Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction – 10 Editing Tools. No 3 – The Sound of Time

Street Cries of 1754

In most of my novels the passing of time is something that is hard to convey in an era when nobody wore a watch, nobody had a mobile phone, and ways of telling the time were by sundial, candle calendar, or by listening out for church bells. Something that is really helpful to do is to make a daily hour calendar, with the hours described in a different way – a way I’ll call the ‘sound of time’.

Here’s my imaginary example of ideas for an average day in autumn in seventeenth century London, when most people gauged the time with ears rather than eyes. Of course every novel is different and every day is different, but it is helpful as a novelist to get a general picture of what might impact the daily routine of your characters. When you have a specific environment in mind, it is even more helpful. For my novel, I know the surrounding streets and trades; where the churches are, where the river is, how far it is to the cock-pit, and so forth, so I know what sounds my characters are  likely to hear to help them (and the reader) be aware of the passage of time.

When I’m editing, I’ll make a pass through the book looking for moments when I can make the passing of time feel more natural by incorporating these ideas.

5am Cock crow hour, hungry horses neighing, candlelight, cats yowling.

6am Fading dawn chorus, clanking of milkmaids bringing pails of milk, scraping of grates being cleaned, chopping of wood, squeal of pigs being fed

7am Smell of smoke from fires being kindled for cooking, rasp of scrubbing brushes and besoms on front steps and thresholds

8am Bells calling people to morning church, boots and iron-tipped shoes hurrying by, sound of well-water being drawn at pumps, street cries of the bread men

9am Intensified rattle and rumble of city traffic, horses, carriages, and hoots of barges on the Thames. Clatter and lowing of livestock arriving for slaughter.

10am Shouts of ferrymen touting for trade on the Thames, whump of rugs being beaten outside, thump of bread kneaded on a kitchen table. Clang of iron-rimmed cartwheels on cobbles.

11am Cries of the rag and bone collectors, the knocking as knife-grinders and button sellers go door to door, causing the barking of dogs.

12 noon Cacophany of clanging bells all over the city. Closing of shutters as shops close for dinner, bolting of doors, smell of cooking, queues at the bakehouse

1pm Shutters bang back against walls, trade resumes, including hammering on anvils, chink of bricks being laid, livestock being slaughtered.

2pm Newsmen shouting the days news, and the programme of the afternoon entertainment at the playhouses, shouts of ‘horses for hire’

3pm Swish of the sweeping out and replacement of old rushes, applause from the playhouses and raucous yelling from the cock-pits

4pm Light grows dimmer, candles appear at windows, noisy crowds of apprentices gather at the taverns, beggars rattle pans at them on street corners

5pm Traffic decreases, darkness descends, clop of hooves in back alleys as hired horses are returned to stables, bells for evening service at church

6pm Clatter of knives on pewter plates as supper is prepared and laid out, then eaten, the smell of smoke intensifies

7pm  Thick fug of smoke as people settle around firesides, spit and pop of burning wood, convivial chatter from behind shutters

8pm Sound and smell of the night-soil men doing their rounds

9pm Strains of someone playing the viol drifting from a window, cries of the link-men as they light people home

10pm Clang of the curfew bell, grating of the city gates closing.

Rag and bone man, Paris 1895  (Wikipedia)

Writers – do feel free to share some of your sounds from your novel with my readers.

You might also like: