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.

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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.

In the Trenches – 20th April 1916 – Part 2

Continuing Henry Tod’s experiences on that day in the trenches.

At 5 a.m. to the second, a most intense bombardment broke out along our lines, and we had all that uneasy feeling it was a prelude to an attack. We had been sitting tight under this [I think he’s referring to the bombardment] for half an hour or so when – sniff! and the next moment we were struggling into our gas helmets. The gas gongs were beaten to raise the alarm for those in dug-outs (the worst place when gas is about) and to warn those in the rear. It was a horrible sensation to be tied up in these gas bags capped as they were of course by our shrapnel helmets. We looked fearsome enough, and everyone looked alike, but one’s sight hearing and breathing is so interfered with and to run around in these things to see the men were properly fixed up was the acme of discomfort. The men were splendid and there was no sign of panic which was a great relief.

The gas cloud came over thick and blotted everything out in a white mist and was supplemented by a shower of gas shells. You could not see more than a step or two but the helmets were effective and s long as they were well tucked in under the collar, nothing came through. I had got a mouthful or two in the early stages but beyond tickling up my inside a bit and a subsequent headache I was none the worse.

Of course our main concern was the possibility of a visit from our friends. [!!] We kept up a slow steady rifle fire into the mist just to show we were still there and our artillery was putting over heavy stuff good and hard. I think they had the wind up in the back regions. The Germans did not attempt an attack on our front, that we could see.

The bombardment lasted an hour and a half and the gas cloud was beginning to clear away when they had another surprise for us. They sprang a big mine just to the left of my crater and we came in for a deluge of earth and stones and mud, which completely buried one man and gave the others a proper dousing. I had just left the crater but was back in a jiffy to find my little band standing by, bombs in hand, ready for any emergency and covered from head to foot in mud. We got the submerged on excavated and he pulled round after a bit. The men were really splendid and I recommended the sergeant for a decoration.

The gas finally cleared away and we resumed our normal existence again, but the strain was telling and we were relieved that afternoon, i.e. a day before time and we went into the reserve trenches.

One of the company officers, Bethune, whom I think I’ve mentioned, was very seriously wounded and also gassed, and an officer of A company was killed and two others wounded. Our casualties were pretty stiff but I have a feeling we gas more than we got, as our artillery kept up a very hot fire all the time and we succeeded in pinning him [the Germans] down on our front. He attempted an attack on other parts of the line but at no place did he gain a footing. The Irish division on our right lost some ground, but regained it before the end of the day.

We had comparatively few cases of “gassing”, the only fatal one being a little white terrier which had adopted us and followed us into the trenches. Poor little chap: no one thought of a gas helmet for him. He had his day and the rats he has killed are countless.

We go up to the same spot tomorrow for a couple of days to complete our spell and are hoping things will not be quite so lively. Our friends are very restless now and no doubt our time is coming.

My first three novels pictured below feature WWI and drew inspiration from letters like these.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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.

Place – as complex as a human being

Writer friend Carol Bodensteiner talks about being transported in contemporary fiction.

Thanks, Mary, for inviting me to join your discussion of time and place in writing. As a reader and a writer of memoir and historical fiction, I know that when the author ‘gets it right,’ time and place take on the qualities of another character.

Place shapes the way people think about themselves, it frames their actions. Place can be friendly or hostile, welcoming or menacing, relaxing or high stress. Place can be all of those, sometimes at the same time.

My newest novel Simple Truth is contemporary fiction set in a small Iowa town that is home to a poultry packing plant. Place is equally important in this genre.

Simple Truth is the story of a young woman who gets a career-making opportunity only to discover her client may be exploiting immigrant workers. With each new revelation, she finds herself questioning not only her client but also herself and her career. Ultimately, she must answer: What is she willing to risk to help someone else?

Research helped me flesh out the ‘character’ of both town and plant. 

On-site research

To understand the town in my story, I spent time in a similar town, walking the streets, eating in the restaurants, watching the people. My experiences played out in Simple Truth as my main character, a young woman who lives in the state’s capital city explores the small town where she’s taken a temporary work assignment. Here’s some of what she sees:

Angela counted at least four paint colors peeling around a store window displaying christening and quinceañera gowns. The awning shielding one store window from the setting sun drooped sadly to one side. Sheets of paper covered another store’s windows. None of the storefronts looked welcoming, and Angela did not go into any of them. Stopping to read the posters in one window, she found announcements of bands and dances hung side by side with a flyer listing indications of abuse and encouraging women in dangerous relationships to seek help.

Angela perceives the town as run-down and dreary, a place she needs to be but would never choose to stay. As she comes to know the town better, she understands there’s more here than meets the eye. That first impressions don’t always yield the real story.

YouTube and Background

In addition to the town itself, the other most significant location in the story is the poultry packing plant. To create this location, I relied on my own experience with such facilities and YouTube videos. Since the people of color who work in the plant are an important focus of the story, I spent some time describing the plant operation as my main character sees it during her orientation tour.

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.

While I didn’t pull punches in the plant description, I also didn’t dwell on it beyond the necessary. I hope. Readers will have to decide.

Place can be as complex as a human being, a complexity we may miss if we don’t look deeper.

Many thanks, Carol. Love the idea of place as a character.

Simple Truth by Carol Bodensteiner – Angela Darrah is a pro when it comes to pitching client stories to the media. But when she suspects her client is exploiting immigrant workers, she’s forced to face her own prejudices and to examine herself in ways she never imagined.

Having landed a career-making assignment at one of Iowa’s largest poultry packing plants, Angela is stymied when the CEO who hired her resists her advice. Worse, he defers her to his right-hand man who keeps Angela off balance as he alternately supports and obstructs her efforts. When Angela finds an unexpected ally in a handsome Salvadoran plant supervisor, her professionalism wavers in the face of undeniable attraction.

As Angela immerses herself in the company and the town, she is faced with challenges similar to the company’s immigrant workers. How will she navigate a new system and succeed in the face of obstacles and injustices she doesn’t understand? Then, when she discovers corporate actions that are unethical, possibly illegal, Angela must confront the conflict between her duty to her client and her growing passion to fight injustice. Ultimately, she must decide: What is she willing to sacrifice to help someone else? Simple Truth is a thought-provoking story intertwined with risk, retaliation, and reward.

Carol Bodensteiner is a writer who finds inspiration in the people, places, culture and history of the Midwest. After a successful career in public relations consulting, she turned to creative writing. She published a memoir Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girlin 2008. Her debut novel Go Away Home was acquired by Lake Union Publishing, an imprint of Amazon Publishing and published in 2015. She published her second novel Simple Truth in 2018. Carol can be reached on Twitter: @CABodensteiner, Facebook, Goodreads or at her website.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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.