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.

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Second of my historical fiction deadly sins – Purple Prose


Over-writing. It’s a sin! Historical fiction demands that we paint a vivid picture of the past. To do this, we have to tell our story, describe a world, and still bring the novel in at a reasonable length. Unnecessary adverbs and adjectives must be the first to be axed, (though now I have got to the point where very few even make it to first draft) but the surprising detail is the one that counts. The one that will stick in the mind of your reader. The reader doesn’t want to be impressed by your fancy writing skills,  but rather the one true thing that will allow the imagination to conjure the rest. Your research will have a wealth of these – look for the one with the most resonance.

In this picture of a 17th century doll’s house, one candle is askew in the chandelier. The cupboard is one and a half  times the size of a man. The jugs are ranked in size-order with the biggest in the middle. These details are much better than just stating the room was lit by chandeliers, or there was a cupboard in the corner. Specificity is the way to economy, and also the way to the reader’s imagination.



When I’m editing I often find I have added too much weight to character reactions in dialogue by over-writing. Assuming that I have set up my characters well, all I should have to do is leave them to talk. Not to interfere to try to help the reader.

‘He could see she was upset’.

This is a typical one – I’m telling the reader what he could see. Surely, if we know the characters well, we should know that the event (whatever it was) would make her upset and why. If he can see she’s upset, maybe he’d do something.

He reached out and took her hand.

This is much easier for the reader to imagine than ‘he could see she was upset.’ Usually, the more intense the emotion, the more taciturn the character. The dialogue should reveal everything, even if it’s restrained. The character is nearly always thinking something different to what is revealed in speech. Occasionally, it’s good to let the character start to reveal themselves, then to cut it off. Hysterical language, and verbs such as ‘gasped,’ probably indicate overwriting. It’s a long time since I’ve seen anyone gasp, (except on diving into freezing water) and I don’t suppose they gasped more often in 1616 than in 2016.


Just don’t. The reader is still trying to make sense of the new strange world they’re in, without layering another dream world on the top. (Unless you are actually writing about Victorian Opium addiction of course.)