a modern novel are plot, character and theme. We have novels that are compelling on the basis of plot alone (e.g. thrillers) and novels that are appeal solely on the strength of their characters (e.g. much literary fiction), but no novel can be convincing and successful simply because it has strong descriptions of a dull plot or uninteresting characters.
Yet good description can contribute materially to the success of a novel. Good descriptions enhance the other elements. Good descriptions also serve as a kind of mortar, binding plot, character and theme together. Good descriptions enable us to see and understand characters better, and to envisage the places/instruments/tools and events that constitute the plot.
Descriptive passages are those in which an author’s voice is most direct. Dialogue should give the characters their own voices, and plot elements are usually strongest when they are least embellished.
Last but not least, dialogue and critical plot developments are usually fast-paced. Description, on the other hand, is a means of slowing down a novel. Descriptive passages and paragraphs allow the reader to catch their breath and reflect on what is happening.
Broadly speaking, description falls into five categories:
1. Description of the setting/environment. Something that usually takes place at the beginning of a scene or change of setting/venue.
2. Descriptions of characters. Again, usually undertaken when a character is first introduced.
3. Descriptions of things. This can be clothes, buildings, means of transport, tools and technology. These kinds of descriptions tend to be particularly important in science fiction — and historical fiction, in as much as the author feels the reader is unfamiliar with, say, what a galley looked like or how people dressed in 16th Century Iceland.
4. Descriptions of action. This can either be narrative transitions from a previous scene, or intensive depictions of developments. (Plot)
5. Descriptions of mood. These are the most important descriptions in my opinion — once the baseline physical descriptions of people and places have been established.
Let me give an example of each of these from my most recent releases, Where Eagles Never Flew and Grounded Eagles.
This is from the opening chapter of “Lack of Moral Fibre” one of the three tales included in Grounded Eagles. It describes the setting of the entire book, the RAF DYDN Centre at Torquay, where the flight engineer Christopher “Kit” Moran has been sent after refusing to fly on a raid against Berlin in late November 1943. He is facing disciplinary action for “Lack of Moral Fibre” — that is cowardice.
It was disorienting to be in what had evidently been a hotel. Although now outfitted with standard-issue RAF furnishings, remnants of its former grandeur lingered in the ceiling mouldings and gracious, bay windows. If it hadn’t been sleeting, there might even have been a view to Torbay. Instead, visibility was so bad that everything beyond the windows was just a blurry white and grey. That backdrop highlighted the gloomy interior. The lobby furnishings were run-down, and four years of war had marked the inhabitants, too. Unremittingly dressed in Air Force blue, their averted faces were strained and prematurely lined.
Kit took the key, shouldered his kitbag, and found his way up two flights of stairs to room 24. While the lobby had been overheated, the hall was bitterly cold. He unlocked the door and found himself in a modest room with two twin beds. He was taken aback to find one of the beds already occupied by a man wrapped in blankets.
“Sorry! I must have the wrong room!” Kit started to back out.
“No,” a voice rose from the bed. “They double us up like this.”
“Oh, of course,” Kit nodded to himself. Why hadn’t he expected that? He’d expected far worse. He entered and closed the door behind him before introducing himself, “I’m Christopher Moran, but I go by Kit.”
“Oliver Huckle, and if you don’t mind, I don’t want to talk.” His roommate rolled over, offering his back.
“Fine by me,” Kit muttered. He didn’t particularly want to talk himself. He tossed his kitbag on the vacant bed and started unpacking his things. He’d done this countless times on countless RAF stations for almost four years now. This was just another move, one more posting. Except it wasn’t.
Kit went to the window. Sleet pelted the glass, making a high ticking sound before melting and slithering down the slick surface. His breath rapidly steamed up the inside. Kit raised an index finger to write in the condensation: LMF — for Lack of Moral Fibre.
This description introduces the main protagonist of “A Rose in November,” the second novella in the Grounded Eagles trilogy. Rhys, the son of a Welsh miner, is now a senior NCO in the RAF and a widower with two teenage children — and he’s about to get sucked into an unexpected love affair with an upper class woman.
