Overcoming the Fear of “Time and Place” in Writing Historical Fiction

Elizabeth Hutchison Bernards first love was music. As a vocalist, flutist and songwriter, she toured for nearly a decade playing and signing rock, pop and jazz before trading her microphone for a pen. Her latest novel is Temptation Rag and she’s on the blog today talking about transporting readers in time and place. Welcome, Elizabeth.

Overcoming the Fear of “Time and Place” in Writing Historical Fiction by Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard

There are few things as gratifying to a writer of historical fiction as when readers say that a book transported them to another time and place. A novel’s setting is not just something physical; it is intrinsically tied to the deeper meanings of a story. The details of setting can be used to mirror certain thematic elements of a book so that its message resonates on multiple levels. But those of us who write in the historical fiction genre know that, however masterfully such effects are ultimately achieved, the research that makes it all possible is fraught with danger. Some of us may even suffer occasionally from the malady known as “imposter syndrome,” the feeling that our deficiencies—not as writers but as researchers—will inevitably be exposed. The fear that someone “out there” who reads your novel knows more than you do about the period in which the story takes place is not irrational; it is unquestionably valid. Even authors who are excellent researchers usually are not “scholars” in the subject matter about which they are writing. Yet if one wishes to write historical fiction, being intimidated by the possibility of making a mistake is not an option.

Most of the action in my first novel, THE BEAUTY DOCTOR, was set in New York City in 1907. The book was my debut novel, and I was petrified that I would step on some kind of historical landmine that would irrevocably damage my credibility. As the former Executive Editor of Aesthetic Surgery Journal, I was very confident about my historical and technical knowledge of plastic surgery, which is central to the book’s “medical thriller” plot. But as for all the other details of life in the Edwardian era . . . well, I knew the historical landscape to which I was a newcomer was littered with traps. I almost fell into a big one. The error that nearly made it into print was classically dumb. I had written a scene in which my heroine, Abigail Platford, needed to contact someone overseas and did so by telephone. I knew from my research that telephones were not uncommon in New York at that time, that you used an operator to place calls, even that phone numbers contained only five digits. Fortunately, near the end of my revisions, I thought to double-check when the first transatlantic phone call was placed. Not for another twenty years!

I successfully dodged that bullet.

I love the Edwardian era and, of course, devoted myself to researching all the obscure details of everyday life that were relevant to my story. Were there street lamps in New York City? Gas or electric? How long would it take to drive from Manhattan to Scarsdale, New York in a Ford Model R? How many different outfits would a lady of leisure wear during the course of a single day of entertaining guests at her country estate? Which of her complicated undergarments would need to be removed first by an ardent lover in the heat of passion. Such details take an immense amount of time to investigate and can sometimes interfere with a writer’s creative flow. The efficient writer, I suppose, would worry about filling in some of those pesky blanks at a later stage in the writing process. I have a hard time doing that, as I dislike the thought of proceeding with too many loose ends hanging. As a result, I often find myself off on a tangent, tracking down some sort of historical minutiae in the middle of writing a critical scene. I become like a bloodhound on a scent. How exciting it is, though, when one finally moves in for the capture, rooting out that tiny little factoid that, once inserted into the scene, imparts to the setting an enhanced flavor of authenticity.

How much license with time and place can, or should, be taken by an author? Many authors bend timelines and even locations of known historical events to suit their story. I did so to some extent in my second historical novel, TEMPTATION RAG, a book that covers a span of more than thirty years. When the action occurs over such a long period and involves so many real-life characters who weren’t always in the same place at the same time, it can be nearly impossible not to fudge a little bit on the who, what, when and where. Writers who do this often offer lengthy explanations in their end-of-the-book notes, detailing how and why they made such alterations. I don’t like to overdo footnotes, but an author should acknowledge if significant history has been altered. As far as the portrayal of historical figures, some writers feel uncomfortable unless they are borrowing from the person’s actual spoken or written words. I prefer to fashion my real-life characters based on research plus a great deal of intuition.

I love to hear from readers who say they learned something new from reading one of my novels. In the case of THE BEAUTY DOCTOR, most people are amazed to learn that cosmetic surgery was being performed as early as the 1890s. They love the historical detail about how so-called “beauty doctors” chiseled noses, pinned back ears, and injected paraffin (yes, paraffin!) into wrinkles. In TEMPTATION RAG, it was great fun to recreate the bawdy spectacle of a ragtime piano contest, many of which were staged sort of like boxing matches. In my view, historical fiction has a power to envelope readers in a total experience of the senses in a way that may be unmatched by any other literary genre. Whether seen through the eyes of a narrator or the novel’s unique characters, a vivid rendering of time and place is the glue that holds your story together, gives it substance, and makes it truly memorable.  As a writer of historical fiction, one must tackle the challenge of time and place with a determination not to be shaken by the sheer magnitude of all there is to learn and, importantly, with a real love for the process.

