Incorporating the full range of senses into your fiction can transform it from flat to multi-dimensional, impenetrable to immersive. Writers who set their stories in contemporary locations are often able to experience the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations of their setting firsthand simply by visiting the location. But what about those of us who write historical fiction—how can we recapture the sensory details of a historical setting? Imagination is key, but as you’ll see below, there are still plenty of ways to light that imaginative spark, and even experience some of those sensory details firsthand.
Sight is the sense that we lean on most heavily in life and in fiction. Historical fiction writers need to be able to visualise the finer details of their setting in order to transport readers to a convincing version of the past.
Online image searches can bring up a host of photographs from the not-so-distant past, but what if you’re writing about a period before the advent of photography? Archives and museums can be excellent resources, containing everything from fashion plates to paintings and maps to textiles. Studying objects (or photographs of objects, such as those available through the V&A’s online collection) from your chosen period can be an excellent way of bringing visual details to life.
Another tip is to visit the location you’re writing about and notice any glimpses of the past that are still visible today, such as geographical features or old buildings. Visualise how the landscape might have looked before the modern world was allowed to creep in.
If you can’t get there in person, why not embark on a virtual tour using Google Streetview? Youtube, too, can be an excellent source of visual inspiration—a quick search of “historical tour of [location]” or “getting dressed in [time period]” can yield useful results.
Incorporating sounds into your historical fiction can be a powerful way of building atmosphere. Many online archives offer sound recordings from bygone times, be it music, spoken word, or environmental soundscapes.
For fiction that takes place before audio recording was possible, you can use primary sources such as diaries to guide you, drawing upon the descriptions given by people who experienced the era first-hand.
Secondary sources can also provide great jumping-off points for your own imagination. Listening to music that evokes your era can be a wonderful source of inspiration too.
Tip: If you’re daunted by the thought of historical research, take a look at The History Quill’s list of 10 essential research tips or 50+ online research resources for historical fiction writers.
Touching museum exhibits is rarely an option, so once again, primary sources such as diaries can be useful to draw upon here for evidence of tactile sensations. That being said, there are still some opportunities to get to grips with historical locations and objects first-hand, such as by visiting historic buildings or scouring antiques shops for items that would’ve been at home in your period.
And remember, this sense isn’t just about what your character would’ve felt with their hands; what about the feel of their clothing against their skin? What is the weather like, and how does this physically affect your character? How, in turn, does that emotionally affect your character?
Don’t be vague: it’s the specific details that will resonate with your reader, and a carefully chosen metaphor can be useful here.
The smells of a historical setting can be difficult to pin down, and this is where your imagination might need to work harder. Smells can be particularly evocative, though, so it’s worth putting in the work.
Again, primary sources can be useful here. Someone who is visiting a location for the first time is more likely to notice the distinctive scents of a place than someone who has lived there all their life, so historical travel diaries can be a useful source.
In Europe, a project called Odeuropa is underway to catalogue and recreate aromas from the past, so that in time we might even be able to smell, for example, the Battle of Waterloo! The odour wheel on the Odeuropa website alone makes for a wonderful writing prompt.
But until we can easily access reconstructed smells, what other options do we have? Again, it’s possible to visit historic buildings or, if your setting is a rural one, spend time in nature. Close your eyes, cover your ears, and allow your sense of smell to come to the fore.
There’s little point in describing easy-to-identify smells that your reader will already be familiar with; take time to dig deeper, to identify striking or unusual details, and practice describing that sensory data as specifically as you can, for example through metaphors or similes.
Saving the best for last, taste is where you can really have some fun. The internet is a treasure trove of recipes from bygone eras, so if you can source the right ingredients (or a close alternative), why not have a go at recreating a meal from your chosen period?
Notice not just the flavours but also the accompanying textures and aromas. You could even enlist family and friends to help with this and have them describe what they taste. After all, tastes do vary, so this way you can benefit from multiple perspectives, which could highlight interesting details that you didn’t notice or experience for yourself.
Sharpening your sensory awareness
If you’re prone to neglecting a sense or two in your writing, try paying more attention to that sense in your everyday life. And yes, even writers of historical fiction can benefit from this tip. By improving your sensory awareness, you’ll be better equipped to describe sensory details in a specific, striking way.
Whichever senses you choose to use in your historical fiction, it’s important to do so seamlessly and with a light touch. Which sensory details might your viewpoint character notice and why? Our emotions can greatly affect our sensory experiences; delicious food can feel virtually tasteless when we’re feeling anxious, and a beautifully scented rose might evoke pleasure in one person but haunting memories in another. In this way, the senses can be a powerful way of not only bringing a setting to life but deepening characterisation too.
Rachel Smith is a writing tutor and content editor based in the UK. She is the executive editor of The History Quill, which was founded with the aim of providing dedicated support to historical fiction writers at every stage of the writing process. For more tips on accuracy and authenticity in historical fiction, take a look at The History Quill’s dedicated guide.