Transported: When Historical Fiction comes off the Page

Bringing a character to life is a challenge of its own, but bringing an entire era to life—that takes another kind of artistry.

My most recent experience of historical fiction reminded me once again of why I love the genre: when done right, it simultaneously immerses you in and humanizes the past. This is what Ailish Sinclair achieved in her beautifully penned novel, The Mermaid and the Bear, set in the late 1500s in Scotland.

When I first began blogging a year ago, Ailish’s was one of the first blogs I followed because of her unique synthesis of photography and storytelling. Her pictures of the Scottish countryside, coupled with explanatory snippets and musings, drew me in from the get-go—and not simply because I love Scottish history and culture. It was the milieu that she created through these posts leading up to her book, that convinced me I absolutely had to read it in order to fully experience the story each post alluded to.

The book was no disappointment.

While I have little patience for excessive description (as in, pages upon pages of sheer details that have little bearing on the characters or events), that is not at all what I found between the covers of this book.

This is because Sinclair’s extensive research does not call attention to itself. Instead, she illuminates every scene with just enough details to place the reader in the mind and shoes of the protagonist, Isobell (which is especially crucial, given the first-person narration).

It is also important because of the sensory nature of the story.

Sinclair spends the first 2/3 of the book developing a magical aura to fit the mysterious setting in which Isobell finds herself, essentially charming the reader with thoughts of faeries, mist, butterflies and so on. And then the magic stops. That is, the good magic. The detail suddenly becomes a conduit of horror as Isobell’s world shifts from that of marital bliss in a castle to that of a nightmare in which pure evil is championed as the hand of God. Enter: the Aberdeen witch trials. Seemingly overnight, we are plunged with Isobell into the cold waters of cruelty, and the only sights, sounds, smells, and feelings we read of make her recent life seem worlds away.

Although Sinclair makes Isobell’s character accessible to the reader early on, I connected most strongly with her near the end.

One of the most unexpectedly compelling details I found was the description of the castle after the main ordeal has transpired. To avoid spoiling too much, I will just say that the former magic of familiar places is replaced by a haunting remembrance of the evil that occurred there, whose lingering dread is depicted just as potently as the vivacity and charm that once filled the walls.

I found this compelling because it is something that all of us can appreciate in some way. Most of us haven’t been to Scottish castles, and hopefully none of us have been tried for witchcraft. But all of us have memories tied to certain places. We remember the smells, the sound of our feet when passing through, the sounds we might hear, the faces we might see. And when something drastic happens there—whether good or bad—it becomes almost impossible to separate those sensory details from the joy, pain, fear, or whatever feeling that event aroused. Places we once considered bastions of security and comfort can become graveyards of unwelcome memories. This is where I connected with Isobell: I connected with her when the fragility of her world suddenly mirrored the fragility of mine. So to speak, I met her in the details.

If you haven’t checked out Ailish Sinclair’s book or blog, I strongly encourage you to do so. For those of who already like historical fiction, it’s a delicious literary morsel. 🙂 And for those who don’t normally gravitate to the genre, you’re bound to appreciate the human quality Sinclair brings to an otherwise distant time and place.

What are some books where you found the vivid description crucial to forming a connection with the characters?

What does it usually take to connect you with a character?

8 Comments on “Transported: When Historical Fiction comes off the Page

  1. I find the descriptions in Les Miserables are fascinating. They certainly are long, overblown, far too details, and general supply little to the plot, but there is a certain appreciation for what the characters are experiencing and who they are, when you know the extended history of whatever the relevant subjects are. One example is the introduction of an innkeeper. Rather than say he’s an awful person, the history of his inn, and how he looted bodies after a battle to afford it, are given to build his entire life as one of wretched acts and deception. It can be dry, monotonous reading, but there are times that level of detail creates incredible understanding of the characters.

    • Yes, great point! Giving a detailed history of a character’s actions is a more subtle (although lengthier) way of building a reader’s understanding and expectations for that character. Like you say, if a third-person narrator simply tells us what the person is like, that leaves the reader no room to form his/her own judgement of that character. But giving us an account of the person’s choices and actions invites us to assess him/her for ourselves.

  2. Of the books that I have read in the historical fiction genre, the novels of the 19th century seem to have the most verbose descriptions of either characters or settings. Examples of this can be found in the works of James Fenimore Cooper, Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, etc. The list could go on. Some of their descriptions help incredibly to paint the picture of what is going on and provides context to the setting, but even I have difficulty slogging through some of the verbiage. Mark Twain is one of the best writers, in my mind, in the use of conciser language as he sets up his best stories.You see the world of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn when you read their stories. You become emotionally attached to Joan of Arc as she strives to fulfill her mission in life. The skill to not only include historical detail and perspective is not only difficult, but rare in the literary world. And for modern readers (including myself at times) the lengthy introductions make really great works difficult to access. But they are all the better when you spend the necessary time to unlock that world and live for a time in the past.

    • These are really great insights. And yes, I would have to agree– having read all of those authors, I also found the ornate description hard to get through at times, which is why Mark Twain is perhaps my favorite author. Like you say, he is both effective and yet efficient (I would even say zesty) in creating images in the reader’s mind. One of the ways he does this is by using verbs that normally do not apply to certain agents (e.g “the cat sailed out the window”), which in turn conjures up a vivid and memorably quirky image.

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