As Rhys stared into the mirror he couldn’t grasp that he wasn’t still that overly-thin young man with black hair and eyes, but rather a man whose face had become square with flesh and whose hair was silver-grey. He’d always been short (came from generations of crouching underground, his Mum said), but back then, he’d been as frail as a jockey as well. Now he’d grown stocky. Not fat, he told himself, sucking in his stomach and squaring his shoulders for the mirror. But he’d have to watch it, he reflected as he turned sideways and considered his figure more objectively. At least his hair was still thick, he thought resignedly, as he scraped away at the crop of stubble on his cheek, careful to leave his thick, drooping moustache untouched.
The aircraft that won the Battle of Britain, the Hurricane and the Spitfire, both feature prominently in my Battle of Britain novel, Where Eagles Never Flew, but most of the characters in the novel are already pilots familiar with the aircraft and to describe it at length when in their POV would feel like the author butting in. The visit of the lead protagonist’s girlfriend to a training station, on the other hand, was a perfect opportunity to describe the Spitfire in greater detail:
Emily felt her heart in her throat for a moment as her bottom sank onto the worn seat, and she was enclosed by the smell of metal and oil and aviation fuel. Directly in front of her was the confusing instrument panel and, beyond, the snout of the mechanical beast loomed up, cutting off her view. Before she knew what she was doing, her feet settled on the pedals, and with an audible clack the rudder shifted. She jumped slightly and yanked her feet back guiltily.
“Not to worry,” Robin assured her from where he stood on the wing root. He pointed out the various instruments and the ‘joy stick.’ Emily’s thumb slid over the trigger. How easy it must be to push, she thought. The thought frightened her. She pushed herself back up and gave her hand to Robin. “Take me up in the other plane, please.”
This example of describing action is from “Lack of Moral Fibre.” It describes Lancaster engaged in the RAF night bombing offensive against the German capital and is based on primary sources, although the characters are fictional. Note: RAF bombers did not fly in formation as the USAAF, but rather flew independently to the target, navigating their own way there and back but according to a tight schedule that put them all over the target within a short timeframe of 20 to 30 minutes.
As they turned south for Berlin, however, the fierce winds were on their tail, pushing them southwards. Sailor warned that they would be over the target as much as 30 minutes early. Hamed pointed out that if that were true, the Pathfinders wouldn’t have laid down the target indicators yet. So, Selkirk throttled back and started flying long, slow zigzags across the sky to the north of Berlin to slow their southward progress. This had the advantage of giving the gunners a better view below and behind them. Yet the sky remained eerily empty until Ramsey reported: “Flares! Mid-Upper gunner to pilot: Flares to starboard.”
Selkirk banked the heavy bomber toward the flares. “Pilot to navigator: How many minutes to the target.”
“Eight to ten if we go straight in.”
“Please give me a time hack.”
“Wireless operator to pilots: Bomber Command has moved Zero Hour forward by five minutes.”
They heard Selkirk sigh over the intercom as he swung out in another lazy sweep away from the target.
“Berlin looks — Sorry — Rear gunner to pilot: Berlin looks like its on fire already.”
They turned back toward the city which was, they noticed, partially covered by cloud. This layer of rumpled fluff was rapidly turning red and yellow as if there was an inferno burning underneath. Had the other bombers gone in early? Had the raid been moved forward not five but fifteen minutes?
Without comment, Selkirk turned back toward Berlin and opened the throttles. Suddenly, another Lancaster cut across their bows no more than 100 feet away. They missed the tail fins by what felt like inches. It happened so fast that no one aboard Y-York had a chance to say anything.
After Moran’s pulse had returned to almost normal, a cold fear settled on the back of his neck. The winds had disrupted everyone’s navigation to the point that 800-something bombers were scattered all over the sky and flying every which way to get back to the target for Zero Hour. He supposed that made the risk of collision about 800 times higher than during a normal operation.
