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

Inside Historical Fiction – useful research links

Research iconSprinkled throughout Myfanwy Cook‘s book, Historical Fiction Writing, are numerous examples of useful resources for writers. Many relate to British history, however, every country has similar resources available online. If you can’t personally visit, the British Museum offers a treasure trove of online information. Dedicated to houses, castles and gardens of Ireland. All sorts of information on Scottish castles. Information and photos about heritage homes and buildings across Canada

Weapons and warfare: a series of sites providing information on warfare across the ages.;;;;;;; Information on viking long boats and maritime archaeology. Dedicated to the history of Britain’s Royal Navy including search facilities for ship records and photos. Transatlantic passenger ships of the 20th century. American Academy of Forensic Sciences – AAFS represents physicians, attorneys, dentists, toxicologists, psychiatrists, engineers and educators, in the application of science to the law Contains over 275 idioms derived from terms used in the sports and games played in the United States. The Internet Archive offers permanent access for researchers, historians, scholars, people with disabilities, and the general public to historical collections that exist in digital format The Fashion Museum holds a world-class collection of contemporary and historic dress. Many photos available on their site. National Railway Museum site Museum of the Great Western Railway The Talyllyn Railway is a historic narrow-gauge steam railway, set in the beautiful Mid-Wales countryside. The site of Penhalgions, a London perfumer established in 1870. Every fragrance is described in detail providing writers with useful ways to describe scents. The Historical Novel Society’s website contains over 5000 book reviews and many feature articles related to historical fiction. Britain’s national portrait gallery. An incredible collection of portraits available online to use for researching people, costumes, fashion and accessories. Gallery mission: to promote through the medium of portraits the appreciation and understanding of the men and women who have made and are making British history and culture. For example, here’s a collection of paintings of Elizabeth I along with extensive explanation.

As mentioned in my first post on Historical Fiction Writing: A Practical Guide and Toolkit, Myfanwy Cook’s book has lots of advice to offer writers of this genre.

For more about INSIDE HISTORICAL FICTION, sign up for A Writer of History using the widget on the left hand side.

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 in paperback from Amazon and in e-book formats from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is available in paperback from Amazon (USCanada and elsewhere), and in e-book formats from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and on iTunes.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.



Inside Historical Fiction – a look at Myfanwy Cook’s book

Historical Fiction Writing by Myfanwy CookMyfanwy Cook‘s Historical Fiction Writing: A Practical Guide and Toolkit is next in the list of books I’ve been reading about the craft of writing historical fiction. Myfanwy is a prize winning author of short fiction who also runs creative fiction workshops. Her book covers a wide range of topics from deciding on your historical time period to voice and viewpoint, and a special section on historical crime fiction. Beyond the text itself, Myfanwy Cook offers practice activities, templates to use, and tips from a number of historical fiction writers.

The breadth of this book demands at least two posts and in today’s post, I’ve extracted various bits I found to illuminate the dimensions of research and world-building.

Broad guidance:

“the reader has to be drawn into an older world and situation which are so described that we are persuaded we know this world from the inside, not as remote spectators.”

“The ‘rule of thumb’ that you should always apply is never assume that the place you are writing about is the same as it was.”

According to C.C. Humphreys, one of the authors quoted in the book, “research is about finding things that act as springboards for the imagination and bounce your plot and characters into places you could not have foreseen.”

“The past is another country, they not only do things differently there, they think about things differently.” Harry Sidebottom author of Warrior of Rome series

“the novelist should at least try to inhabit the psychological universe of his or her characters, to understand what their moral, religious, political and social universe was like.” Andrew Taylor author of The American Boy

Setting: “Setting in historical fiction is both temporal and spatial.”

Research sources: Research “every aspect of life as it was then, starting with home life and spreading out [to] the local situation, then to the national and then to the international” Lilian Harry author of historical novels and romances

While information on earlier periods can be augmented with archeological reports,  “For later periods maps, pictures and photographs are particularly important for filling in detail and avoiding errors.”

“Search plays, letters, poetry, stories, and newspapers for suitable names that were popular in the period.” Graveyards and memorials are also helpful for names, facts about your potential characters, typical life spans, class differences, causes of death, family sentiments.

“Newspapers, transcripts of old court cases, advertisements, broadsheets and plays” are ways to access the authentic vocabulary of the time; letters are another source; still more sources: books, artefacts, documents such as wills, court rolls, paintings, maps, diaries, memorabilia, recordings, interviews, biographies, civil and military records, museums, town histories, ships’ logs, farm journals,

Look for information on the “local geography at the time, contemporary vehicles, recreational activities, popular music, pastimes and hobbies, prices of things in the shops, social structures”

“listen to a piece of music, song or instrument from the period you are interested in writing about”

“check the records on the period to see if it mentions floods or snow or even hot dry summers”

“Study books of etiquette and social customs relating to the period.”

Dialogue: “Make a list of verbs that were in common usage at the time” and incorporate a few into your dialogue. Possible sources include:,,

Detail: “Using specific detail will help your reader to identify with the period and setting that you are writing about.” For example, a drinking vessel could be a chalice, a porcelain cup, a pewter tankard; the chalice could be gold or silver and elaborately designed.

Timelines: “Timelines and event lines provide a fixed framework for you to write your story.” Beyond the major historical events, check for items such as new technologies, wars, famines and natural catastrophes.

“unless one keeps an eye on the calendar, you can find yourself holding a court on a Sunday or Saint’s day, or having roast pork on a Friday”

Summary thoughts: Historical Fiction Writing: A Practical Guide and Toolkit includes all sorts of great advice, research ideas and useful reference sites. Both new and experienced writers will come away with very helpful suggestions. On a personal note, I find it difficult to work with exercises embedded in books. I suppose I prefer my exercises to be in a workshop setting, which, of course, was the original intent for those that are included. Others will no doubt find them helpful.

My only caveat concerns the book’s breadth – a soup to nuts exploration of the craft of writing plus the unique aspects of writing historical fiction. For me, combining the two diluted the impact of each one.

Next time I’ll share some of the websites Myfanwy Cook recommends.

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 in paperback from Amazon and in e-book formats from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is available in paperback from Amazon (USCanada and elsewhere), and in e-book formats from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and on iTunes.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.