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.

Writing historical fiction with author Mark Ellis

Mark Ellis is a thriller writer and a former barrister and entrepreneur. He grew up in Swansea, under the shadow of his parents’ experience of the second world war. His father served in the wartime navy and his mother witnessed the bombardment of Swansea in 1941. Mark has always been fascinated by World War II and, in particular, the Home Front and the criminal activity which sprung up during wartime. Today Mark gives his take on writing historical fiction and I’m delighted to welcome him to A Writer of History.

How I Go About Writing Historical Fiction by Mark Ellis

I have written three books in my fictional mystery series set in World War Two Britain. The main protagonist of the stories, Detective Chief Inspector Frank Merlin, is a senior police officer working in Scotland Yard, London’s police headquarters of the time. I chose wartime Britain as my setting partly because of a long-held general interest in the war, and partly because of a more specific fascination with how ordinary life on the home front was lived. I also thought that the setting would be an excellent backdrop for a crime series as the years from 1939 to 1945 saw a great rise in criminal activity. Reported crime in England and Wales grew by almost sixty per cent during that period and the real policemen of the time had their hands very full.

There are three stages in my writing process – research, creation, and editing and redrafting. Before I set down a word, I spend three or four months immersing myself in the very specific period in which my book is set. For the first Merlin book, Princes Gate, that was January 1940, the period known as the ‘Phoney War.’ For Merlin 2, Stalin’s Gold, it was September 1940, when the Blitz and the Battle of Britain were under way. For my new book, Merlin At War, the setting is June 1941, just after the Battle of Crete and just before Hitler invaded Russia. I aim in my books to describe Merlin’s fictional adventures against as authentic a portrayal of the life of the time as I can. To that end I consult my own library of key reference books as well as the collections of the many excellent public libraries in London. Libraries like the Kew Public Records Office, Britain’s principal historical document facility, where I have spent many hours delving into its comprehensive stocks of old newspapers, journals and other records of interest. I draw on the huge range of pertinent history books, biographies, and diaries which have been published since the war, as well as on war fiction, particularly that written at the time or soon after. Then there is, of course, the internet which has become a brilliant research resource. One feature of my books is that every chapter is set on a specific day, and I like to be as accurate as I can about that day as well as about the general period. The internet can now provide pretty much any of the detailed information I require. If I want to know if it was sunny or raining in Central London on Tuesday June 3rd 1941, the internet can tell me. If I want to know what planes were in the air on a given day in the Battle of Britain and which airbases they flew from, the internet can tell me. If I want to find out what variety show was running in the London Palladium at the beginning of June 1941 and who was starring in it, the internet can tell me. And it will do so rapidly!

I like to know as much as I can about the places in which the action of my books takes place. London, where I have lived most of my life, is the principal location for my stories. However, there are scenes in foreign cities such as Moscow, Warsaw, Buenos Aires, Paris and New York and more. I was lucky enough to travel extensively in my business career and got to know some of these places well. However, if I haven’t been somewhere and I feel the book needs it, I travel there.

After the research comes the slog of getting the book written. There are many different ways in which authors approach this task. In my own case, I do not, as some fiction writers do, map out the whole story in outline before fleshing out the detail. When I start, I have in mind a few plot ideas which have usually been prompted by my research. I start writing and see where those ideas take me. When I am around half way through the first draft, having developed or dropped some of these plot lines and added a few more which have occurred to me along the way, I then try and work out how everything is resolved. I trust to inspiration. Some might find this way of doing things a little stressful, but it works for me, or has so far at least. Once I have a first draft, I edit and redraft many times. With my latest book I had over 20 drafts. Sometimes, but not often, I make a major plot change during a redraft.

With Merlin At War, it took me around 18 months to complete a manuscript with which I was satisfied, although I would have been a few months quicker if a computer malfunction hadn’t disconcertingly deleted a few months of edits from my working draft. I am speeding up with each book and want to continue doing so. We’ll see how I get on with Merlin 4 which I am just about to start researching. It is to be set in December 1941, the month in which Pearl Harbour precipitated America’s entry into the war. An interesting time, I think, for Frank Merlin’s next adventure.

Many thanks, Mark. My husband is a dedicated thriller reader and I plan to introduce him to your novels! 

Merlin At War by Mark Ellis – Summer 1941. Four violent deaths, French double agents, an escalating fraud case – DCI Frank Merlin sets out on his most complex case yet.

War rages across Europe. France is under the Nazi thumb. Britain has its back to the wall. In London, Scotland Yard detective Merlin investigates a series of disturbing events – a young girl killed in a botched abortion, a French emigre shot in a seedy Notting Hill flat, a mysterious letter written by a British officer, gunned down in Crete.

Chasing evidence spanning Buenos Aires, New York, Cairo and Occupied France, Merlin and his team are plunged into an international investigation of espionage, murder, love and betrayal.

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.

Time Travel – Unlocking the Past

LockTuesday’s post itemized the topics historical fiction authors should research when writing a novel. Today’s post offers a list of potential sources to explore in order to do so. (Again based on author interviews and my own reading and thinking on the subject.)

  • primary sources such as first hand accounts, letters, memoirs, legal documents, treaties etc; these can also give a sense of language and attitudes of the time
  • academic secondary sources, non-fiction books
  • archaeological reports
  • site visits to appreciate buildings, landscape, flora and fauna, views; to feel the land and see the people; to hear the language and engage your senses; to walk the streets and imagine your characters doing the same; never assume that things look the same today as they did in the past
  • museum visits to see artefacts of the time period
  • art, paintings, contemporary portraiture and photographs from the time period show people, clothing, how much traffic is around and what sort, shop fronts, advertisements; they also illustrate attitudes and interests of the time
  • re-enactment groups
  • academic lecture attendance
  • engagement and discussions with experts in a field of interest, graduate students can also be a source of information
  • internet trawling for articles, reports, historical timelines
  • Project Gutenberg for out of print novels, diaries, journals and more
  • Pinterest boards
  • period novels (i.e. novels written at the time) to get a sense of how people thought about events then, not how they thought about them through the lens of today
  • resources published at the time such as newspapers, pictures, etc.
  • biographies of contemporaries and important figures of the time
  • recipes
  • etiquette manuals and books detailing social customs and conduct
  • talking to locals
  • the bibliographies of books are goldmines that lead to other sources and experts
  • for language and dialogue, talking to actors and voice coaches
  • a good source of character and dialogue is reading diaries from the time
  • find books on historical slang, synonyms and foreign phrases
  • dictionaries of quotations
  • books of names
  • books on furniture, costume and houses
  • copies of Who’s Who and Whitaker’s Almanack or equivalent
  • hotel and tourist guides and maps from the era
  • primary source records such as judicial reports, school log books and local newspapers
  • old maps and Google maps
  • 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
  • transcripts of old court cases
  • advertisements
  • broadsheets and plays are ways to access the authentic vocabulary of the time
  • legal documents such as wills, court rolls
  • recordings conducted at the time
  • interviews conducted at the time
  • civil and military records
  • town histories
  • ships’ logs
  • farm journals
  • listen to music, songs and instruments from the period
  • check records on the period for mentions of floods, snow, hot dry summers

Some of these you will stumble upon, others you will deliberately seek out. Don’t get lost in the research. Remember your primary purpose is to tell a story.

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 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 from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.