Building Worlds in the Past

Marble Bust, Florence Renaissance, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Florentine Man

The past is no foreign country. It’s knowable, alive, and around us. How do I, as a novelist, build a world set centuries ago? Were people in the past like us? In many respects they were, although they did things in different ways. Here is the thing: I can tweak. For instance, take a Wall Street stockbroker, add or subtract a few time-appropriate character traits, and drop him into a jungle transformed into a conquistador.

We share more with our ancestors than what separates us from them.

Here is a catalog of places where I, as a writer, pick up history’s trails, and how I conduct my research.


Museums tell us how people lived, dressed, what weapons they used, and what they believed. That’s why when I travel, museums are obligatory stops. At home, the halls of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., are my stomping grounds. But I don’t limit my search to art. There is much more to learn in military, natural history, archaeology, or ethnology collections. What’s more, I don’t restrict myself to favorite centuries or geographical area either (antiquity to the Renaissance, emphasis on the Mediterranean and Spain). You never know what you’ll find, and what crumb might lead to a great feast.

All in all, nothing brings the past alive quicker than stepping, for example, in the Museo de Antropología in Mexico City and coming face to face with something like the statue of Coatlicue, the Aztec goddess. Doesn’t it transport you to Tenochtitlan? Coatlicue evokes the aesthetics of the Aztec civilization that created it and gives you insights into the psychology, the spirituality and the milieu of the stone workers that carved her.


In the main reading room Main Reading Room, Library of Congress

Library of Congress

Sooner than later, I end up at the library with heaps of history books.

A couple of years ago, I attended a cycle of conferences in Madrid entitled, “History and Literature: Crossroads,” moderated by the historian Jordi Canal from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales of París. In these conferences, eminent historians and bestselling novelists (known on this side of the Atlantic as historical fiction writers) debated the borders, hybrid forms, and commonalities of history and literature. Santiago Posteguillo, author of the Scipio trilogy, advised: “You cannot write without having read the great references of the period.”

Right. You cannot. Or you shouldn’t because it shows.


History is not only recorded in documents. It’s in the landscape, the layers of cathedrals, in walls and palaces as well as in lowly farmhouses and shepherds’ huts, places often disregarded in this so-called historical fiction genre. As a novelist, I must know my setting intimately to frame my tale within its historical context, and I must do so without overwhelming my reader with  research. In the Madrid conference, Juan Eslava Galán reminded us it is critical not to spoil the story with historical scaffolding. The scaffolding must be there, but the reader must not see it.

Toledo cathedral Gate from the Plaza del Ayuntamiento cathedral of Toledo

Toledo Cathedral


Of course, the history of a place differs from a novel set in it. The historian’s foundation is or should be the historical record (although he does conjecture). The novelist conflates that record with her imagination and creates a plausible story. Both may stray if they are not careful. The gravest and oldest sin of historians is to distort facts by glorifying, denying, and obfuscating the past. For novelists, it’s to believe their own tales and confuse their  creations with the historical characters. Worst of all (and I really can’t believe this is as prevalent as it is),  it’s not giving  imagination its rightful due.


Novelists are creatures of their times. Nowhere is this more obvious than in religion and social mores. What can we do with values that don’t conform with modern sensibilities? And all those weird rituals and processions? In the 21st century, we’re so enlightened that we’ve lost the capacity to understand anything but a secular environment. We have ostracized religion. It’s rare to find the deep understanding of lives framed by faith, as in the novels of Alice McDermott. Today, we would relegate Flannery O’Connor to a niche press.

In “The Deeper Mind: A Profile of Marilynne Robinson” published in Poets & Writers, the author of “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,”Ayana Mathis, says: “Religion and religious thought are absent from mainstream culture…[they have] become confused with a reduced, petty, dogmatic kind of Christianity that has become the public face of religion, at least in America, and people do understandably shy away from it.” It’s how novelists end up with medieval personages that sound like Richard Dawkins or Gloria Steinem.


Human Cultural Asset

Yi Manbong, Master Abbot

Folklore and crafts are invisible mooring cables to the departing ship of our past. They are living history.

When I lived in South Korea, I visited the temple of Bongwon-sa. There, within its grounds, lived Yi Manbong, Master Abbot of the T’aego sect, an authority in temple painting, a little man with tremendous eyebrows and knowing eyes that the South Korean government designated “Human Cultural Asset #48.” A national treasure. Lucky me, I walked into his study, smelled his brushes and paint saucers, and the Jaseon dynasty’s Hermit Kingdom flashed before my eyes.


One of my favorite examples of weaving a novel with the strands of history involves Victor Hugo and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the story of Quasimodo and Esmeralda, set in 15th-century Paris. After the novel was published in 1831, enthusiastic readers flocked to the cathedral’s site to admire the Gothic masterpiece they had read about. They were shocked by what they found. Notre Dame was in ruins. It’s hard to believe but it was going to be demolished. People were outraged. Inspired by the novel, the French began a public campaign to save it, and saved it was. Which was Victor Hugo’s intention from the outset. By peeling away the damage and depredations of centuries, the novelist had seen into the past, effected change in his day, and preserved for the future a glorious national landmark.

That is a perfect illustration of the power of a story.



About Adelaida

Adelaida Lucena de Lower is a writer and avid reader. She has just finished THE RED RIBBON, a novel about prejudice and love set in 15th century Spain. She is writing and researching the next. Think Moorish invasion, Goths, treason, mayhem, and brother against sister.