A Ball of Golden Thread

Deborah Lincoln is the author of Agnes Canon’s War and An Irish Wife. She specializes in fictional retellings of almost-lost stories from her own family’s past, with characters both well-known and obscure. To get a sense of the stories she writes, consider this quote that I borrowed from her website.

In historical fiction, great events bring a poignancy to the lives of everyday people, to their efforts to survive and prosper. My work celebrates those brave, smart and anonymous women and men, honors their triumphs and hardships, and pays tribute to their memories.

Today, Deborah shares thoughts on creating the natural environment for a story.


When I first read The Scarlet Letter, I was captivated by the idea that within a very few miles of the new world’s coastline stretched a dense and primeval forest (Hawthorne’s lovely descriptions) and I imagined myself an eagle flying over that forest that stretched forever, untouched. I wanted so much to see it, know it the way it was then and would never be again. I rebuilt it in my mind, smelled its scents, absorbed its sounds. Imagined the busyness of its small and large inhabitants and their absorption in the immediacy of their moments. And I wanted to build that world so others would see it, too.

Country cemeteries are wonderful places to wander to absorb atmosphere. 
This is the Bethelboro cemetery where Agnes, Harry and their family are buried.

That is the sense of place that I find crucial to telling a story, especially a story based in the rural past, in which the characters are so much closer to the natural world than we can be today. I want to call up the childhood, even racial memories lying deep inside us all that can be triggered by the rank rich smell of a humid summer’s day or the chorus of crickets at dusk. My characters need to be shaped by the land and elements because they are so much more dependent on them for their safety and sustenance. “For once we no longer live beneath our mother’s heart,” says Louise Erdrich, “it is the earth with which we form the same dependent relationship, relying completely on its cycles and elements, helpless without its protective embrace.” If we, the human race, still felt that, we would perhaps not be in the climate crisis we’re now experiencing.

Vegetation and wildlife are important to developing a sense of place.

In my writing I’ve tried evoking the sense of place first by visiting the area I’m writing about, as most writers do. For my first book, AGNES CANON’S WAR, that was the village of Oregon in northwest Missouri, as well as Virginia City and the Gallatin River valley in Montana. I grew up in the Midwest, so the humid summers, crisp, frigid winters, the flash of lightning bugs and the whine of mosquitos in the dark were all memories that I drew on to evoke an atmosphere.

I refreshed my memory of the vegetation, the birds and the animal life—and did my research to be sure those species existed in the mid-nineteenth century, the setting for my story. It wouldn’t do to insert a family of nutria in the creek in 1855 when they weren’t introduced into the United States until 1899. 

Oregon, Missouri: The town of Lick Creek, setting for AGNES CANON’S WAR

For my second book, AN IRISH WIFE, I needed to go beyond my own stomping grounds, east to the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania, a different setting from the flat farmlands I grew up in, and get a sense of the distances, what the horizon looks like, the sunsets and rainclouds over the hills and the geology, including what might lie underground. I toured a slope-entry coal mine to feel the weight of a mountain pressing in on me and to soak up the sense of dark and closeness, of menace, that working below the surface might provoke. I studied maps of mines, examined diagrams of geological strata, collected photographs of miners and their equipment taken deep underground. Odd as it sounds, annual reports of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Industrial Statistics dating from the mid-1880s were fascinating. Thank goodness for the Internet.

Experience what your characters would have experienced. Inside an abandoned coal mine. (Photo by Brian Moran)

Sense of place gives equilibrium,” Eudora Welty writes (On Writing, 1956), “extended, it is sense of direction too.” A writer can achieve an unflinching authenticity when she conveys a sense of place, and as Mary’s survey of her readers discovered, those readers want a time and place to be brought to life. As Welty says, “. . . it is the sense of place going with us still that is the ball of golden thread to carry us there and back and in every sense of the word to bring us home.”

Thanks, Deborah, for sharing your thoughts on creating a time and place for readers. I’ve read An Irish Wife and can still feel the dirt and despair of the coal mines of Pennsylvania, the deep prejudice against Irish Catholics, and the blossoming of young love amidst the nearby forests. A highly recommended story!

An Irish Wife by Deborah Lincoln ~~ In the brilliant society of 1880s America, King Coal fuels fortunes and drives prosperity for the privileged as it also destroys lives and the dreams of the unfortunate. Harry Robinson, coming of age in southwestern Pennsylvania, is the hope of his family for the next generation, expected to ride Gilded-Age momentum to the American Dream.
When he meets Niamh, an immigrant Irish woman married to a coal miner, he falls in love for the first time. Niamh’s arranged marriage brought her to America with the hope of giving her brother Patrick opportunities for a better life, and she asks Harry to continue the boy’s education. He agrees, hoping to stay close to Niamh and dreaming about ways to make her his own.
Through Niamh and Patrick, Harry begins to realize the extent of the prejudices that stalk Irish Catholics and all immigrants. When Niamh’s husband beats her and she escapes, Harry is determined to take her away, though it means overcoming her religious scruples and the disapproval of his family. But Niamh and her brother disappear.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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.


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.

The Ten Thousand Things – exploring successful historical fiction

In February I included a list of award winning historical fiction with the thought of exploring what readers think made them superb examples of the craft. I didn’t get very far on this topic and thought I’d return to it today with a look at John Spurling’s The Ten Thousand Things, winner of the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction in 2015.

What’s it about? In the turbulent final years of the Yuan Dynasty (13th century China), Wang Meng is a low-level bureaucrat, employed by the government of Mongol conquerors established by the Kublai Khan. Though he wonders about his own complicity with this regime—the Mongols, after all, are invaders—he prefers not to dwell on his official duties, choosing instead to live the life of the mind and his paintings. A novel of fated meetings, grand battles, and riveting drama.

One reviewer on Goodreads writes: “Spurling’s writing is exquisite. He creates scenes with a sensitivity and attention to aesthetic detail that seems light and effortless, yet deeply moving. To read this book is to plunge into another world, to be transported, not into some dimly remembered past, but a very real and vividly imagined world that is thoroughly convincing.”

Another says: “I now feel like I’ve been to China in the 13th century.”

So clearly Spurling is a master at transporting readers in time and place.

Many readers attest to Spurling’s wonderful prose, comparing it to the beauty of the paintings his protagonist creates. Another praises the dialogue and comments that Spurling’s experience as a playwright may be the source of his excellence.

There are numerous references to the authors blending of philosophy and politics into the story. “The Ten Thousand Things is a literary masterpiece that reveals classical philosophy and art of 14th Century China.” “Any student of Chinese history will appreciate the story and the insights into the politics, art and history of that time period.”

Kirkus Reviews has this to say: “The great strength of this novel is not so much the plot but the rich detail that sets the reader in the middle of China.”

The South China Morning Post [Hong Kong’s major English newspaper] says: “Like one of Wang’s paintings, this story is a highly crafted masterpiece that cannot be enjoyed in one sitting … Even a reader who starts out with no interest in China or Chinese artists will be sure to return to this story over the years, as its truths remain timeless.

So – superb writing, evocative time and place, timeless truths, rich details. I’ve certainly looked at enough reviews to add this one to my TBR list.

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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.