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.

Flappers, Fops and Murder – the Poppy Denby Investigates books

Fiona Veitch Smith is a writer and university lecturer, based in Newcastle upon Tyne. She’s written four mysteries set in the 1920s: The Jazz Files, The Kill Fee, The Death Beat and her latest, The Cairo Brief. Fiona has previously written for stage and screen which gives her a unique background for historical fiction. I’m delighted to host Fiona as part of the blog tour introducing The Cairo Brief to readers.

Flappers, Fops and Murder – the Poppy Denby Investigates books  by Fiona Veitch Smith

The Poppy Denby Investigates books are murder mysteries set in the early 1920s. At the beginning of the first book, The Jazz Files, it is less than two years since the armistice that ended the Great War, resulting in the death of seventeen million people, and only eighteen months since the height of the Spanish Flu that wiped out a further seventy million. Poppy Denby, who is just starting out on a career in journalism, is full of hope – but sorrow is never far away.

That is something that really attracted me to the period and why, ultimately, I decided to set my books in the 1920s. I wanted to write stories that balanced darkness and light. On the surface the books are fun, frolicking adventures, but you don’t have to scratch very far under the surface to find some serious social issues. While some characters are living the high life, others are in misery. The 1920s – alternatively known as the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age and the decade of the Bright Young People – is characterised by a generation desperate to leave the horror of war behind them and to create a ‘bright new world’. Little did they know, the world they were so blithely building would crash into economic darkness within nine years, and be at war, once again, by the time Poppy turns 40. I find that thought deeply poignant, and it is never very far away from me when I am writing.

But in the early 1920s they did not know this and they danced to new jazzy music from America and wore skimpy dresses and cropped or ‘shingled’ hair that scandalised their Edwardian mothers. Everything was new, daring and very self-consciously turning its back on the past. There is a certain romance about the 1920s, and a rich vein of material to draw upon for any writer setting work in that period. It is the decade in which moving pictures became popularised and much of the film footage is available to us today. In addition, the music and fashion are iconic, providing a fabulous soundtrack and wardrobe for Poppy and her friends.

As I have previously written for stage and screen, my writing is very visual. One reviewer said she could almost ‘see’ the story as if it were being acted out on stage. Just as I would create the mis en scene by selecting representative costumes, props, music and actions to evoke a sense of the period, I do the same in my novels. 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. There are lots of collections online, plus books to read and museum exhibits to visit. I even made an outfit from an original 1920s pattern for my first Poppy Denby photo shoot!

In terms of the historical background I take a more academic approach. I have a degree in history (simply a BA) but it is enough to ground me in the techniques of historical research. I prepare for writing in the same way I used to prepare for my university exams – sketching timelines and flow charts and trying to reach an understanding of the broad historical, political, social and economic backdrop, rather than memorising ‘details’. The details can, and are, easily added later. But I do not start writing until I have a feel of what it might have been like to live in that period – I try to read diaries, biographies and novels written at the time – as well as how the period ‘fits’ into history.

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 (a totally free service!).

But then I stop, switch brains, and start to focus on the story, the characters and the mystery. That for me is the most important part. The history is certainly the skeleton of my books, but the muscles, the flesh and the beating heart are Poppy, her friends and their adventures.

I build my fictional worlds in concentric circles. The outer circle is the social, political, religious, economic and historical backdrop within which my story takes place. This needs to be dealt with lightly as it can easily overpower a story. The trick is to provide enough for readers who really like to get their teeth into the ‘history’ of the period, but not enough to weigh down readers who are more interested in the genre element: ie the mystery. I also try to use recognisable historical events and – at times – real historical characters that can help set the scene for the reader. In The Cairo Brief, Emmeline Pankhurst, Arthur Conan Doyle and archaeologist Howard Carter all make an appearance.

The next circle in will include the ‘props’ that the characters interact with – the vehicles, the food, the clothing etc, as well as the social mores and style of dialogue.

Finally, the innermost circle is the emotional core of the characters. This is the most speculative of the three circles as no one really knows what it felt like to live in a particular period. We can get glimpses of it through diaries and memoirs, but these still need to be filtered through our own emotional experience of what it is like to be a human being today. In the end that is what readers will connect with most: real, authentic human beings.

The Cairo Brief by Fiona Veitch Smith

“I’ve heard all about you, Miss Denby. Everyone knows you have a nose for murder.” Poppy Denby is intrigued when she is invited to attend the auction for the Death Mask of Nefertiti. Held on the country estate of Sir James Maddox, a famous explorer, the auction promises to be a controversial and newsworthy affair. Representatives from the world’s leading museums are gathering to bid on the mask, which was discovered in Egypt. Poppy quickly sniffs out that the mask was not the only thing found that night: the underground chamber also contained a dead body. Poppy and her colleagues from The Daily Globe, who are trying to stay one step ahead of their rivals from The London Courier, dismiss rumours about the mask’s ancient curse. But when one of the auction party is murdered, and someone starts stalking Poppy, the race is on to find the killer before ‘the curse’ can strike again…

Many thanks, Fiona. Having written three novels featuring WWI, I can appreciate the perspective you want to bring to your novels. Best wishes for success with The Cairo Brief. Fiona appeared earlier on the blog discussing the magic ingredients that make historical fiction so successful.

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.