Stephanie Thornton: Writing Historical Fiction Part III—Make Your Readers Believe

This is the third in a series from our July featured author.

Writing historical fiction is the next best thing to having
a time machine. (Side note: Time travel would totally be my superhero
superpower if I ever had one.) And I’ll be honest, my favorite part of writing
is adding in all the weird and unique setting details that, for a brief time at
least, transport a reader back to times long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far

(I know I’ve mentioned that I love Star Trek. I also love
Star Wars.)

Most of these details boil down to the five senses: what are
the characters seeing, hearing, feeling, touching, and tasting? What are they
experiencing that we don’t today?

This is where all those primary sources come in handy. For
example, I learned while researching ancient Byzantium that the emperors
sometimes wrote official decrees on purple paper with silver ink. (I’ll admit
this brought to mind images of Emperor Justinian writing teenage-style notes to
Theodora, embellished with silver hearts and flourishes. I doubt Justinian
would have been impressed.) So of course, I had to have Justinian send off a
few messages on purple paper, which is the sort of simple, but fun, historical
detail I love to read about.

Also, after the Nika riots, Justinian and Theodora rebuilt
the Hagia Sophia (only one of the most stunning buildings on the face of the
planet). Justinian was in a big hurry and wanted his new church to be the talk
of the world, and he certainly didn’t want to die before it was finished so his
successor got all the credit. Supposedly, he buried gold in the foundations of
the old church to encourage the workmen to excavate faster, in addition to
requisitioning marble from all around the world to build the columns for his
new church. Those fun details made their way into a scene in The Secret History
as the Hagia Sophia was being rebuilt.

Justinian also swiped columns from already-ancient temples,
including the famous Medusa columns used in the Basilica Cistern. Here’s what
Theodora has to say about the subject:

I almost forgot why I was here as I gaped at the upside-down
colossal head of Medusa, a column stretching from her neck to the ceiling.

The cistern’s columns had all been commandeered from pagan
temples throughout the Empire. Two contained the witch’s head, one left upside
down and the other sideways to ward off the evil eye. I waded into the water
that lapped at her hair and touched the cool granite of her face. Carp swam
lazily at my feet, unconcerned with the gorgon or Empress in their pond.

A slave hammered a column etched with a Hen’s Eye and swirls
of what appeared to be tears, or peacock feathers, pouring down the stone. The
man’s mouth formed a perfect O to see me, and he dropped his chisel, his hair
covered in white dust like finely milled flour as he struggled to bow.

So besides what your
characters can see, what other things are foreign about their world? What
strange foods do they eat? (My current Mongolian characters drink a lot of
fermented mare’s milk.) What do they smell as they walk down the dark alleys of
their city? (Fermenting fish sauce for Theodora—the Romans loved the stuff.)
What everyday tasks do they do that might feel different than to us? (The
Byzantines and Romans used strigils to scrape their backs at the bathhouses,
and scooped out their earwax with tiny spoons.) What do they hear as they go to
sleep at night? (Hippos for Pharaoh Hatshepsut, as compared with modern highway

Regardless of what genre
you write, setting boils down to one thing: make your reader believe that
they’re really there. And for historical fiction, they might even learn a weird
piece of trivia to boot!

Stephanie Thornton is a writer and history teacher who has
been obsessed with infamous women from ancient history since she was twelve.
She lives with her husband and daughter in Alaska, where she is at work on her
next novel. Her first book,
The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora is
now available in bookstores and online. Visit her website at

1 thought on “Stephanie Thornton: Writing Historical Fiction Part III—Make Your Readers Believe”

  1. Lynn Lovegreen

    Great post, Stephanie! Collecting those details is one of the fun parts of historical research.

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