Sounds of History
I strive to include sensory detail in my writing, to evoke that sense of time and place that is so important when writing historicals, but I think I have the most difficulty incorporating period-appropriate sounds.
Visual detail is fairly simple to come by. We have period paintings and illustrations to study, current photographs of the landscape.
Smell is always easy to evoke, because it’s so basic and strong a sense. If I write, “he approached a pine tree,” one hundred readers will picture one hundred different pine trees. If I say, “he smelled pine,” one hundred readers will all know exactly the scent I mean.
As for taste and touch… information on 19th-century cookery and fabrics is readily available. And many essentials – like skin and hair and rain and grass – feel pretty much the same now as they did then.
But it’s difficult to find descriptions of how the Regency sounded. Compared to our modern society, I’d imagine I’d find it unbearably noisy at times, and uncomfortably silent at others. But that would be my modern perspective. One of the things I love about my town is the lovely variety of ambient sounds. As I sit and listen to the sounds that filter through my open window throughout the day, I will hear freight trains passing, small airplanes headed for our local airport, the bells from the church downtown, even the dull pop-popping of a nightly fireworks show at the nearby theme park. All this in addition to the dogs barking, birds chirping, neighbors sweeping their sidewalks, etc.
If I sat by the open window of a Regency-era manor house, or a London townhouse, and listened… what would I hear? I have some vague ideas, but I’d feel far more confident sketching a picture of the view, or cataloging the refreshments served for tea. I’ve been more lucky finding this sort of auditory detail for my current book, because it takes place on a boat, and sailboats have a soundtrack that hasn’t changed much over the centuries.
How do you work sounds into your writing? And what noises make up the soundtrack of your hometown?