Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Characters live in buildings. So?

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,

Chris Smith



Erastes said...

Very interesting. You've given me a lot to think about. I just tend to write about houses - David and Tobias in that tiny little overhanging terrace in 17th cent London, Standish, Bittern's Reach - I'll certainly think more about my houses in future, because I love describing where they live. Obviously decoration is important too.

csmith said...

Decoration is a fascinating topic in and of itself -- rococco and baroque being two of the more "LET ME LAVE YOU WITH DECORATION, OH SQUARISH BOX" type things, and gothic being the historical pinnacle of structural design. (We can go on about Gothic for days, we won't.)

I think your books are very good at reflecting the character of people within them. Most especially Mere Mortals (yes, I know it is not out yet). Actually thinking about it, one of the things I love about JX is how out of place the house is, and how in place the room by the railway station is. Well done!

Lee Rowan said...

I found myself doing a bit of the interior-decorator stuff in Tangled Web -- Brendan, whose hobby is architectural drawing, notices that Philip's house is furnished well, but the fabrics are slightly dated; in fact they're dated to the year Philip's wife died, and his hearth, home, and heart went into stasis.

Alex Bee gave David Archer Chatsworth as a family seat in Home is the Sailor... a little fancier than I'd intended, but apparently finding good pics of Stately English Homes without pavement or other impedimenta is not easy.

The period that drives me bonkers is Victorian -- all the bric-a-brac and overstuffed things and drapes to hide the piano legs... claustrophobia!

Nan Hawthorne, Shield-wall Books said...

When I first started rewriting the stories I wrote as a teen I put my Anglo Saxons in stone castles... but as I researched for the novel, An Involuntary King, I had to reboot my whole idea of life in the late 8th century. Lawrence may have kept his anachronistic name... but he now lives in a wood mead hall in a vertical timber stockade, decorated with a central fire pit, shields on the wall, smoke slowly seeping out the thatched roof, and he and his wife now sleep on a straw pallet.. a really swanky one, since they are royalty after all! The baking and cooking is done out of doors. There are middens and cess pits. The roads are poor to nonexxistent.. thank heavens for the old Roman roads in Lincolnshire. My characters wear rectangular construction wool or linen clothes and wrapped leggings with leather shoes. Mail and a helm, no plate armor. And that's just the beginning.

So when I went back through the stories to put the novel together, the first thing I changed was my protagonist taking the stone steps two at a time as he went to his father's tower chamber...


Anonymous said...

Yes! Buildings are very much an extra character in themselves (and as a reader, I'd like to say that it's very much appreciated when authors take the time to make sure the buildings are suitable - not just to the historical period, but to the function they serve in the story).

One of the things I'm working on at the moment is set in the early 1800s, in & around a farm in the area I currently live in.... in some ways that makes the research a bit easier (and gives me something to do when I'm following a tourist crawling along a road a normally zip along at *cough*60*cough*mph), but in others - not so much, as so many farm buildings were remodelled in the mid-late 1800s. I have learned though that the towns have brick built houses (except for a few half-timbered ones which are either much older or built on the cheap) whereas even just a little bit out in the country, stone is the norm - at least until you get to the mid-late 1800s and the significant decreases in the cost of bricks / rise of the railways.
...Actually, I have to confess that I was getting so confused myself about the farm that I had to sit down & draw a plan of it when I was only a couple of paragraphs into the story! I found that a great exercise in itself as it made me sit down & properly think about how many people lived & worked on the farm :-)

Anne Gilbert said...

I've tried not to do things I've seen some authors or would-be authors try to do, like putting higher-ranked people in England in castles before 1066(although I know a few were built before then, mostly under, uh, "special" circumstances). I've tried to make sure that I describe buildings correctly to the best of my ability. These kinds of details are quite important if you want to have real "authenticity" -- which you can't do alone by trying to recreate "old" place names, "olde-timey" language and the like. Buildings and clothing kind of reflect whatever period you're trying to recreate.
Anne G

Anonymous said...

Just because: South-facing in the UK is nice and warm in the afternoons, whereas south-facing in South Africa is REALLY HOT in the afternoon? I know in Malaysia you tried not to have any south-facing windows (or made sure they were well-covered with awnings)...

Completely agree with you on this post, and I don't understand why people would put a crane in medieval England. O_o That would make me throw the book across the room too!

csmith said...


Yes, I'd noticed that about TW -- it was a very clever little detail which made me go "aww". Unfortunately I did not have much time to ponder it as the rest of the story was so damn good!

