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Descriptive Detail in HF

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Post by Virgulina » Tue August 26th, 2008, 11:44 pm

I want enough detail to help me get a feeling of the place, time and characters, so as to form a mental picture, I like to learn a little about the customs, clothing, etc., but not too much so as to bore me to tears, if I'm interested enough I'll research the rest on my own.

There are exceptions of course, sometimes an author is so good that he/she manages to weave the description in the story in a way that you just want to learn more and more. An example that comes to mind is "The Heaven Tree" by Edith Pargeter, in this book I was so involved with the construction of the cathedral that all the tiny details just helped make the story come alive.


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Post by EC2 » Wed August 27th, 2008, 12:18 am

I like detail to give richness and texture and believability to the novel. I need to believe that I am in the century being described by the author and also inside the people he or she is writing about. There's a fine line between too much and too little, between having a bald stage and an over-dressed one. Leyland is so right about Mary Stewart and the beautiful word pictures she paints. Dorothy Dunnett is another one. Basically I want the sights, sounds, smells, the feeling and the taste of the time I'm reading about, and I want it filtered through characters who are of their time. It should all flow organically together and not be an info-dump.
Les proz e les vassals
Souvent entre piez de chevals
Kar ja li coard n’I chasront

'The Brave and the valiant
Are always to be found between the hooves of horses
For never will cowards fall down there.'

Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal


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Post by Ash » Wed August 27th, 2008, 2:36 am

I also am one who likes to picture a scene; I usually read books as if I am seeing a movie. But I agree with this

>but the catch is to make them effortless so it doesn't drag the story down

Once its obvious and over done, I'm done. And this isn't just about HF, but any book I am reading.

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Post by Telynor » Wed August 27th, 2008, 3:28 am

[quote=""Ash""]I also am one who likes to picture a scene; I usually read books as if I am seeing a movie. But I agree with this

>but the catch is to make them effortless so it doesn't drag the story down

Once its obvious and over done, I'm done. And this isn't just about HF, but any book I am reading.[/quote]

Just so. I think that historical fiction cries out for plenty of 'colour' in the writing, and plenty of description. After all, the writer is trying to create a place and time that's very different from our own. And sadly, when a writer blows it in historical fiction, they tend to do it horribly. (Eloisa James comes to mind, along with PG)

Authors who I do like for their ability to take me somewhere else are: Sharon Kay Penman, our very own EC, Dorothy Dunnett, David Liss (A Conspiracy of Paper is terrific), Georgette Heyer, Karleen Koen -- all of them have managed to create not just interesting characters, but also settings and actions that help me have a 'mind-movie' as it were.

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Post by diamondlil » Wed August 27th, 2008, 10:44 am

Geraldine Brooks did a nice job in Year of Wonders (disclaimer: stupid ending) when she made lead-mining an important sub-plot and forced the protagonist to endure all the dangerous processes involved.


Totally totally stupid ending!

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Post by Julianne Douglas » Wed August 27th, 2008, 2:43 pm

I'm surprised by how many of us like details about food! :)

There are so many good points made in the responses, the most important being, in my opinion, the importance of filtering the details through the perspective of the characters. If the viewpoint characters is, as Leyland points out, running through a field, the reader needs to know what that character is seeing and hearing and feeling, not read a dissertation on the flora and fauna of the English Midlands. Likewise, most male characters wouldn't describe his fiancee's dress in minute, technically correct detail. This issue of setting the broader scene for the reader when I'm writing in a close third-person viewpoint is a challenging one for me. I know some writers (Dunnett for example) often begin chapters from a broader, descriptive viewpoint and then bring the focus down to the viewpoint of a specific character, a technique I want to try in my new book.

Several of you said that it doesn't matter what century the character is in--you want to connect with him/her and not get distracted by the research. So true! You've mentioned Mary Stewart and Geraldine Brooks and Dunnett as good examples of writers who weave the historical detail seamlessly into the narrative--any other examples?

On a related note, what about complicated political situations? Do you like to have genealogical trees, character lists, and maps for reference at the beginning of the book, or do you prefer to have the details come out only in the narrative?
Julianne Douglas

Writing the Renaissance

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Post by Tanzanite » Wed August 27th, 2008, 2:50 pm

I love family trees, character lists (especially if the cast of characters is large with many similar names) and maps. They are very helpful if the book is one of the first ones I am reading about that particular time period/country. Once you are more familiar with it, you can always ignore the same information in other books, but I really appreciate authors who include that information -just in case I need it!

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Post by Misfit » Wed August 27th, 2008, 2:59 pm

Oh, maps, geneologies, character lists, bring them on. The more the better to have a reference point (I love maps) especially in the more complicated stories. Within the Fetterlock was a good example, he not only listed his cast of characters he listed them by house (York, Lancaster, et al).

My only complaint is when the authors stick this stuff in the back of the book and don't tell you. I won't peek at the end of the book and then I finish and find it after all is said and done. Grrrr.

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Post by LCW » Wed August 27th, 2008, 3:06 pm

[quote=""Julianne Douglas""] Do you like to have genealogical trees, character lists, and maps for reference at the beginning of the book, or do you prefer to have the details come out only in the narrative?[/quote]

That would be a resounding YES! Maps help me visualize a journey, for example, better, geneological charts help me place a person in the history of their time, plus I love coming across other historical figures I've read about previously on a chart. And a character list is a huge help in the meatier more complicated novels, like SKP's novels.
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Post by Leyland » Wed August 27th, 2008, 3:09 pm

Family trees are marvelous! Think Katherine and all of Edwards III's children and grandchildren - a lot to keep up with. And maps - totally yes. Especially in areas with tiny duchies and principalities that changed 'property lines' a great deal over centuries, so much we'd barely recognize the area today on a map. Think Germany. I still can't quite get Swabia and Thuringia straight in my mind.
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