Looking back on the theme of transported in time and place

For the last year or so, I’ve invited many authors to describe how they do the work of transporting readers in time and place. Today I’m looking back on  some of those posts.

Elizabeth Hutchison Barnard on writing Temptation Rag – “A novel’s setting is not just something physical; it is intrinsically tied to the deeper meanings of a story.”

Stephanie Thornton on writing American Princess – “One of my favorite distractions while writing is researching exactly what life would have been like for my characters. For turn-of-the-century America, that often meant looking up menus and digging through grainy black-and-white pictures in online archives so I could add verisimilitude to every scene.”

Fiona Veitch Smith on writing The Cairo Brief – “Before I even start writing – and certainly during the process – I absorb myself in the music, fashion, art, architecture, cuisine, cinema and theatre of the period … for my latest book, The Cairo Brief, I signed up for a six-week online course in antiquities theft, run by Glasgow University through Future Learn.”

JP Robinson on writing In the Shadow of Your Wings – “I typically take about two days to research names that were popular in the era I’m writing about before naming my characters.”

Nicola Cornick on writing The Phantom Tree – “I’ve never been able to paint but I visualise the process of creating my imaginary world as a picture in which layer upon layer of detail is added, from the frame that surrounds it to the tiniest figure in the corner.”

Sue Ingalls Finan on writing The Cards Don’t Lie – “Free women of color in New Orleans in the early 1800s were often involved in placages, or left-handed marriages with wealthy white men. Their mothers, thanks to their own placage benefactors, sponsored grand balls to arrange permanent financial settlements for their daughters.”

Arthur Hittner on writing Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse – Research for a non-fiction book prompted Hittner’s fiction. He “traced the living descendants of the artist, determining that the bulk of his output resided in the attics and basements of nephews and nieces, and in the vaults of an art museum in Springfield, Massachusetts. I viewed and photographed the collections of the descendants and the paintings in the museum … Along with the paintings, I’d gained access to an old scrapbook that had been lovingly maintained by the artist’s parents. Inside were yellowed newspaper clippings from the Thirties and early Forties, chronicling the young artist’s triumphs and later, his tragic demise.”

Harald Johnson on writing New York 1609 – Johnson made an amazing discovery “It’s a computer simulation of what Manhattan would have looked like on September 12, 1609—the day Henry Hudson and his crew sailed to it.”

M.K. Tod on writing Unravelled and the power of a photo: “Suddenly, there it was: a red Tonneau with just the right blend of style and uniqueness. Not only was it quirky but it fit my notion of the woman who originally owned it – a fiercely independent woman who’d never married but had had many relationships, particularly with one or two of the impressionist painters of the time.”

Sophie Schiller on writing Island on Fireduring a visit to Musée Volcanologique “On the walls are various photographs of the city when it was known as the ‘Paris of the West Indies’. The pictures reveal a town full of French colonial grace, carriages crowding the cobblestone streets, rum barrels lining the waterfront, planters in panama hats, and barefoot market women carrying baskets on their heads. Interspersed among these photographs are artifacts, including broken china, a crushed pistol, melted scissors, charred spaghetti, stacks of drinking glasses fused into misshapen columns, and a human skull reportedly from the prison.”

Elizabeth St. John drew inspiration from visits the Tower of London for her novels The Lady of the Tower and By Love Divided – “What I didn’t anticipate was the visceral reaction of walking through Lucy’s rooms, standing in her kitchen, looking through her parlor window– just as she had done. The emotional response to treading in her footsteps inspired so much of my work within The Lady of the Tower, and so many small details found their way into my writing.”

Glen Ebisch on writing Dearest David which is a novel about Henry David Thoreau – “A fairly high level of historical accuracy is necessary in order to convince the reader that he or she is actually living in that time. In addition, the author must try to recapture the concerns, the issues, and the view of life that was prevalent for people living then.”

Carol Bodensteiner on writing Simple Truth, which is a contemporary novel – Carol writes that place is as complex as a human being. “In addition to the town itself, the other most significant location in the story is the poultry packing plant … The work that goes on in packing plants may be difficult for some people to stomach. Yet it is important to know the place to understand why people choose to work there. In the plant, as in the town, the situation is complex, made more so by the diversity of countries, languages, religions, and cultures represented.”

Dana Stabenow on writing Silk and Song – “One of the most delightful discoveries during my research was The Medieval Woman: An Illuminated Book of Days, a daily diary which features illustrations from illuminated manuscripts current to the time in which I wrote featuring women…working. Yes, they are sweeping and spinning and weaving and cooking. They are also selling and painting and and laying brick for city walls and defending their castles crossbow in hand.”

Jeffrey K. Walker on writing None of Us the Same – Jeffrey focuses on finding authentic voices “Within the superstructure of solid research, we imagine our histories and we therefore have to find voices for the characters we’ve imagined placing there. By this I mean not only their dialogue, but also their patterns of thought, reactions to all manner of situations, and interactions with each other and their world. That’s the challenge in developing richly drawn, three-dimensional characters that engage readers on a deeper level than merely as historical curiosities … I bought a box of reproduction artifacts in the gift shop of the Imperial War Museum—which led me to spending several hours listening to two dozen songs listed in a Red Cross entertainment program from 1917 to literally get the sound of my character’s music in my ears. On a more practical level, this broad survey of original writing gave me a strong grounding in the slang, idiom, word choice, and level of formality used by people of the period.”