We can remove pavements. We have the technology (where technology = photoshop).

Mother collects Victoriana. It is very...frilly. *hides from it*

csmith said...

@ Nan...

With all the kiddies books that show castles back into the mists of time, it is a very easy mistake to make. Actually, that would be a good post, thinking on it -- WHEN types of buildings appeared, came into common use, died out etc. With a big illustration for reference purposes.

And YAY for middens and cesspits -- I had the edits back from my first novella recently (it is out now, and I'm living in a low level state of terrified until feedback starts to happen), and the editor was ecstatic that I mentioned outdoor toilets (1830's Hong Kong, British trade mission). I'm a massive believer in using pertinent details to rope people into the interesting sense of the strange that history creates.

csmith said...

@ Tiggy...

I now have an urge to come and stalk you (more so than usual at least) under the guise of "fact finding mission".

It always amazes me, living just down the road from an old Tudor village, that the "half timbered buildings" which now are nearing the million mark were actually the "oh shit we don't have enough money let's whack it up and be done with it" type buildings.

And I draw plans ALL THE TIME. Actually that would be a fun meme -- post a picture of a plan you've drawn for your stories.

csmith said...

@ Anne...

I agree about the buildings. I tend to put them above the lanaguage (well, it's that or write in 15th Century Italian, and I'm thinking I might limit my possible readership with that one.)

What is fascinating is how the philosophy of building changes as society progresses. For instance, I was really amused to find out that in the 1500's, when gangs were running riot in Florence, the town fathers decided to put statues of saints on the corners of major intersections. This meant that women would come and pray there, which meant that the gangs would be too embarrassed to make complete arses of themselves in front of the ladies. I just think it is one of the most perfect solutions to street crime ever!

csmith said...


Oh yes. We had a house in SA with south facing windows. Next time we moved, NORTH FACING ALL THE WAY!

Marg said...

Fascinating post. There are certain things that definitely jar you out of a scene when reading HF - a crane would definitely be one of those things!

csmith said...


So glad you enjoyed it! I have to say the crane was not the worst recent anachronism (it was the worst architectural one). The WORST one was the man, age 80, in 1066, who was contemplating another 20 years of life and blithely jumping off and on galloping horses for the fun of it.

Charlie Cochrane said...

Great blog.

I like to 'see' where my characters live as I write (mind's eye and all that) even if I don;t use all the details. Helps that I live in a converted Edwardian house!

csmith said...

@ Charlie

If I can't see things in my head, I don't write about them either.

You and your bloody Edwardians. PS, your post on the White City made me almost cry. Which says a lot for my current state of mind.

Anonymous said...

It would be really interesting to see someone write Roman-era fiction set in the insulae.

csmith said...


very interesting indeed!

Dr John Yeoman said...

Perhaps an even more practical insight is that people in our historical novels, speaking for themselves, should *not* normally describe their houses or room interiors.

Do we habitually remark upon our faded wall paper? Or the old stain on the carpet? Or make poetic reflections upon our ivy-clad porch? No. They have become part of our landscape.

Surely it's more plausible, if such scene-settings must be conveyed, for the observations to be made by a total stranger.

I grate my teeth when the protagonist of a novel, historical or otherwise, gives us a detailed travelogue of their everyday environment. Implausible, or what?

csmith said...


Oh yes, John. I completely agree. Apologies if I was not clear enough -- I meant an external commentator, or one who is sufficiently self-centred to be singing his own praises -- my first novella features someone of precisely that bent.

I am actually finding this balance extremely hard at the moment -- in my first novella, it was very easy. The character was a complete cad, extremely bitchy and pointed, and WOULD remark on everything. In the novel I'm currently editing, the characters are natives of 1490's Florence, and it's damn hard to inveigle the correct sense of place without making it heavy handed. On the other hand, live and learn. At least I realise that this is an issue!

Thanks for commenting!

Anonymous said...


Stalk away! You could "research" some impressive engineering while you're at it too ;-)

csmith said...


You welshites (welsh-ites, not wel-shites), just mash the left hand side of the keyboard to make words, don't you!

And that is beautiful. Don't tempt me. I may appear.

Anonymous said...

Don't appear too soon - the house is full of plaster/polyfilla dust at the moment!

Dr John Yeoman said...

Personally, I always thought that polysemia was something one found in a cheap bathroom. Having just tried to read Wolf Hall, without success, I discover that it is :)

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