Photo by Corbin Mathias

The Adventures of Nagel is a great epic set in Ancient Babylon, which was lovingly and wonderfully recreated in writing by Wilma Forester. Bringing the past to life can be difficult. Here’s how.

The past always beckons to us. That’s why bringing the past to life can be very difficult. Take, for example, Ancient Babylon, the first cradle of civilization. During this period of human history, towering ziggurats rose over the vast plains of Mesopotamia, threatening to pierce the sky. Marketplaces bustled with trade, filled to the brim with people from all over. In looming temples, scholars strove to decipher the secrets of the celestial realm. 

Yet, bringing the past to life in your stories and narratives can be no cakewalk. In fact, it’s often a cake stumble, as it were. So, where do we go?

Bringing the Past to Life

When you are bringing the past to life in writing, don’t just focus on the dates and the names. You can’t write a story and just say that it’s set in ancient times because you slapped BC on the date! That’s bad packaging! Bringing the past to life depends on evocation. Writing historical fiction is not dropping dates. It’s the rough cobblestones beneath your character’s boots, the tang of wood smoke in an outdated kitchen, and the murmur of a forgotten language. Setting your narrative in history is about capturing the essence of a period through detail, knitting a tapestry of sights, sounds, smells, and textures that help transport the reader and breathe life into history.

Doing the Research

A sturdy foundation is critical when writing historical fiction. Immerse yourself in your chosen setting of history. Explore reliable sources like archaeological reports, written documents translated by experts, and scholarly texts on art, architecture, and society. The British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art offer excellent online resources.

Don’t just focus on the grand narratives of history. Delve into everyday life. How did people dress? What did they eat? What were their customs and beliefs? Imagine the markets overflowing with whatever dates, spices, and textiles were available. Picture children playing games in the shade of towering walls or ancient trees.

Painting with Words

Facts are the skeleton, but sensory details are the flesh that makes history real. Remember the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. 

Sight is easy. Describe the sun glinting off the roofs or roads of whatever village you are imagining. Convey how the dust would swirl, kicked up by the feet of passers-by. What would their clothing be like? Are their patterns? What fabric? If you already have a visual of what’s happening, perhaps consider the sound. 

How does the marketplace clamor in the mornings? What are the people humming amidst the businesses of their days? What animals contribute to the cacophony?

Speaking of animals, what do they smell like? What do the people smell like, for that matter? In the mornings, what is the scent that drives people to work?

While we’re here, what did they eat, and how did it taste on their tongues? Did the people of this time period prefer sweetness or sourness? How was their liquor?

Then, there is touch. Difficult to convey but not impossible. Describe the road, the touch of their fabrics, the temperature of the world, etc. 

All these and more help to bring whatever period you want to write into life.

Language and Dialogue

Language breathes life into your characters. While it would be a tall order to write in the actual language that was spoken during your setting’s heyday, consider incorporating:

  • Loanwords: Certain words evoke the past. Words like “Sirrah,” “Milord,” and more. Use them sparingly to add authenticity.
  • Titles: Research how different people used to greet each other. This makes the world feel more lived in and grounded.
  • Formal Speech: For people of higher status, use elevated language with a touch of formality. This portrays the deeper stratifications of the past.
  • Slang: Consider incorporating slang or informal speech patterns for commoners, but avoid anachronisms.

Conveying the Past in Writing

The past holds a captivating allure as a setting—multiple of them, in fact. Imagine the bustling metropolis of Babylon, a marvel of engineering with towering ziggurats scraping the sky. Consider the center of power that was ancient Tenochtitlan, which boasted advanced astronomy, a complex legal system, and a rich mythology. Perhaps you would like to venture out into 17th-century Vienna? Or visit the streets of Colonial-Era Shanghai? Beneath the surface of these places, intrigue and conflict simmered, with powerful forces in the backgrounds, stratified societies, and the ever-present threat of change. 

The past offers a glimpse into a world unfamiliar but familiar, a place of brilliance and contradiction, ripe for storytelling.

The Adventures of Nagel, a brilliant narrative set in Ancient Babylonia, is available on this website.

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