5 Openings that Transport you in Time & Place

Those who read historical fiction tell us they love being transported in time and place. So, I’ve found five examples to share with you today. As always, I would love to hear your feedback.

summer-queen-uk-2“Alienor woke at dawn. The tall candle that had been left to burn all night was almost a stub, and even through the closed shutters she could hear the cockerels on roosts, walls and dung heaps, crowing the city of Poitiers awake … She donned the gown folded over her coffer, pushed her feet into soft kidskin shoes and unlatched a small door in the shutters to lean out and inhale the new morning. A mild, moist breeze carried up to her the familiar scents of smoke, musty stone and freshly baked bread.” From the opening paragraphs of The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick.

“They left the aqueduct two hours before dawn, climbing by moonlight into the hills overlooking the port … Already he could feel the heat of the morning beginning to build, the promise of another day without rain … the shafts of the tools he carried slung across his shoulders—a heavy, bronze headed axe and a wooden shovel—chafed against his sunburnt neck. Still he forced himself to stretch his bare legs as far as they would reach, mounting swiftly from foothold to foothold, and only when he was high above Misenum, at a place where the track forked, did he set down his burdens and wait for the others to catch up … From down in the harbour came the splash of oars as the night watch rowed between the moored triremes.” From the first two pages of Pompeii by Robert Harris.

I could hear a roll of muffled drums. But I could see nothing but the lacing on the bodice of the lady standing in front of me, blocking my view of the scaffold. I had been at this court for more than a year and attended hundreds of festivities; but never before one like this. By stepping to one side a little and craning my neck, I could see the condemned man, accompanied by his priest, walk slowly from the Tower toward the green where the wooden platform was waiting, the block of wood placed center stage, the executioner dressed all ready for work in his shirtsleeves with a black hood over his head. It looked more like a masque than a real event, and I watched it as if it were a court entertainment. The king, seated on his throne, looked distracted …” Opening sentences of The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

“I was thirteen years old when my parents conquered Granada. It was 1492, the year of miracles, when three hundred years of Moorish supremacy fell to the might of our armies, and the fractured kingdoms of Spain were united at last. I had been on crusade since my birth. Indeed, I’d often been told of how the pangs had overcome my mother as she prepared to join my father on siege, forcing her to take to her childbed in Toledo—an unseemly interruption she did not relish, for within hours she had entrusted me to a nursemaid and resumed her battles.” Opening sentences of The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner

“I was down in Surrey, on business for Lord Cromwell’s office, when the summons came. The lands of a dissolved monastery had been awarded to a Member of Parliament whose support he needed, and the title deeds to some woodlands had disappeared … The young man had ridden through the night from Whitehall and arrived at dawn. I recognized him as one of Lord Cromwell’s private messengers and broke the chief minister’s seal on the letter with foreboding. It was from Secretary Grey and said Lord Cromwell required to see me, immediately, at Westminster … We had once believed with Erasmus that faith and charity would be enough to settle religious differences between men; but by that early winter of 1537 it had come to rebellion, an ever-increasing number of executions and greedy scrabblings for the lands of the monks … I shook the reins and steered Chancery through the throngs of travellers and traders, cutpurses and would-be courtiers, into the great stew of London.” From the opening pages of Dissolution by C.J. Sansom

You’re there, aren’t you, amidst the medieval world of Poitiers, the ancient world of Pompeii, or the reign of Henry VIII. You hear the crowd stamping and shuffling as they await the executioner’s swift sword. Phrases like ‘year of miracles’, ‘broke the chief minister’s seal’, ‘the cockerels on roosts, walls and dung heaps’ , and ‘three hundred years of Moorish supremacy’ transport you to another time and place. Words like triremes, cutpurses, and coffer signal the past.

The authors of these novels are renowned for their vivid interpretations of history. Straight away you know you’re in the hands of a master. And straight away, I have sentence envy!

Let me know if you have any favourite examples.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

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7 Responses

    1. That’s an interesting perspective, Downith. My third novel is in first person – definitely a liberating style from a writer’s POV but I hadn’t thought about the impact it allows for being transported in time and place. Hmmmm

  1. Many of the opening sentences I like best are in books out on loan to others. A couple I have to hand are from Pat Barker’s ‘The Ghost Road’. – ‘In deck chairs all along the front the bald pink knees of Bradford businessmen nuzzled the sun,’ and ‘Ever since I lost mine in a road accident when eight, I have had an eye on other people’s parents.’ from Ian McEwan’s ‘Black Dogs’. I think they both qualify as historical fiction, the latter with a short reference back to WW2 near the end, and hook one into reading more. Following a good opening sentence up with two good first pages also makes for a great start. Lee Child manages this well while Kate Atkinson in ‘Life after Life’ and Ranulph Fiennes in ‘The Sett’ excel.

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