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 – Nicola Cornick, The Phantom Tree

Nicola Cornick is a writer and historian who was born and brought up in the north of England. She left the world of academia to become a full-time author and loves to write dual timeframe novels inspired by the history and legends of her local area.

Transported in time and place – Nicola Cornick, The Phantom Tree

As a reader of historical fiction first and a writer later, the concept of being transported through time and space via the medium of books has always intrigued me. As a child I didn’t travel far from home and so my reading became the way in which I learned about different and exotic experiences, from boarding schools to boating holidays. As I grew older the appeal of the past as a “foreign country” took hold of me. I wanted to travel back. I wanted to be transported via my imagination and the words on the page to another time and place, one of magic and vivid experience.

Writing dual time Gothic fiction, I use the idea of transporting a reader in several different ways. Firstly there is the historical research that provides an authentic framework for the book. In the case of The Phantom Tree, I was writing a book set in the later Tudor period of English history, so I read a lot of general political and social histories of the period before focussing in on the details of everyday life in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I – what people wore, what they ate, how they travelled. These elements are the threads that come together to create the background tapestry which I hope will help to build the world in which the story takes place.

The next layer of world-building comes from specific details and for this I study letters, portraits and diaries; this feels as though it puts me within touching distance of the people about whom I’m writing, the things that were important to them and their daily pre-occupations. I love the information that material objects can provide to a researcher.  The Phantom Tree was inspired in part by a little portrait of a Tudor lady that belongs to a member of my family. As soon as I saw it I was fascinated; I wanted to know who she was and to tell her story. So I studied the style of clothes, the colours, the background imagery, all the while building up an imaginative picture of who she might be.

My favourite part of the research process however, comes from visiting the place where I am setting a book and experiencing it for myself.  The Phantom Tree is set in Savernake Forest in Wiltshire and I spent many hours wandering along the paths and bridleways, losing myself amongst the trees. It wasn’t difficult to imagine what Savernake would have been like four hundred years ago. Studying the forest through the seasons, the plants, animals and insects, the way that the mist hangs over the fields in the autumn and the sun cuts through the leaves in the summer… All of these give richness and texture to the imaginative world I hope to create. So do the local myths and legends that I build into the story. Visiting Wolf Hall, the iconic home of the Seymour family in the forest, was the ultimate inspiration, especially when I went on a tour of the Tudor sewers under the house! You can’t get closer to the traces of history than that! [And yes, that’s Nicola coming up from the sewers!]

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. I aim to take all the different elements that have made up my research and through vivid description, conjure a time and place that is waiting to welcome the reader in.

Below is an extract from the book where the heroine, Mary Seymour, experiences the forest as a child.

“Forests were full of concealment and surprise and I had known that from the beginning. I took delight in exploring Savernake. It was by no means an empty land. It seethed with people: Sir Edward’s Ranger, the foresters, the villagers whose pigs grubbed for nuts in the undergrowth in the autumn, the poachers who risked their lives to take the Queen’s deer, thieves, gypsies, runaways, witches. I saw them all and avoided them as much as I could, slipping between the trees like a wraith, like a hind.

Now that I had a bedchamber to myself it was easy enough to slip away at night, simply by climbing down the ivy that covered the old brick wall of the manor. I knew every ancient oak in the forest now including the one that marked the boundary of Edward’s land with its huge bulging belly. It was rumoured to be the oldest tree in the woods, already ancient when the Conqueror had claimed Savernake along with the rest of the kingdom, a tree in possession of old magic. I had heard Dame Margery whispering to the scullery maid, with many gestures to ward off evil, that the witches sought its power to summon the devil. I could imagine that they did and I shuddered to think of it. Old magic was dangerous and unpredictable. Even though I had never dealt in it myself but I had an instinct for it, never knowing where my knowledge had come from, only knowing that I saw and heard things that others did not. However the threat of heresy, of witchcraft, haunted my every step. I thought of my mother and longed for an ordinary life, free of visions, untouched by magic.”

Many thanks for sharing your perspective with us, Nicola. I’m sure readers will enjoy being transported to Tudor times in Wolf Hall and Savernake Forest.

The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick

“My name is Mary Seymour and I am the daughter of one queen and the niece of another.”

Browsing antiques shops in Wiltshire, Alison Bannister stumbles across a delicate old portrait – supposedly of Anne Boleyn. Except Alison knows better… The woman is Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr who was taken to Wolf Hall in 1557 as an unwanted orphan and presumed dead after going missing as a child.

The painting is more than just a beautiful object for Alison – it holds the key to a past life, the unlocking of the mystery surrounding Mary’s disappearance, and the enigma of Alison’s son.

But Alison’s quest soon takes a dark and foreboding turn, as a meeting place called the Phantom Tree harbours secrets in its shadows…


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.