Some serendipity, many personal visits to the places of their novels, much deep digging into history and reading a wide range of non-fiction sources. All to serve the purpose of writing stories that transport readers in time and place. I’m grateful to these authors and many other who contributed to the series.


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.

Transported in Time and Place by Harald Johnson

Harald Johnson brings us his take on transporting readers in time and place. In his novels Harald builds the world of 1609 and the early days of what we now know as New York City. He’s lived in Paris and speaks fluent French, worked in Hollywood as an art director, and published magazines. Harald also launched and ran a marketing communications agency in LA. Quite the career!

Transported in Time and Place – by Harald Johnson

The final motivation for writing and publishing NEW YORK 1609 came in the mail from my mother. It was an old family photo album; the kind with the black pages, white ink captions, and those little black-and-white photos with the scalloped edges. For some reason, I had placed it next to a binder of my old swimming accolades, and it now struck me: When I had swum around the island of Manhattan in 1983 as part of a swim race, I was swimming over the exact spot where my family had arrived (with me as a child) on a ship from Germany in 1953 to start a new life. And this was also the very same location Henry Hudson encountered in 1609 when he arrived with his Dutch-Anglo crew seeking a new water passage to the Orient. The parallels were just too hard to ignore.

Photo: Arriving in NYC in 1953. That’s me in traditional lederhosen and knee socks with my Mom and Dad. My mother’s written description reads (translated): “Now we’ve done it, and in a few moments, we’ll step for the first time on American ground.”

I had already decided that I wanted to write a historical fiction novel in the style of James Michener or Ken Follett (two of my favorite HF authors), and had played around with different concepts, including one involving New York City, a place I had visited many times over the years. But nothing really clicked until I made the connection between my own history and that of the city itself. It seemed we were solidly tied together. It was time I took action on this idea.

The first thing I did was to locate and read the historical novels about NYC that already existed. And oddly enough, I could only find three that covered this early- to mid-17th-century time period. And none of them started at the beginning, which in my mind is clearly 1609 with Hudson. So I was determined to be the first.

After reading all the nonfiction history books about NYC I could find, my last step was to make another trip to The Big Apple to meet with history experts and to basically verify the research I had already done from a distance (and from my memory). This trip also included finalizing the licensing of the amazing image you see on the cover of the book. It’s a computer simulation of what Manhattan would have looked like on September 12, 1609—the day Henry Hudson and his crew sailed to it.

And most importantly, this final visit would help me get one last “look and feel” for my setting. My characters would be living and spending their time in and around the rivers, sounds, and straits that are such an important part of what New York is, so I had to re-experience that for myself, both on land and water (I didn’t swim this time!). I wanted to watch the sun as it arced through the sky, listen to the gulls wheeling overhead, touch the gnarled bark of an oak tree, smell the rotting of seaweed, and, yes, taste the water’s brininess (NYC is situated in a tidal estuary). In other words, I wanted my readers to really feel like they had been transported, in both time and place.

Here’s a small excerpt from the novel to give a sense of place and of the time period:

“Hudson spent each morning tasting the water for its saltiness. He used an empty bottle partially filled with small stones for weight, which he tied to a long rope and flung over the side. The presence of salt far up the river suggested he wasn’t sailing on a river at all but, rather, on a fjord or strait, which to him could only mean one thing: this channel connected to a saltwater sea. The South Sea. The Orient. So far, there was a fine taste of salt in his mouth in the mornings.”

PHOTO: Here I am on Governors Island judging the distance across to Lower Manhattan in bow shots. It’s five, and it’s in the book!

For me, there is nothing better than standing in an important historical location and imagining what it was like before. Sometimes long before. In my case, I would travel to New York City again and again, and on each trip, I’d stop and stare at the waters encircling Manhattan. And think back to the day I was treading water at the island’s tip, waiting for the ebbing tide to change, and looking up to wonder: What was this place like at the beginning? I mean, what was it REALLY like? And how did things get to be the way they are today? Imagining the answers to those questions helped inspire me to write the story told in—and transport readers to—NEW YORK 1609.

PHOTO: Standing at the tip of Lower Manhattan, this is the view—minus the Statue of Liberty above my right arm—the native Manahate band would have had as a strange ship carrying strange beings sailed into New York Harbor in September of 1609.

(photo: Jay Tanen)

NEW YORK 1609 by Harald Johnson

When a Native American (Lenape) boy joins Henry Hudson’s expedition up the river that now bears his name, the fearless and visionary–and misunderstood–Dancing Fish doesn’t realize his entire world and way of life are in peril. Enthralled at first by these strangers, he begins to discover their dark and dangerous side, touching off a decades-long struggle against determined explorers, aggressive traders, land-hungry settlers, and ruthless officials. If his own people are to survive, the boy-turned-man must use his wits, build alliances, and draw on unique skills to block the rising tide of the white “salt people.”

Many thanks, Harald. I can vouch for the authenticity Harald brings to this novel and I’m sure readers will be delighted to experience that long ago time.

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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.