Why is place important to fiction? Bonnie Blaylock‘s debut novel, Light to the Hills, released December 1. I asked Bonnie to share a bit about the story she’s written and the significance of place and setting.
Where Am I? Starting with Place in Historical Fiction by Bonnie Blaylock.
Mention historical fiction and people reflexively think “time period.” Will I be reading about 17th century or WW2? History is, after all, the study of past events, actions that occurred during a given stretch of time. The allure of the best historical fiction, for me, stems more from where in history the actions occurred, rather than when. Will I be reading about Soviet Russia in WW2 or the Scottish highlands of 17th century?
Here, in the American South where I’m from, place has always been central to who we are as a people. Bracing through sweltering, humid summers swatting away mosquitos and picking off ticks just does something to a person’s psyche. It’s a shared communal suffering that other regions just don’t get in quite the same way.
Like a mountain creek that runs to deeper, darker swimming holes, Southerners’ shared suffering isn’t just chiggers and sweat. There’s a history of want here, poverty and need, illiteracy and neglect. Land is vital to stave off the desperation that families can face. Hence, one of the most powerful scenes from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind is when Scarlett O’Hara raises a fistful of dirt to the sky and vows she’ll “never be hungry again!” Land is so central, it once justified slaves to work it, ironically tilling want and neglect directly in the soil to germinate for generations.
Today’s American South is not the same as the South of the 1930’s or the South of the Civil War. Writers like Silas House, Ron Rash, and Margaret Renkl are masters at parsing the differences, celebrating the hopefulness and beauty of the region while simultaneously acknowledging the stains of its past. The point is that it is the archaeological layers of a place that support and form its present form. Spending a weekend in Charleston or Memphis, while possibly offering a taste of those cities, will not hand you their secret recipe.
When a writer of historical fiction chooses a story’s setting, it’s not only the buildings and streets of a place that build a world for readers to visit, it’s the origins and legacy of the place itself that breathes life into those structures. Are the people in your story suspicious of outsiders? Why? Because they’re prejudiced and narrow-minded or because they’ve historically been outgunned by money and power? Are they welcoming and hospitable? Why? Does it stem from an innate kindness or a deep-rooted Puritan mandate to be mannerly (even if you don’t feel like it)?
One of the most fascinating–and fun!–things for an author of historical fiction to do if they can is to visit the place where their story is set. My first published novel, Light to the Hills, is set in the 1930’s Kentucky Appalachians. One of FDR’s packhorse librarians, a young single mother, ventures into the mountains to bring literacy and outside news to the isolated communities there. Her past encounters with a con man unexpectedly intertwine with a coal-mining family she meets, and strong women in the community rise up to protect their own.
Since I’m a half-day’s drive from eastern Kentucky, I visited the area. I stayed in the Benham Schoolhouse in Harlan, a charming converted building with blackboards still on the walls. I spent hours in the Kentucky Coal Museum, poring over photographs, news clippings, and exhibits.
Stopping here would have just scratched the surface. Writers of historical fiction need to dig deeper if they are to truly capture the how and the why of a place. If we could just as easily pluck the characters from a scene and drop them elsewhere, the writer hasn’t shown the place.
In the case of Light to the Hills, the Appalachians form who the characters are as much as their relationships and experiences do. It matters that the hills are rugged and isolated. It matters that the people who settle there have descended from the Scotch-Irish and that, long before that, the area has been home to the Cherokee. The mountains have both a beauty and a darkness central to the story and the characters’ attitudes and decisions.
If you’re not from the place your story takes place in, how do you get the setting right? It’s more than googling the flora and fauna or what the weather was on a particular date.
Reading the Place
It’s unlikely I could paint a portrait of Imperial Russian St. Petersburg that resonates as truly as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina just by visiting a museum there or spending week in the city. Watching documentaries of the time, conducting interviews with elderly residents, and examining old photography or art would better excavate the place but, for writers, words resonate best.
Capturing the sense of a place and conveying that in the pages of fiction requires reading books by local and regional authors. It might take a year of savoring Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Nabokov, and Chekov and immersing yourself in their settings and character motivations before understanding the complexity of how a place was formed and how its formation might have affected its residents.
Growing up in the South, I read its stories since childhood. When I went to college, my Masters program emphasized Southern literature. My professors exposed me to Southern writers, pointing out setting and history and why they mattered. William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alice Walker lined my shelves. The stories of Walker Percy, Wendell Berry, Clyde Edgerton, Lee Smith, TR Pearson, and Ron Rash nourished my sense of place with a steady diet.
Building on the Foundation
Once you have a feeling for the history, people, beliefs, and attitudes of the place your characters populate, the plot and relationships will seem authentic and inevitable. These relationships could never have worked anywhere else. The plot points lie like a roadmap on a terrain that you know like the back of your hand.
Then, encounters, dialogue, and descriptions make the place come alive with activity and conflict. Your characters reward you with a better story.
Think of it: someone’s been in an accident or startles awake from a state of unconsciousness. What’s the first thing they ask? “Where am I?” We instinctively need to know where we’ve landed in time and space. Once that becomes clear, we can take a breath and take the next steps forward–or our characters can, if we are writers crafting them into consciousness.
Thank you, Bonnie. With such immersive research and personal connection to the setting of Light to the Hills, I’m sure your readers will truly be transported in time and place.
Light to the Hills by Bonnie Blaylock ~~ The folks in the Kentucky Appalachians are scraping by. Coal mining and hardscrabble know- how are a way of life for these isolated people. But when Amanda Rye, a young widowed mother and traveling pack-horse librarian, comes through a mountain community hit hard by the nation’s economic collapse, she brings with her hope, courage, and apple pie. Along the way, Amanda takes a shine to the MacInteer family, especially to the gentle Rai; her quick- study daughter, Sass; and Finn, the eldest son who’s easy to warm to. They remind Amanda of her childhood and her parents with whom she longs to be reconciled.
Her connection with the MacInteers deepens, and Amanda shares with them a dangerous secret from her past. When that secret catches up with Amanda in the present, she, Rai, Sass, and Finn find their lives intersecting -and threatened- in the most unexpected ways. Now they must come together as the truth lights a path toward survival, mountain justice, forgiveness, and hope.
FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com