Excerpt from TEMPTATION RAG: A NOVEL by Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard      

Arriving at the ballroom, Mike paused in the doorway while he struggled to regain his equilibrium. An army of liveried footmen hustled among the hundred or more guests, balancing silver trays with champagne flutes filled to the brim. Mustachioed men suited in black and white, clever power brokers and those lucky enough to be living off the cleverness of generations past, animated their conversations with the nodding of heads and polite laughter. Their wives, resplendent in silks, satins, and lace, fluttered their painted fans nearly as fast as their tongues. Off to one side, the younger women without escorts huddled together anxiously while the young men by whom they hoped to be approached, for a dance or possibly more, gave final consideration to the most advantageous pairing.

He finally spotted Isabelle Convery at the far edge of the crowd, gaily holding court with several distinguished-looking gentlemen. Even in his agitated state of mind, he couldn’t help the fleeting thought that Mrs. Convery was, indeed, very attractive. Her beauty had a harder edge than her daughter’s—high cheekbones, a slightly Romanesque nose, raven hair. Bedecked in an elaborate gown of apricot-colored silk brocade, satin, and chiffon, with a puffy train that spread out in back like the plumage of some rare species of bird, she would have been the center of attention even at an event that was not her own.

Brushing aside a footman who rushed over with a look of eager servitude, he took off across the floor. As he approached Mrs. Convery, she turned away from her companions, obviously with no intention of introducing him.

“Mr. Bernard,” she said imperiously.

He leaned close, speaking in a confidential whisper, his heart galloping in his chest. “Good evening, Mrs. Convery. I’m terribly sorry to be late. I hope I haven’t kept you and your guests waiting too long. But if you’re ready for me, I can—”

“You’ll never guess who’s here,” she interrupted, gazing toward the north end of the ballroom, where a forty-piece orchestra was assembled, silently standing by. A grand piano, bathed in the warm glow of a dozen footlights, filled a small stage just to the right.


She turned back with a triumphant smile. “Edward MacDowell! And he’s agreed to play for us. Can you imagine?”

Mike’s stomach plunged, along with his hope. Edward MacDowell! Everyone knew that the American pianist and composer was currently the toast of New York after having been favorably compared to Brahms by Henry Krehbiel, the city’s most influential music critic.

Mrs. Convery’s eyes swept over him. She took a step back. “Why, you’re sweaty as a field hand. Go upstairs to the gentlemen’s lounge and clean yourself up. I’ll send someone for you later—if we need you.”

She turned away and, assuming a beatific smile, began her promenade toward the new guest of honor. Mike was barely able to keep himself in check so desperately did he want to grab her, shake her until she admitted that it was all a terrible mistake. Of course, she needed him—he would play for them now, this very minute. Edward MacDowell could wait.

But all he could do was watch as MacDowell, an intense-looking man with a thick black mustache, waxed and twirled at the ends, waited next to the piano, beaming with confidence. A few seconds later, Isabelle Convery joined him. They embraced to enthusiastic applause.

Mike felt as if he were standing alone on the bow of a sinking ship. The ballroom was a sickening blur of blinding lights, scraping voices, gaping mouths. A hostile territory into which he had mistakenly wandered and from which now he must escape or die.

Keeping his head down, he navigated to one of the open doorways and slipped out, passing through the candlelit reception hall and into the vaulted foyer. He thought of his silk top hat and his expensive new cloak hanging in the gentlemen’s lounge upstairs. He wasn’t about to go after them now, not with the chance of running into Teddy Livingstone.

On the verge of tears, he hurried toward the door. One of the attendants opened it for him with a smile.

“Have a wonderful evening, sir.”

Many thanks for sharing your perspective, Elizabeth. Your post definitely resonates with my experiences. You can find Elizabeth at www.EHBernard.com and on Facebook at https://facebook.com/EHBernardAuthor.

Temptation Rag by Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard

Seventeen-year-old May Convery, unhappy with her privileged life in turn-of-the-century New York City, dreams of becoming a poet. When she meets the talented young Mike Bernard, an aspiring concert pianist, she immediately falls in love. But after their secret liaison is discovered, neither is prepared for the far-reaching consequences that will haunt them for decades. As Mike abandons serious music to ruthlessly defend his hard-won title, Ragtime King of the World, May struggles to find her voice as an artist and a woman. It is not until years after their youthful romance, when they cross paths again, that they must finally confront the truth about themselves and each other. But is it too late? The world of ragtime is the backdrop for a remarkable story about the price of freedom, the longing for immortality, and the human need to find forgiveness. From vaudeville’s greatest stars to the geniuses of early African American musical theater, an unforgettable cast of real-life characters populates this richly fictionalized historical saga.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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8 Responses

  1. Great guest blog. Absolutely everything Elisabeth writes resonates with my experience writing near her period. Dialogue is another bear trap for us HistFic writers. Idiom and word choices that we completely take for granted can be howling anachronisms when put in the mouth of a period character. I remember being very annoyed, for example, that the delightful British word “snog” didn’t come into regular usage until the 1950s.

  2. “I often find myself off on a tangent, tracking down some sort of historical minutiae in the middle of writing a critical scene.”
    Yes! I do this all the time. Thanks much for sharing this post.

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