Historical Fiction – Ten Editing Tools. No 1 – Light


Light Petrus_van_Schendel_Market_by_candlelight
Petrus van Schendel ‘Market by Candlelight’

The power of place and atmosphere is what drove me to first pick up my pen and try to write something set in the past. A useful editing tool to enliven your novel is to go through the draft and examine the quality of the light. Before the advent of artificial illumination, the lack of easy light can be a powerful indicator of mood and tone, and emphasise the period in which you are writing.

To our forbears the hot, dense sky of summer was an enormous contrast to the tingling sharpness of a frosty December.

Dawn has its own paricular colour, from pale amber in soot-smoked London to the transparent quasi-mauve of a morning in the desert.

Imagine the light filtering through heavy Victorian lace curtains, or slicing through the cracks of seventeenth century shutters.

People gather around the glimmer of a fire, or avoid the darkness of unlit streets. A night, rooms are pooled in gold from candles or lanterns, and are thick with gloom in the dark corners.

Specific locations have unique auras in terms of light. Conquered cities lie under a yellow pall, the sun dulled by dust or smoke. In the distance an army approaches, seen only by the quick flash of sun on shield.

The sea throws off light in innumerable ways – a sparkle over luminous turquoise, or thrashing foam over shining scales. Reflections from water move in exquisite and unusual forms.

Light Sauer_river_near_Esch-sur-Sûre_7;_reflection_of_sunlight_in_water
Reflection of Light on a River

The English weather is notoriously changeable, and can easily be contrasted with the harsh flat light of the unchanging heat of (for example) Cairo.

I used to work in the theatre, where correct lighting could transform a scene from the ordinary to the extraordinary, and I have never forgotten that lesson. The more specific the lighting, the better. ‘Night fell’ tells me nothing, but how much more threatening is; ‘the ball of the sun collapsed under the line of the mountains, turning them briefly to jagged peaks, before the dark closed around us like a hand.’

In the painting below, the long shadows of the approach of evening and the darkness of the sea emphasise how long this woman has been waiting.


Light Alma Tadema alma02
Expectation by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

And of course light is a symbol, one of the most common allegories of good and evil. So use your chiaroscuro to paint the moral complexities of the novel as well as the setting.

You can read my post on Lighting in the Seventeenth Century here

A post on 36 adjectives describing light here

Seven Deadly Sins of Historical Fiction here

Pictures from wiki commons