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.

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.

A Year of Reading 2018

I read 33 books this year not as many as previous years – although I feel as if some are missing! I’m delighted to share them with you. Below is the rating scheme I developed in 2014 – the first year I posted a list. Part way through 2018, I took a break from historical fiction 🙂

LR = light, enjoyable read; GR = good, several caveats; ER = excellent, few caveats; OR = outstanding; DNF = did not finish; NMT = not my type.

Title Author Comment
Jan My Dear Hamilton (brief review) Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie OR Fascinating portrayals of the men and women who played pivotal roles during the revolution and the founding of America.
Born a Crime (book club) Trevor Noah ER Humour – pain – emotion – and unique stories of growing up bi-racial in South Africa make this an outstanding read.
The Tuscan Child Rhys Bowen NMT There was so much the author could have done with this story.
Small Great Things (book club) Jodi Picoult ER This was a can’t-turn-the-pages-fast-enough book for me.
Only Time Will Tell Jeffrey Archer ER The first of Jeffrey Archer’s Clifton Chronicles and I’m sure to read more.
Feb Mary – Tudor Princess (review) Tony Riches ER Full of excellent period detail, this novel will transport you to 16th century England and France with intrigues, wars and upheavals.
The Woman in the Window A.J. Finn OR My husband read this and said I HAD to read it. And he was right.
Trumpocracy David Frum ER An alarming, clear-eyed, and well-articulated view of what’s going on in the US.
Mar March Geraldine Brooks GR Not as compelling as her other novels.
Full Disclosure Beverley McLachlin GR Debut novel from Canada’s former chief justice.
Apr Citizens of London Lynne Olson OR A fascinating look at US involvement in WWII; superb non-fiction
All is not Forgotten Wendy Walker ER Suspense, family drama, unexpected plot twists and a unique storyline.
The Wife (musing on titles) Alastair Burke GR The pacing and cliff-hanging chapter endings are well done and the twist at the end is quite the surprise.
May Off Season Anne Rivers Siddons GR At times disjointed and with too many digressions.
The Litigators John Grisham GR Novel doesn’t get going for a long time.
The Fire By Night Teresa Messineo DNF Full of inner monologue and backstory and lengthy descriptions.
Dreams of Falling Karen White ER A plot that slowly simmers its way to a surprising and satisfying ending
Jun Simple Truth (guest post by the author) Carol Bodensteiner ER Great dialogue, pacing, and engaging characters.
News of the World Paulette Jiles GR Took a while for me to ‘get into it’

Quite a mix of genres, time periods and impressions. I’ll post the rest on Thursday.

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.