Writing Inspiration from History: Setting and Action

Sometimes you hit the wall.

The Great Wall of Writer’s Block.

You can peek over; know there’s something much better on the other side, but you just can’t find your way through.

So far, I have identified three types of walls that pen me in once a story is underway:

  1. I need a scene, but can’t visualize the setting or action in that scene.
  2. I need a character, but don’t have a voice or vision of that character.
  3. I have a great setting full of interesting characters, but they stare blankly at each other, wondering why their author is so darn indecisive.

So I’m sharing some of the ways I use to break through the wall.

Scene and Setting is first up, because in many ways its the easiest for me to overcome. Stay tuned for Part Two: Character and Part Three: Dialogue in upcoming posts.

Where to find inspiration for setting or action

The great thing about writing history is that there are thousands of ideas waiting for your stumbling imagination. Once you find these, you can add unexpected depth to your story. I call them: The Usual; and The Unusual.

1. The Usual

One great place to start is find out what happens in daily life for people such as your character. Some brief ideas:

What are their rooms/homes like?

What kind of furniture do they have and how does it speak to their status? By examining this, you can create a rich setting and even find activities that the characters can be doing while they are talking.

Jumping off point: Do any of the things in their room suggest a scene?

For example, can emptying a chamber pot out the window lead to a fine in court (it did in some places!) or an altercation with a neighbor? A seemingly regular activity could have far-reaching consequences for the story.

What food do they eat and how do they eat?

Parties and food are a common theme in most cultures. It gives a chance for the hosts to show off, or for a guest to gloat that they have it better (think Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice). But people of different stations had parties for different reasons, from more mundane (political salons) to more festive (marriages).

Jumping off point: Parties are a great way to introduce new characters. Distant family, friends, and foes can all be assembled during a party. Just be careful not to populate a scene with more characters than your audience can handle. Give it a specific purpose – not just a mash up of ‘anything could happen!’ craziness.

What are their clothes like?

How do they wash them? What are they made of? Would your character know where to get more if they were damaged? How much do clothes indicate the status of your character – how do people react to their attire?

Jumping off point: Like The Prince and The Pauper, what would happen if your character were mistaken for someone else? Might this be a deliberate deception or a bad coincidence? Changing clothes can change a lot about a character, both in their own eyes and in the eyes of others.

2. The Unusual

What didn’t you know you didn’t know?

I’m not sure that makes sense, and it sounds a bit like a secret agent’s impossible mission. But what I’m getting at here is to find those bits and pieces about the time period of your story that go beyond the ‘standard knowledge.’

For example, one way of finding out the unusual is to look at objects that people had and determine how they were made.

What was the process for making alcohol and who made it?

Where did that cloth come from and was it spun locally or traded for? If it was traded for, find out who brought it and how (boat or caravan) and from how far it came.

How are mirrors made? Or glass? Many items made by artisans required specialty shops, long apprenticeships, and dangerous working conditions. Which means any of these locations may make for a great scene. A scene with drama or destruction or the passage of knowledge from one character to another.

The unusual is a little hard to pin down because it will be different for each time period, and also can take your personal preferences into account. But the unusual exists in every time and place. Look beyond the history textbooks into the heart of life during that age. You’re sure to find something fascinating.

Fingers crossed that at least one of these ideas gets you thinking and searching for those settings, and the action of the characters in that setting. I would love to know if you have any Usual or Unusual success!

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