The closer they came to Berlin, the more confused the picture became. Rather than clear target indicators, there appeared to be two different flare paths, leading in divergent directions.
Hamed was the one to figure out what was going on. “Skipper! Ignore the flares at 2 o’clock! Them’s a German diversion! Can you see? Them’s some Jerry bomber laying ‘em out.”
“Well done, Teddy,” Selkirk praised.
They followed the Pathfinder flares. Strangely, the searchlights, which usually didn’t bother on a cloudy night, were probing the under-bellies of the cloud. Here and there they broke through gaps in the clouds to light up a cone of the night sky, but it was impossible for them to coordinate and triangulate on a bomber. Which seemed like a good thing until Teddy called up from his bubble. “Bomber aimer to the rest of ye: the light below the cloud is like background lighting to a puppet show! I can see dozens of Lancs out there — perfect silhouettes against the light — and so can the wild boars. We might as well be naked on a big stage!”
“There they are! Seven o’clock,” Rhodes called from the tail followed by the chattering of his guns.
The fighter were, in fact, all over the place, and soon the sky was illuminated by the flames of burning aviation fuel as one after another RAF bomber ignited.
Y-York lined up on the bomb run. Hamad was calling out: “Left. Left. Steady. Right. Steady.”
Just then a wild board homed in on a Halifax flying to port. First one and then a second engine burst into flame. The Halifax veered sharply toward Y-York, and Selkirk just managed to avoid a collision by yanking the Lancaster upward and banking away.
“You call that straight and level, Skipper?” Hamad shouted furiously. “This is supposed to be—”
The rest of his words were lost in the explosion that erupted with such violence that the Lancaster’s tail was flung upwards. They started to dive. Before Selkirk recovered control, they were engulfed by waves of molten smoke washing over the Lancaster from behind. Bits and pieces of debris rained down on their fuselage. They all heard Sam Rhodes yelp.
For me, the most important function of description is to evoke mood. The same scene or place can be depicted in a variety of ways to pull the reader into the character’s skin and see it through his/her eyes coloured by his/her mood and feelings. This example is from “A Stranger in the Mirror,” the third book in the Ground Eagles collection. The protagonist David “Banks” Goldman is a former fighter pilot who was severely burned when his Hurricane was shot down. After extensive plastic surgery to restore his face, he has been sent on leave to regain some strength before undergoing more surgery.
After Mr Bowles left, Banks cleaned up and then went for a walk. He followed a narrow footpath that led down the slope on the far side of the barn behind the cottage — and got lost in the English countryside.
At first, it was only figurative. Banks stopped thinking consciously and just let the sights, sounds and smells lead him. As he wandered, the war was forgotten, replaced with fragments of poems and melodies and pleasant memories. When he discovered a creek gurgling contentedly as it carried off last autumn’s rotting leaves, he sat down on a rock and let the sun soak his face. He wondered if the different strips of skin would absorb the sunlight at different rates, exaggerating the effect of the patchwork or if a tan would help smooth over the differences. He dozed off for a bit.
Banks was awoken by a breeze that stirred up the debris of autumn and swirled it around him. Clouds were rolling in from the West and the temperature had dropped. He got up, stiff from the damp and the hard rock. He started walking back the way he’d come but soon came to a hedgerow he didn’t remember and couldn’t cross. He turned around and tried a different path. This brought him to a stone wall he had not seen before. He had utterly lost his way.
By then, the sky was almost completely overcast, and a cold, brisk wind was blowing. Banks decided to follow the wall, thinking it might lead to a house. It didn’t. In the distance, he spotted a road, and he crossed a muddy, ploughed field to reach it. By the time he stepped out onto the dirt road, his feet were soaked, his trousers muddy, and fog had settled over the entire landscape.
Banks was hungry and frustrated. All the pleasure he had experienced earlier while discovering the beauty of Ginger’s countryside had evaporated.
The Grounded Eagles Trilogy is available in paperback or ebook format.