I’ve recently finished writing several historical stories; Paris in 1927, 1850s California, and 1871 Belgium. Although I’ve been to California gold rush ghost towns, and spent quite a bit of time in the old part of Brussels, I didn’t have enough memories to flesh out a believable setting for either story. And I’ve never been to Paris.
Wikipedia is a good starting place (especially for general architecture, neighborhoods, and landmarks), but since settings need depth and ‘atmosphere’, I need more than that to make a setting come alive. I need detailed sensory input for all the senses.
- What music was played during that time?
- What writers and artists were well-known in those days?
- What was the fashion of the day, and what were the names of those garments? What kind of undergarments did they wear, and what were they called? What about hats? Hosiery? Shoes?
- Are the fashions based on looks or practicality? Lush fabrics and colors, or rugged and long-lasting? Rich or coarse-textured?
- What food and beverages were consumed at this point in history? Coffee, tea, bathtub gin, or whiskey? Locally supplied or imported?
- What were the sanitation facilities like then? Open sewers? Did both men and women wear perfume?
- What was considered ‘exotic’ and novel during that time? What was ‘all the rage’ at that time?
- What kind of transportation was used by each social class? How was that transportation supported (through roads, fuel, and protection from the elements/housing)
- What form of currency/barter is used? Is there only one currency? What do strangers use for money?
- Who were the ‘important’ heroes of those times? Who did people look up to and admire?
- What did people do at the end of the day in these times? What were their leisure pursuits, or did they drudge from waking to sleep every day?
- How did they light the night?
These certainly aren’t the only elements needed to build a historically believable world, but these are the basics I use to infuse my stories. And researching theses elements of time and place is fun; before long, you start living in your story world through these sensory elements and (for me, at least) the story seems to come alive.