A house, building, edifice etc.
I'll be the first to admit I am one of the most irritating people where buildings in books are concerned. I notice if the sun is coming up on the wrong side, I notice if the construction method is wrong, I notice if someone puts up a cathedral in a year, or if there are no mentions of hoists or pulleys. Or even (and yes, once this DID happen) if there was a crane (with an engine! with fumes! and people talking about pollution!) back in medieval England.
So yes, I'm not the most ideal audience for building faux pas. After the third book was hurled across the room in disgust -- I think that one was 5 storey concrete buildings in the 1200's -- I thought I'd better calm down a bit and think about why I got so damn irked by this sort of mistake.
I came to the conclusion that buildings are not just staging for a story, to me they are an integral part of describing the people and places, characters in their own rights. The state of a building, its position, the city structure, the infrastructure, the decoration etc all tie into the universe and of my personal understand of the characters involved.
So what do buildings tell us that is so important?
Period: If the building is contemporary to the novel (and I’m seriously fascinated as to why people don’t set regency novels inside Tudor houses, the blessed things still exist today!) it gives an idea of the technological advancement and priorities of contemporary life.
Area/Culture: Up until recently (by recently we mean the advent of the British Empire and their disturbing penchant for terraced housing and typical Victorian edifices regardless of the climate), the type of building was extremely dependant upon the climate in which you lived. Courtyard buildings with massive walls and an internal fountain were found in hot climates because the fountain and walls aid in cooling the building, while closed buildings with internal fireplaces were (self evidently) found in warmer climates. Even the aspect of the windows tells you a lot – in the UK, you’d kill for a south facing garden window, in South-Africa, you’d run a mile! (kudos to the first person who can tell me why this is)
Social Context: Going back to period – if you lived in an un-renovated Tudor cottage in the 1800’s, it would not have been considered charming or cute, it would have been considered a hovel. As with everything, the fashions in building reflect the philosophy and sociology of a country/culture, and strangely enough there are piles and piles of books on architectural philosophy which explain WHAT people were trying to do over the years. (yes, even Milton Keynes has an impressive architectural philosophy behind it. Seriously.)
Priorities: If your characters live in a beautiful but sparsely furnished townhouse in Regency times, I would presume that they are either quite frugal, not particularly well off, or trying to live within limited means. If they have peeling wallpaper, or cracked coving, or poorly rendered walls, I’ll presume they’re poor or slovenly. If they have the right type of wallpaper, or fresco, or rococo mouldings, or stained glass, or window style, I will presume they’re both rich and up to the latest fashions.
Character: If your characters live in a windowless house, with a tiny staircase, and fireplaces in every room, I’ll presume they are stifling people. (I know this is not strictly logical). Conversely, if they live in a country house with huge French windows and a massive double staircase, I’ll presume they are open and welcoming. (Note to self, the dichotomy here should be explored).
To me, any building is a character in a story. This first blog post is just an overview of what buildings can mean to the reader. In my following posts I will take each of the above topics in turn and explain what it is about buildings that can be pulled out and used to influence the reader’s perspective of history, without being horrible anachronistic, or bludgeoning them over the head with dry facts.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this post, and see you in a month!
All the best,