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Descriptive Detail in HF

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EC2
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Location: Nottingham UK
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Postby EC2 » Wed August 27th, 2008, 3:11 pm

"Julianne Douglas" wrote: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.

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, that's one of the key points I make when teaching the writing of historical fiction to students - not that I do much of the latter these days, I don't have time! As much story and detail as possible should be filtered through the understanding, mindset and experience of the characters.

As a reader myself I don't mind whether there are maps and genealogies in the book, but I know that my own readers have asked for them and so nowadays I include them - especially since moving into biographical fiction.
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

www.elizabethchadwick.com

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MLE (Emily Cotton)
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Interest in HF: started in childhood with the classics, which, IMHO are HF even if they were contemporary when written.
Favorite HF book: Prince of Foxes, by Samuel Shellabarger
Preferred HF: Currently prefer 1600 and earlier, but I'll read anything that keeps me turning the page.
Location: California Bay Area

Postby MLE (Emily Cotton) » Thu August 28th, 2008, 3:08 am

When it comes to clothing details, one of the best ways to cover them is the process of getting dressed. This is very recently on my mind from a Renaissance Faire a few weeks ago. You can do a whole short story on climbing into and out of that clothing!

Modern people, with their nearly effortless zippers and buttonholes and elastic waistbands, have no idea how complicated keeping things on and looking just right was. Renaissance modesty: bosoms OK to view, even the whole darn thing (breastfeeding very ordinary) ankles shocking, calves scandalous, and as for knees -- there goes your reputation.
And codpieces -- oh my!
I'm sure that primitive clothing was also difficult. keeping lengths of cloth wrapped just so requires practice. Anybody spent a day in a sari or a sarong?

If it's a woman's book and a conversation is required to set up some plot bit, send the ladies shopping while they talk. Even if they can't afford to buy, they can always drool while they discuss whatever moves the story forward.

I'm afraid including food descriptions through cooking them only works if the character is lower-class. Otherwise, your stuck with describing eating, which is pretty overdone.

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Divia
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Postby Divia » Thu August 28th, 2008, 3:14 am

For me its those little odd facts that sometimes people overlook. For example in one Victorian novel I read there was a woman who decided not to put hair extensions in becuase it would take too long and that's one reason she was able to dress so quickly compaired to other women. Those types of things make me stop and go ohhh yeah....
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Telynor
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Location: On the Banks of the Hudson

Postby Telynor » Thu August 28th, 2008, 6:06 am

I have some of those historical bits of clothing, and for renaissance gear, I need help getting dressed, as a corset and farthingale are involved. Not to mention the sleeves -- those are really a two person job, even with my simple Italian Renaissance dress. I've made men's hose, with cod-piece and all -- one of them remarked that attending to 'necessary business' was much easier with a codpiece, and wondered why they ever went out of fashion...

How to get a man into your cluches: after cutting out the cloth for hose, remarking, 'oh dear, we may not have enough for the codpiece...'

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EC2
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Postby EC2 » Thu August 28th, 2008, 9:29 am

"MLE" wrote:
I'm afraid including food descriptions through cooking them only works if the character is lower-class. Otherwise, your stuck with describing eating, which is pretty overdone.


Well so are cookery books, but some writers rise to the top not only by their recipes but by their presentation. It may help that Nigella Lawson for e.g. is an attractive woman, but if you read one of her books, her descriptions of food are wonderful and make you long to try every recipe in the book. An author talking about food needs to do more than describe it in passing. It's a perfect opportunity to chew gum and walk so to speak. i.e. make it not just description for description's sake by filtering it through the awareness of the characters and making the food a mini character in itself. Do they eye the dish with pleasure or disgust? Does it hold memory and association for them? Is it every day gloop? What does it taste and feel like on the tongue? How are they going to manage that very delicious but drippy sauce without getting it down their new outfit? Especially when they are trying to impress the person beside them. Is there a bishop eating a spiced custard tart at Lent? What about the diner grimacing as he cuts away the blackened crust of his bread because the oven has been too hot? See it through the character's eyes, make it part of the character development rather than background 'busy' and away you go.
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



www.elizabethchadwick.com

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Catherine Delors
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Postby Catherine Delors » Thu August 28th, 2008, 9:40 am

I agree with much of the above. As a reader, I resent historical detail being shoved down my throat for its own sake. I can hear the author's voice in the background: "See the research I did! Bet you didn't know women wore three petticoats at the time!"
As a novelist I don't like writing descriptions (but publishers insist on it.) Sometimes I imagine a modern editor scolding Jane Austen: "How many times do I have to tell you, Jane? Your readers WANT descriptions of people, food, clothes, furniture. Now be a good sport and tell us more about Darcy's physical appearance. His eyes: green, blue, dark? His haircut? How is the reader warm up to him if she doesn't know more? Come on! About the style of the upholstery in Pemberley's drawing rooms? You need to liven this up a bit, dear, or we'll be lucky if we sell 5,000 copies."

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donroc
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Postby donroc » Thu August 28th, 2008, 2:12 pm

Give me the meat and flavor of the times as many have described above -- clothing, food, accessories, furniture, weapons, the smells, the works -- with the caveat to show as much as possible without boring the reader with too much telling.

I try to do the same when writing.
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Bodo the Apostate, a novel set during the reign of Louis the Pious and end of the Carolingian Empire.

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Divia
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Postby Divia » Thu August 28th, 2008, 2:17 pm

"Catherine Delors" wrote:I agree with much of the above. As a reader, I resent historical detail being shoved down my throat for its own sake. I can hear the author's voice in the background: "See the research I did! Bet you didn't know women wore three petticoats at the time!"
As a novelist I don't like writing descriptions (but publishers insist on it.) Sometimes I imagine a modern editor scolding Jane Austen: "How many times do I have to tell you, Jane? Your readers WANT descriptions of people, food, clothes, furniture. Now be a good sport and tell us more about Darcy's physical appearance. His eyes: green, blue, dark? His haircut? How is the reader warm up to him if she doesn't know more? Come on! About the style of the upholstery in Pemberley's drawing rooms? You need to liven this up a bit, dear, or we'll be lucky if we sell 5,000 copies."



Thats an interesting way to look at it. I guess I never thought about it but it makes sense. What a fine line you guys must walk! You need the detail but like you said you dont want it shoved down people's throats.
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MLS859
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Postby MLS859 » Thu August 28th, 2008, 2:45 pm

I very seldom put a book down once I've started reading but one that I did was a classic -- ANNA KARENINA -- I felt absolutely suffocated by the details. I need for my my own imagination to be able to soar -- just give me enough details to get me airborne!

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Misfit
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Location: Seattle, WA

Postby Misfit » Thu August 28th, 2008, 2:51 pm

"EC2" wrote:As a reader myself I don't mind whether there are maps and genealogies in the book, but I know that my own readers have asked for them and so nowadays I include them - especially since moving into biographical fiction.



One caveat for these geneologies, maps, etc. I just picked up a book from the library that had a gorgeous geneology listed out, but it's on the inside flap. The library wraps their books up so tightly to protect the covers that I can't see half of it. Please add it to an additional page or two so all readers can see it and enjoy it.


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