World Building in Historical Fiction: Layering in the Details

A child’s stiff leather shoes still in the box. A stack of undergarments. Bags of flour. Bulk teas and spices. A license to operate a business. Chopsticks.

All things we would recognize today. Going about our daily lives, we wouldn’t consider any of them museum-worthy.

But put them alongside an abacus, assay equipment (for determining the amount of gold in a rock), a butter churn, a mustache cup. Then the layers add up to something not unfamiliar, but not quite in our lived reality.

Those layers of details make reading and writing history and historical fiction come alive.

Finding the details

I recently moved to Montana, and a couple of weeks ago, my family and I visited Virginia City and Nevada City, two preserved historic gold mining towns. Yes, there is some kitschiness, but if you slow down and look, you find the little details of history.

Virginia City is the bigger of the two, one main street with multiple shops and businesses preserved between functioning businesses (think: historic blacksmith next to a modern ice cream shop).

The local heritage museum was empty, so we had museum staff to ourselves. I was particularly fascinated by the relatively extensive collection of items from residents of Chinese origin. In addition to the chopsticks and abacus were ladies’ shoes and stockings, engraved signs from the Chinese masonic temple and, surprisingly, a preserved child’s birthday cake baked by a Chinese cook in 1889.

I asked the museum staff about this collection. She said Virginia City currently has 150 residents, but at its peak 10,000 people lived there, 30 percent of whom were of Chinese origin or descent. While western histories often mention Chinese laundries in mining towns, the intricate details of daily life brought the vibrancy and immediacy of the town alive for me. More than a data point, the residents were living, breathing people with all the complexity of emotions life brings.

Nevada City felt more like a historical site and less like an “experience”. The town is fenced off with a separate entrance. Its several streets intersect each other, the buildings preserved and open to visitors (with barriers to protect the artifacts).

The day we were there, re-enactors populated some buildings. In the women’s clothing store, we met a re-enactor who told us that the boxes that lined the walls were all full of “new” goods, untouched for over a century. The man who paid to preserve the two towns bought up entire shops’ inventories. The woman pulled a box containing children’s shoes to show us the contents. I have a bronzed shoe from my grandfather (born in 1914) that looks very similar: a stiff leather bootie with buttons up the side (forget trying to put that on a toddler!). She also took out some furs to show us (the mink muff with attached head and tail was most interesting to my 10-year-old daughter).

The little child’s boot and the box in the store in Nevada City, Montana

Layering the details

In reading and writing historical fiction (and history), those layers of details help immerse the reader. The familiar helps ground us. The less familiar transports us to a different time and place. I imagine that kind of world building would be similar in fantasy and science fiction as well. With historical fiction, however, we are constrained by reality, so seeing these unfamiliar things in person can help provide the spice needed to make the world come alive.

I loved the mustache cup, a tea cup designed to protect a man’s mustache while drinking. It’s not a stretch to envision people sitting around having afternoon tea, but the idea of the gentleman’s whiskers being protected—even in a pretty rough and tumble mining town at the height of gold mining—helps transport us there.

The mustache cup – amazing porcelain design. I can picture a bushy-lipped gentlemen perched on a settee drinking from this, the mountains rising in the parlor window.

My current work in progress is set in 1910 New York City. When I visited in April, I went to the Old Police Building on Centre Street, now luxury condos. They’ve kept the lobby pretty much intact, and the doorman let me in and graciously allowed me to pepper him with questions. Standing in that lobby, with my story in my head, looking at what my protagonist would see around her enabled me to describe it with an intimacy that I (hope) brings the world to the reader.

Our daily lives are made real by the small things: how I make my tea in the morning, what I have for breakfast, a route I may walk to the nearest coffee shop, what that coffee shop smells like, the sounds, the other patrons. These things seem forgettable because we live them.

Places like Virginia City and Nevada City may be touristy, but walking those streets, seeing the quotidian details of life in an 1880s mining town can add layers and shading to a world to make it come alive to a reader, the characters and their lives more relatable. The key is just enough familiar to bring us in, just enough historical to immerse us, and just enough world building to let the characters breathe life into the story.

Photo credits: All photos by Kate Zerrenner, Virginia City, Montana/Nevada City, Montana

Published by katezerrenner

I write non-fiction environmental work, mainly climate change, energy, and water, with a heavy focus on policy. I also write historical fiction. In addition to writing, I work as a policy advisor at the State of Texas. Previously, I spent over a decade at Environmental Defense Fund, where I led EDF’s multi-year campaign to influence and enact state and national energy and water efficiency policy. I led the state legislative team, testifying before the US Congress and Texas Legislature. Prior to joining EDF, I worked at the U.S. Government Accountability Office analyzing U.S. action on climate change and the voluntary carbon offset market; SAIC, on climate change projects for the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; and U.S. Department of Energy. I have a Master’s degree in International Energy and Environmental Policy and Economics from the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, a Master’s in Comparative Politics from the University of Glasgow in Scotland, and a Bachelor’s degree in European History from the University of Texas

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