Creating a Sense of Place

Blythe Gifford, author of 11 historical romances, has recently released The Witch Finder, a story that largely takes place during the week prior to Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, as it was called on the Scottish Borders in the 17th Century. Today Blythe shares thoughts on creating a sense of place in historical fiction.

“We are the children of our landscape; it dictates behavior and even thought in the measure to which we are responsive to it.”  Lawrence Durrell

This quote has special resonance for a writer of history who must bring a distant time and place to life. My job, in part, is to show how landscape has shaped my characters – and their story.

To me, the decision of where to set a book may be the most important decision a writer makes. (Time, as well as place, is crucial, of course, but I’m going to focus on physical location today.) Readers want to be immersed in the historical world, so we need to enable them to feel they can walk around in the landscape of the story.

Here are a few things to think about:

Do you choose a real or imagined place?

If you are writing a story connected to a real event, you will have no choice but to learn as much as you can about Bosworth Field or Buckingham Palace. But no matter how good your research, there is always the possibility that an expert reader will catch an error.

On the other hand, trying to create a place from scratch creates other challenges. The tendency may be to create only what your story needs, forgetting that a fully functioning town, for example, will have buildings and people beyond just those in your book. The result can feel generic and untethered.

In THE WITCH FINDER, I did a combination, using a real small town on the Scottish Borders as a model, but calling it something different to give myself freedom to create. Scenes set in the real cities of Jedburgh and Edinburg, on the other hand, called for real streets and locations.

Are you grounded in the geography?

For every book, I start with a map. Where are the hills, roads, rivers? How high, wide or deep are they? And how long would travel take in the method of the day?

I’m also a stickler for researching the rise and set of sun and moon, as well as the tide tables. Will a reader know what time the sun set in 1661? No, but the reader WILL sense the internal consistency of your story when the full moon and the new moon are two weeks apart. These details also help ground me in a time in which much of life was lived in darkness. No matter what the time period, the source of light and heat is important .

The internet has made it possible to see something almost anywhere in the world. (A boon, but also a danger, as I’ll discuss below.) Try to find an historic map instead of relying on Google Maps alone.

Are you wearing 21st century glasses?

Often I’m asked whether I visit every place I write about. The answer is that I have visited virtually none of them. For the first time this year, I visited a city in which I’m setting a future book. I was very familiar with the historical map, so I knew the city was on a hill overlooking the river, but being there, gave me a valuable sense of the downhill slope of the streets the characters would be walking.

The downside was that skyscrapers now clutter the clear, historical view I had in my mind’s eye.

This goes beyond modern cars and buildings. Once, when researching the Scottish borders, I saw a picture of a beautiful flower spread across the hillside. Ready to describe it in my story, I discovered it was introduced to Great Britain AFTER my story was set. When I was going to have a wolf in the woods as a threat, I discovered that wolves (and bears) were extinct in Britain by that time.

Since the time of your story, roads and rivers may have changed course. That lovely lake? Be sure it isn’t a reservoir created when a damn was built less than a hundred years ago. All reasons to seek out maps made during the period of your story.

What does this location mean to your character?

Setting can, literally, symbolize your character’s situation and your character’s reaction to setting propels your story.

Whether it is a home she loves that is threatened, or a foreign city to which he had traveled, the push-pull of character and circumstance can be represented by the location itself.

If the place is home, is it one the character loves or can’t wait to escape? Does the new and unfamiliar place represent exile or adventure? These things will color the way the character sees his or her surroundings.

Even if your character has left home, the ground of home will still inform his or her perceptions. I grew up in the Midwest and saw the sun rise and set with a flat horizon line. When I lived amidst the mountains, I saw them as blocking what should be a beautiful view of the sun hitting the horizon. (People who love the mountains are aghast when I say this.)

Place carries emotional weight, even if the story is not one of man versus nature. For example, in my book THE WITCH FINDER, the heroine is a stranger to the Scottish Borders. She has come, hoping she is far enough from the dangers of home to disappear. But now, she is a stranger in her new landscape, suspect by those who have lived there all their lives.

How do you bring this to life on the page?

Lengthy description will bore the reader. Lines obviously stuck in, too brief, too general, or too specific, will feel artificial as a magazine picture taped to a wall.

My advice: show the land only when the character notices something, and couching the description in emotional, “loaded” words.

For example, compare this: “Solid and sure beneath her feet, the mountain path took a sharp turn skyward just before she reached the house.  She climbed the five wooden steps to the porch, her feet fitting comfortably into the grooves sculpted by three generations of Hendersons.”

To this: The looming peak behind the house blocked the setting sun, throwing the house into shadow. Her calves ached as she climbed the last, and steepest, ten feet to the house and started up the stairs to the porch. Worn paper thin, the steps sagged ominously beneath her feet.”

Did you catch it? Both describe the same scene, but the character loves the first and hates the second.

May some of these ideas help ground your story and your character firmly in a sense of place.

Many thanks, Blythe. I’m sure your perspective is of interest to both readers and writers.

THE WITCH FINDER by Blythe Gifford is set on the Scottish Borders just before All Hallow’s Eve. It was a finalist for a Booksellers Best Award (2014) and was book of the month for The Review in February 2015.

Scotland, 1662

He’s a haunted man.

Alexander Kincaid watched his mother die, the victim, they said, of a witch’s curse. So he has dedicated his life to battling evil. But in this small, Scottish village, he confronts a woman who challenges everything he believes. She may be more dangerous than a witch, because she’s a woman who threatens his heart.

She’s a hunted woman.

They called her mother a witch, but she was only a woman made mad by witch hunters like Alexander Kincaid. Having escaped to the Border hills, Margret Reid is seeking a safe haven and a place to hide. But when the witch hunter arrives, not only is her heart in danger.

So is her life.


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

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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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