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About the Writer:

Victoria Grossack, a former moderator of a critique group with Coffeehouse for Writers, has published articles and short stories for various magazines. She is creating a set of novels placed in Bronze Age Greece with her frequent collaborator, Alice Underwood. Visit Tapestry of Bronze, and read about Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus, just published, as well as their work in progress.

Victoria also teaches a workshop in Writing Historical Fiction for Coffeehouse for Writers. 

Yesterday's Stories and Today's Readers: Joining Setting and Characters through Metaphors and Similes
Victoria Grossack
Writers of historical fiction undertake the challenge of setting their stories in a former time and place. The characters should think and feel as people of that time would have thought and felt – and in a way that engrosses the readers, that makes them feel as if they are there with the characters.

Setting and Character

One of your first tasks as a historical fiction writer is to identify the setting of your novel, in other words to understand where and how your characters lived. You need to know what they ate, what they wore, how they spoke, where they slept, how they earned their daily bread, and how they amused themselves. Also, you need to understand what they saw when they woke up, when they walked outside, how, for example, the factory where they worked looked. (See the article on What to Dig Up? on the subject of historical fiction.)

Another task of any fiction writer, whether you are writing historical or contemporary fiction, is the development of your characters. What drives them? What do they want? What are their greatest fears? Who do they love most?

The story starts to come together as setting and character are joined. What does it mean to join these elements? Your characters should describe his or her feelings and perceptions through the use of the historical setting as a metaphor.

Show Don’t Tell

The last section was a bit long-winded, so it’s best to illustrate my meaning with an example. (In other words, instead of Telling I will Show.) Let’s start with contemporary phrases:

As big as a house

As small as a mouse

Imagine you are writing about Native Americans in the 1200’s; that is, before the Europeans arrived. What would a squaw consider small? As there were mice back in America before it became America, she might have used the phrase, “as small as a mouse.” But Native Americans were known more for their teepees than for their houses (although some of them did have houses of sorts). At any rate, using the expression “as big as a house” in relation to our squaw would not help the reader’s experience. When in doubt, seek further. What is a large thing that she would have known? Probably she would be familiar with mountains. So our squaw could think, “as big as a mountain,” and the phrase would be acceptable.

These phrases are acceptable, but we can do better. These sorts of comparisons are opportunities to make the language sing, to make the setting and the character come alive.

Imagine instead that you’re writing about a young laborer in Victorian England, who is hungry often. “Small as a mouse” is acceptable, because there were mice in Victorian England, but the metaphor could be better. How about:

As small as the last nibble of cheese left in the larder.

This personalizes the metaphor, and puts it in the perspective of the character, reminding us that he is hungry, too.

Instead of “big as a house” we could write:

As big as the steam-engine trains that puffed their way along the green countryside.

Of course, if you want to be literal, and whatever your character is describing is not as big as one of those steam engines locomotives, you can modify your metaphor to read:

Almost as big the steam-engine trains that puffed their way along the green countryside.

Or, “bigger than” or “smaller than” – you get the idea. You should use whatever is appropriate.

Your characters’ thoughts can be much more interesting when they start using metaphors to describe feelings as opposed to adjectives that only describe physical appearance. Consider:

As nervous as a bride on her wedding night

Still this is already somewhat known. You can have more fun with the language if you elaborate:

As nervous as a bride with something to hide on her wedding night

Let’s return to our Victorian era laborer. What feelings might he have? What things in his life would he relate to, to describe them? We could try:

The old man’s head was as empty of ideas as my pockets on Friday just before we got paid.


Her evil heart was darker than the soot in the chimney.

Anita Diamant in her bestseller, The Red Tent, a novel based on a passage in the Bible as told from the point of view of Dinah, wrote of Rachel, the younger daughter of Laban:

Rachel came running into camp, knees flying, bellowing like a calf separated from its mother.

As the people back then had herds, this simile is particularly appropriate. The other reason it works is because it mentions a mother-child relationship – and much of the book is about the relationship between women and their daughters.


We’re near the end of the article, but I wanted to add, for those who don’t want to have to look it up, the definitions for metaphor and simile. According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary:

Metaphor 1 : a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in drowning in money); broadly : figurative language 2 : an object, activity, or idea treated as a metaphor :

Simile a figure of speech comparing two unlike things that is often introduced by like or as (as in cheeks like roses)


Although the focus in this article has been on historical fiction, this technique can be used to enrich all sorts of fiction. Joining your characters and your setting through metaphors can incorporate magic into your storytelling. By weaving together the different pieces of your story you can create a story which far outstrips the sum of its parts.

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