In my Scottish historical romance novels, I want to take readers from their everyday, modern lives and send them to 17th century Scotland. I use a few tools to accomplish this. One is the language that comes across in my voice and in the characters’ dialogue. I try to make the language sound historical without it being difficult for the modern reader to understand. It is, in truth, only the illusion of historical speech.
Another way I transport the reader is through the use of specific historical and setting detail. I don’t want to mimic a history textbook. I only want to drop hints and clues of where the characters are in passing. The reader might like to know briefly what the characters are eating in 1618. Not everything on the table at a feast, just a few items, telling details, that will make them feel as if they’re sitting at that table. But more importantly they’ll want to know what’s going on around them, so I like to get back to the action and dialogue as quickly as possible.
My favorite setting details to include in my books are unique descriptions of Scotland and the Scottish landscape. Not all the readers have been to Scotland so they enjoy knowing more about what it’s like, and feeling they’re actually there.
A Scottish moor was something I didn’t truly understand until I’d walked across one, specifically Drumossie Moor, also known as Culloden Battlefield. Although none of my scenes take place there, the below scene takes place on a similar Scottish moor. A moor is usually a wide, flat, wet, boggy place. This is how I wove the setting description through:
For hours, Gwyneth and Rory trudged through darkness, with only the moon for light, and picked their way through the gorse and heather not yet in bloom. A movement up ahead at a lone tree caught her attention. She recoiled, breath held. In the dimness, her eyes strained to identify the movement—a horse swishing its tail. Where was the rider?
“Shh,” she hissed at Rory, and gave the tree a wide berth.
The horse snorted and stamped its hooves.
Gwyneth’s skin prickled. She crouched and pulled Rory down beside her.
A man grunted, groaned, then strode out into the moonlight to relieve himself. Once finished, he returned to the shadows, and a screeching birdcall sounded from the tree. Some distance away, an answering call responded. Her blood chilled. The men were communicating. What were they saying?
Gwyneth and Rory sat hunched for an immeasurable time, until her legs cramped. If they moved now, the watchman was certain to see and capture them. Vigilant to all the sounds and movements around her, she seated herself into a more comfortable position upon the damp ground and waited for the man to fall asleep.
A mist floated above the ground like a giant cloud, obscuring the moon, and the first glimmer of dawn brightened the horizon before her. Indecision tormented her. They had to leave now or be discovered in the daylight. If only the mist was lower it might conceal them.
“Shh,” she whispered to Rory. “We must move quickly but quietly.”
Rory blinked sleepy eyes at her, seemingly half aware of where they were.
“Are you awake?”
He nodded. Her poor, sweet child. She hated that he had to go through this.
She rose and tugged him along with her. They slipped toward a distant hill, her skirts snagging on heather and gorse. Cold water from the peaty soil seeped through her rawhide slippers. The cool, damp air around them vibrated with tension. She tried to ignore the knotting pain in her stomach and the weakness of her whole body from lack of food.
She had no notion where the border to MacGrath holdings was, but surely they would reach it soon.
The birdcall echoed from the tree behind them. But this time the sound was different—an alarm.
A horse galloped forth, a menacing black silhouette advancing from the white mist in the distance.
“Run, Rory!” She tugged her skirts off her shoes and broke into a sprint.
He dashed several paces ahead of her.
She glanced back. Two horsemen thundered close behind, one chasing on her heels. Oh, dear God, protect us! She switched directions, gasping, lungs burning, desperate for more air.
Where is Rory? Her legs wouldn’t move fast enough. The air around her thickened like water, and she couldn’t get through it.
Spotting Rory, she chased after him. “Run!” She slipped in a puddle but righted herself before she fell.
They will kill us. They will kill my precious Rory.
More horses joined in the chase. They surrounded her, their demon riders yelling in Gaelic. Two hemmed her in. Trapped, she dashed headlong between them. Something caught her by the belt and yanked her into the air. Her legs flailed on nothingness. She landed hard on her stomach across the front of a saddle. The breath whooshed from her constricted lungs.
“Ma!” Rory yelled.
My Fierce Highlander copyright 2011 Vonda Sinclair
As you can see, I don’t go on paragraph after paragraph describing nothing but the setting. I weave the setting details through the action, emotion and internalization. To me this brings the setting more to life because the reader, via the point of view character, experiences the setting by interacting with it, seeing it and feeling it.
The best way to research a setting is to visit it. That way, you can notice all the tiny sensory details that a non-writer might not, especially smells and sounds you can’t learn from photos, or temperature and humidity, and the general atmosphere or feel of the place. I had read a lot about Scotland in my early research, but I still didn’t realize what a cool, wet place it is, even in midsummer, until I’d experienced it for myself. Rain is frequent in Scotland. Not only that, there is often mist floating above the ground, especially in the morning. Scotland contains innumerable lochs, streams, rivers and bogs. And of course it’s surrounded by the ocean on three sides. On the coasts, the chilly wind is usually blustery and very noticeable.
Whatever your setting, you’ll want to know it intimately in order to write it realistically and take your reader there.
My Fierce Highlander: Gwyneth Carswell, an English lady banished by her father to the harsh Scottish Highlands, wants nothing more than to take her young son away from the violence of two fighting clans–her own distant kin, the MacIrwins, and their enemies, the MacGraths. She risks everything to rescue the fierce MacGrath warrior from the battlefield where he’s left for dead by her clan. She only knows she is inexplicably drawn to him and he wants peace as she does. When her clan learns of her betrayal, they seek vengeance. Dare she trust the enemy more than her own family?
Laird Alasdair MacGrath is driven to end two-hundred years of feuding with the MacIrwins. But by taking in and protecting Lady Gwyneth and her son, he provokes more attacks from his mortal enemy. As the danger and conflict surrounding them escalate, Alasdair and Gwyneth discover an explosive passion neither of them expected. With the arrival of a powerful man from her past, a horrible decision confronts her–give up her son or the man she loves.
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Vonda Sinclair’s favorite indulgent pastime is exploring Scotland, from Edinburgh to the untamed and windblown north coast.She also enjoys creating hot, Highland heroes and spirited lasses to drive them mad. She is a past Golden Heart finalist and Laurie award winner. She lives with her amazing and supportive husband in the mountains of North Carolina where she is no doubt creating another Scottish story. Please visit her website to learn more. Vonda also maintains a web presence on Facebook and Twitter. Her latest release is My Wild Highlander.
As a special treat, Vonda is offering a copy of My Fierce Highlander to one lucky person who comments here today. Good luck and happy reading!