The Importance of Setting in Historical Fiction by Sarah Woodbury

Posted by on Jan 27, 2014 in Featured Book, Historical Tidbits, Medieval Great Britain | 6 comments

The challenge for all authors of historical fiction is to make the past accessible to modern readers without losing the spark that makes the story historical. Readers seek out historical fiction for many reasons, which must include a desire to learn about the past in a less dry manner than nonfiction, and to lose themselves in another time and place. Thus, an authentic setting—the where, the when, and the why of historical peoples—can make or break a story.

The latest book in my Gareth and Gwen medieval mysteries, The Fallen Princess, is set during the Welsh harvest festival of Calan Gaeaf, and its companion holy day, Nos Galan Gaeaf, which the modern world knows as Halloween.

While November 1 is known today to the Catholic Church as All Saint’s Day, within Celtic tradition, it was always celebrated as the first day of winter. The Church took this pagan tradition (as it did with many others) and made it a holy day. During the medieval period, Calan Gaeaf was the Welsh harvest festival. The night before, Nos Galan Gaeaf, was the day when the veil between the human world and the world of the spirits thinned.

“The harvest had been gathered in, excess livestock had been culled or killed off and put into storage for the coming year. It was very much a communal festivity, a time for celebration and enjoyment. Everyone, from the farmer to the lowest cow hand, had participated in growing crops and keeping the animals and now they would celebrate together.”

Nos Galan Gaeaf, in turn, was all about protecting the community from the dead and easing their progress to the next world. Its customs included putting candles inside turnips (pumpkins are New World foods and thus not available in medieval Wales) to light the way for the dead, leaving out food on one’s stoop to appease the dead, and sharing food with revelers who would move from house to house in a medieval version of trick-or-treating.

My hope in choosing this setting for The Fallen Princess, is to provide an authentic background for the mystery, drawing the reader into what is familiar—in this case, Halloween–without losing sight of what isn’t familiar, Nos Galan Gaeaf.

It’s up to you, the reader, to see if I succeeded.

Sarah Woodbury, January 27, 2014


  1. There is such a fine line, when writing historical fiction, between researched period detail and keeping the characters accessible to today’s readers. In some ways, I believe it’s so much more difficult than writing literary or speculative fiction becasue you’re treading ground that has been covered countless times, but that you need to present it as if the reader is passing over it for the fist time. Ms Woodbury’s work is among the very best in the genre and I’m glad she’s done some new digging into the pre-Christian Celtic Halloween tradition, one of my own interests.

  2. I would be interested to know how you approached the matter of collating research for this story, given that the common people at that time would be illiterate and therefore no written record of their everyday lives remains. I presume that the Christian priesthood would have no interest in Celtic interpretations of Christian festivals. Indeed I imagine that they would have been the last people to document them and thus assist in their preservation in written form. This only leaves the oral tradition, and that is notoriously unreliable as we all know.

    • There isn’t much documentation for medieval Wales. What exists is primarily the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Welsh Chronicle of the Princes, both of which were kept by monks of the time to detail events. Still, we don’t even know the birthdays of Owain Gwynedd, the King of North Wales at the time The Fallen Princess is set, or his sons.

      This paucity of data is exacerbated by the fact that Wales was conquered and many records deliberately destroyed by the English.

      That said, information about Calan Gaeaf, for example, is not hard to find. And we have records of Welsh lawbooks, poetry, sagas, and kingdoms dating back to Roman times.

  3. I take issue with the idea that oral history is mistaken. The Native Americans of the Northeast, for instance, trained people to memorize their history; this was their job. Who is to say they were inaccurate? We all know that everything written in history books is not necessarily accurate. Just because it isn’t on the printed page does not make it inaccurate, either. I also mention the greatness of The Iliad and the Odyssey. It’s accuracy may be disputed, but what a loss to literature and the world if these works were not first memorized and repeated by mouth!

  4. Experts who analyzed the Old Testament claim that two people wrote most of the Bible during Moses’s life because they say they have identified two styles of writing that could only come from two individuals.

    But the Old Testament timeline starts with Creation in 3960 BC, and Moses and the Jewish timeline starts with the Exodus from Egypt (Moses) about 1312 BC.

    And the Old Testament was finished with Luke 21:5-6 in 70 AD with the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem.

    It’s obvious that much of the Old Testament comes from an oral tradition. How accurate can an oral story be that covers a period of more than 2,600 years?