The Role of Setting in Historical Fiction with Myfanwy Cook

Myfanwy CookSome of you will know that I’ve written two posts based on Myfanwy Cook‘s book Historical Fiction Writing – A Practical Guide and Toolkit. Well today, we’re in for a treat because Myfanwy has graciously written a post exploring the role of setting in historical fiction.

NOT JUST A PLACE -The role of setting in Historical Fiction by Myfanwy Cook

The location that historical novelists use for their novels is far more than just a place in which their story is set. It provides a stage on which the characters can act out their drama. Plays have scenery and backdrops and so do novels. The difference is that in the theatre the illusion of a place and time is fleeting whereas in a novel it is a more powerful literary device that can leave the reader with a picture that will remain with them. It may often encourage them to visit the place even though the physical landscape will have changed beyond any recognition. It enables the writer to create not just a sense of period, but also a sense of atmosphere and can play an important part in affecting the protagonist’s mood, character and action.

It has been used by authors as different as Daphne du Maurier and David Downing. In her classic historical novel ‘Jamaica Inn’ du Maurier used the bleak landscape of Bodmin Moor to create a sense of suspense. Downing’s series of novels set in Berlin during the Second World War are named after the city’s stations and starts with ‘Zoo Station’. The stations still exist, but are no longer the hauntingly dark atmospheric places filled with the hiss of steam trains and human tragedy. However, both novelists have used real places and factual information to enhance their stories. Another master in this art is C.J. Sansom, who in his latest novel in the Shardlake series ‘Lamentation’, once again recreates the locations for his stories set during the reign of Henry the Eighth. His novel has a map inside the front cover, but even without this it is almost as if the author is leading you through the King’s Privy Gardens and over the cobbled courtyard. The buildings that he describes are decorated with fantastic beasts; and as you walk alongside Shardlake through his world you are aware of how vitally important these minute details about the surroundings are to transport the reader back to England in the 1540s.

M.C. Beaton in her ‘Daughters of Mannering’ (Regency romance series) goes one step further, because the house that features in her novels is not simply a setting, but almost assumes the identity of a real person. The house and its grounds have cast an almost hypnotic spell on those who come into contact with it. The house she describes and the location are ephemeral, but the details she uses such as an old four poster bed being replaced with a modern canopied one, the layout of the gardens and the distance from any of the major cities all help to create a feeling of the rural location and setting to fix it clearly in the Regency period.

How important is it for settings to be accurate? The answer often depends on the ability and skill of the writer, but factual inaccuracy can be a major problem. The best piece of advice that I was ever given about settings is never assume that they look the same today as they did in the past. Physical landscapes can change almost overnight, for example Coolgardie in Western Australia was the original site of the Western Australian goldrush in the 1890s and is now a ghost town; Silver City in Idaho, which suffered a similar fate. However, few would be able to imagine that the pretty rural market town of Tavistock in Devon in mid-19th century was once filled with smoke from the chimneys of houses and also from the foundries. There was another large church in its main street as well as public houses filled with thirsty miners.

So if a setting is not just a colourful frame in which to showcase an author’s characters, but is in many ways an extra character then it surely deserves to have a detailed ‘character sketch’ of its own, which is as accurate and suitable for the subgenre of historical fiction as possible. One of the most pleasant and most interesting ways to do this is to contact local history societies in the area you are writing about and to build up a rapport with them. Alternatively to invest in fascinating books like ‘The London Compendium’ by Ed Gilbert (Penguin, 2012), which enable you to explore the place you are interested in street by street on foot, or in comfort sipping coffee with your feet up on the sofa.

Background references:


Hommage Aux DamesMyfanwy’s latest projects apart from writing articles and short stories are:

  • Artful Words– 52 energising and empowering activities to take you on writing voyage of creative exploration.
  • ‘Hommage aux Dames’ the first in a series of light-hearted Regency Romantic romps.  More details on both publications will be available at the end of August 2015 and posted on Twitter at

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Meet M.K.Tod

Meet M.K.Tod

The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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