The Secret Behind the Art of Painting the Past

Painters employ color, light, and shadow. Writers use small, standardized black marks set against a white background. Yet these marks can inspire, condemn, evoke tears, laughter, anger, or regret. They can sweep a reader into a different reality, even bring a vanished time to life. What is the secret of their power?

Claude Monet

Claude Monet

All the elements of writing well and writing good fiction apply to writing the historical novel: characterization, voice, plot, theme, and solid research about the time period. But what makes a good historical novel—a novel that uncorks the magic of historical fiction, engrossing the reader in a story that transforms the past from a misty construct into something “real”?

To do that, there must be an authoritative voice that makes the characters and the historical setting believable and allows the reader to “suspend belief.” Part of establishing that voice is found in the advice to writers that characters in historical fiction need to think/speak/act as they would in the era we are writing about, as they are products of their time and upbringing. And we can aim for that. We can put effort into thinking about the words and phrases we use in order to avoid the anachronisms that pull a reader out of the story, and we can season the story with the spices of our careful research. But in reality, we can’t really accomplish it; it’s all anachronism—our very language is different from the language of the past in many ways.

Remember your high school Chaucer?


WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne is swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour:

Obviously, if you wrote a story in the real style of that time, it might be authentic, but who would, or could, read it? Structure can also be an issue. You might write a Moby Dick or Ivanhoe, but no modern day publisher (and very few readers) would put up with such meandering beginnings. The secret is to write a story structured in a way that is understandable and engaging to the modern reader, yet creates an illusion of being an accurate reflection of the past.

Art, even a photograph, is a symbolic representation of what the artist wishes to communicate. It is the same for writers. Good dialogue, for example, is no more a true replication of how people speak to one another, than a brush stroke of green paint is actually grass. Well written dialogue is condensed, shaped, and structured to accomplish the writer’s goals—to reveal character, forward the plot, or build atmosphere. It creates the illusion of real dialogue. In the same vein, use of dialect can help create the illusion. Applied too thickly, however, even though it might be more accurate, it can bog down or confuse the reader. Even information—the historical novelist’s primary tool—must not overwhelm the story, but enhance the suspension of belief.

How much is too much? There is not a definitive answer to that question. It is a matter of what works. M. T. Anderson pushed the envelope in incorporating the style of a time period in the structure of his language, writing of events in 1770’s in his novel, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing:

 Some few months later, a mob assembled in Old South Meeting House, and, after a rousing word by Mr. Adams, some habited themselves as Mohawk Indians and repaired to the wharves where they dumped tea.

I did not hear of this charade until the next day, and did not understand its purport; rather thinking it a pleasant interlude from the more brutal games of the Sons of Liberty. There was something almost gentlemanly about it, a hint of sport. Dr. Trefusis and I walked along the wharves and spake of disguise, color, substance, and the solidity of matter.

Far out in the harbor, tea clotted the brilliancy of sun upon the water. Men thin as insects rowed scows between the clumps, shepherding them with paddles, pressing down upon them, dousing them, drowning them, so that light might play unimpeded upon the winter sea.

In his notes, Anderson explained that he used selected words and phrasings to create the sense of the time period and style of writing, but had to temper it significantly in order to make it understandable for the modern reader. I believe Anderson spent as much time studying the words and phrasing of writing in the 1700’s as he did historical facts. What he did was daring and not for beginners, but it worked, beautifully.

On the other hand, my debut novel, Noah’s Wife, was set several thousand years in the past. No one knows what language was spoken in ancient Turkey in 5500 BCE. It was impossible to have “authentic” dialogue or duplicate the accurate structure of the language (writing having not been invented yet). Similarly, in Angels at the Gate—the story of Lot’s wife set in the time of Abraham—the spoken languages were a mixture of Akkadian, Egyptian, and Canaanite. Attempting anything like what Anderson did would have been ludicrous and would have had the opposite effect of the one intended.

In both books, avoiding the use of words or metaphors that would not have been part of the characters’ worlds and using slightly different sentence structures than those expected by the modern ear helped create the subtle illusion of an older time. And of course, utilizing information and extrapolations about the culture and environment of the time periods in a way that flowed naturally from the story deepened the illusion. From my novel Angels At The Gate:

 If the path of obedience is the path of wisdom, it is one not well worn by my feet. I am Adira, daughter of the caravan, daughter of the wind, and daughter of the famed merchant, Zakiti. That I am his daughter, not his son, is a secret between my father and myself. This is a fine arrangement, as I prefer the freedoms of being a boy.

At the head of our caravan, my father and I walk together beside our pack donkeys, the late day sun casting stubby shadows before us. Our sandaled feet raise a cloud of dust along the dry path that winds through Canaan’s white-and-taupe hills, studded with shrubs and spring flowers. We are taking a gift of sheep to our tribe’s elder, along with a portion of our recent purchase of olive oil and wine. I am less than enthusiastic.

Father sees this in my face. He reads me well—often, too well. “You are not happy to see Abram and Sarai?” he says, giving my donkey a pat. “Why not, Adir?” He always uses the masculine form of my name, even when we are alone. He is afraid if he does not, he will forget one day when he is angry or tired.

I shrug. “I am happy to visit with my cousin, Ishmael, but Abram is old and likes to talk.”

“He is a wise and learned man,” my father says, resting a hand on my shoulder. “You should listen to him.”

I should do many things I do not . . . .

The Impressionists often painted with thin brush lines that individually seem chaotic, but together (and at the right distance) transforms and suspends belief, so that the viewer “sees” what was intended. So too does the novelist, and the historical novelist does so with both the additional challenge and the additional tools of rich information about the past. It is all illusion, but then science tells us that what we think of as reality is also an illusion, a reconstruction created by our minds. This reconstructed “truth” of our perceptions is no less beautiful, tragic, or engaging . . . like a good story.



T.K. Thorne is a retired police captain (Birmingham, Alabama), director of City Action Partnership, and an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction.


About T. K. Thorne

T.K. is a retired police captain who writes books, which, like her blog, roam wherever her interest and imagination take her.
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4 Responses to The Secret Behind the Art of Painting the Past

  1. DEACON says:

    A lot of good stories began with Once upon a time. Larry[?]

  2. T.K. Thorne says:

    Indeed they did and do, Larry. Those are words that paint for sure.

  3. T.K. Thorne says:

    Thanks for the reblog! 🙂

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