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 to 1912 Hong Kong

I’ve mentioned before some of the photos that have inspired scenes in my novels. I found several that helped me piece this scene together, which is from the current work-in-process. The first photo is of Alice Roosevelt on board ship during a trip to Asia in the early 1900s.

Isabel Taylor clutched her straw hat in one hand and her daughter Georgiana’s hand in the other as the China Seas cleared the tip of an outlying island and Hong Kong Harbor came into view.

“Look at all the little boats, Mummy,” Georgiana said. She pointed at a jumble of vessels the size of large rowboats clustered along the quay, anchored one to another.

“I see them, sweetheart,” Isabel said. “I believe they’re called sampans. The Chinese use them for fishing. But I had no idea there would be so many.”

At least fifty passengers stood at the bow railing, while they steamed into port. Isabel smiled at the line of hats her shipmates wore: boater hats, colorful, wide-brimmed hats, and parasols for the women; bowlers and Panama hats and the occasional bare head for the men.

Hong Kong early 1900s“It’s mountainous.” A woman standing nearby said to no one in particular. “I didn’t expect mountains.”

Isabel hadn’t expected mountains either yet there they were, craggy peaks that embraced the city of Victoria, where she and her husband and daughter had come to live. She was struck by the sudden reality that this foreign place would be her home—a place of strange customs and exotic scenery, of unusual food and dramatically different climate, and of people who looked nothing like her. For a brief moment she wondered if she could stay onboard and return to London.

“Will we get off soon, Mummy?” Georgiana asked.

Isabel smoothed Georgiana’s curls. “Yes, Georgie. Very soon.” She often called her daughter Georgie. Georgiana seemed too grand a name for a little four-year-old girl.

“But where’s Papa? Isn’t he coming with us?”

When they’d gone out on deck an hour earlier, Isabel had been unable to find Henry. Not an unusual occurrence. “Of course, he is. I’m sure your father is talking with Captain Davidson,” she replied.

Isabel crouched down, taking care not to wrinkle the white muslin jacket and long white skirt she’d put on that morning in anticipation of finally reaching their destination. “The captain will have wanted his advice about coming into port.” The ship’s bridge was the most likely place Henry would be right now. Duty and family were often at odds for her husband. For the most part, duty took precedence.

“I’m glad we’re here, Mummy. Will my toys be here too?”

After reassuring her daughter, Isabel continued to watch as they passed other steamers at anchor and navigated through a harbor crowded with tugboats, sailboats, and barges. A green ferry with white trim passed so close to the China Seas that she could see the faces of its passengers standing beneath a dirty canvas canopy.

Hong Kong HarbourIsabel shielded her eyes from the glare to get a sense of their new home. Four- and five-story buildings built of stone lined the shore, while long piers jutted from the quay and smoke belched from factories in the distance. Dotting the hillside beyond the central area of the city were apartment buildings and what looked like spacious homes. When they were closer still, she noticed brightly colored awnings and a church spire that reminded her of St. Mary’s in London.

“Here you are, Mrs. Taylor,” Muriel Fletcher said. “I’ve finished the packing. Can I help with Georgiana in any way?”

“Georgie’s fine with me,” Isabel said to the governess. “But stay and watch the ship dock, Muriel. What do you think of your first glimpse of Hong Kong?”

“It’s astonishing, Mrs. Taylor. I’m so fortunate you asked me to come along.”

The ship made a wide turn as it prepared to dock, exposing a low-lying area filled with ramshackle buildings that looked like they’d blow away in a strong wind. This was Kowloon, located on the mainland to the north of Hong Kong Island. The turn complete, Isabel noticed the Union Jack flying proudly atop what might have been a government building and a line of palm trees waving in the breeze. The quay teemed with people and waiting vehicles—everything from carriages and lorries to rickshaws and motorcars.

Slowly the China Seas drew alongside a concrete pier where men shouted in a language unlike any other Isabel had ever heard and fastened thick ropes tossed by the ship’s crew. After four long weeks, they had finally arrived.


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 – with author Susie Murphy

When I saw Susie Murphy’s cover for her novel A Class Apart, I had to invite her to talk about my favourite topic – transporting readers in time and place. She graciously agreed. Over to you, Susie.

My intention with A Class Apart is to transport readers back to the 19thcentury, to the year 1828, and the location of Ireland, specifically a grand manor estate in Co Carlow. I want them to become immersed in an era when the divide between the upper and lower classes was insurmountable, when the minority Protestant Ascendancy ruled the majority Roman Catholic population, and when the spark of uprising could be so easily lit.

Before I talk about my efforts to accomplish that, I should first confess to the gigantic error I made in the very beginning: I initially wrote the novel without any historical research at all…! *winces at the memory* I was only sixteen years old when I started writing it (in 2002, exactly half my life ago), and at that stage I was very much a pantser – caught up in the raw magic of writing, I simply made everything up as I went along. It didn’t even occur to me to check the details. At the time, I was writing for me and no one else.

Many years passed as real life got in the way, but by the end of 2010 I knew I wanted to do my level best to become a published author. So I revisited my book, made plans for a whole series, developed my writing across several drafts, and – in 2016 and thus very belatedly – got stuck into the research. The value of doing proper research before writing the story was very much a lesson I learned the hard way. I ended up changing huge parts of my book because there were so many incorrect things in it. I had to fix wrong usage of noble titles (just because a man is rich does not mean he’s a lord), clear up complex points about inheritance (tricky to navigate – certain parts of the law could have ruined the premise of my book entirely), create new characters because I was missing essential people (such as the butler, a rather crucial individual in a 19thcentury manor house), and remove anachronistic terminology (I couldn’t use the phrase ‘her voice cut like barbed wire’, given that barbed wire wasn’t invented until the 1860s). The surgery I performed on my book during this time was well overdue and comprehensive.

What emerged from my research was a great deal of clarification. While I had always known the book was set in Ireland, in my early drafts I had been very vague about when the story took place. No need to be too specific, silly teenaged me had thought. Of course, with constantly changing fashions, modes of transportation, politics, and so much more, this wasn’t feasible without making the book completely bare of any defining details – and hence losing the tools to transport readers in the first place.

I knew it was around the 1800s. Recalling my study of history at school and exploring the political background of that century, I settled on the year 1828. The longstanding conflict in Ireland that stemmed from English rule on Irish soil would be the backdrop for the story, and 1828 was just thirty years after the failed Irish Rebellion of 1798, so the memory of that uprising would still be strong in the people’s minds. (It also served to align the timeline with important political and social events occurring later in the century that would affect the following five books in my A Matter of Class series, whose plots I continued to develop while refining the first book.)

In addition, the vast social divide which existed at the time was well suited to act as an impediment to the budding romantic attachment between my two main characters, Bridget Muldowney and Cormac McGovern. Bridget is an heiress and upper class; Cormac is a stable hand and lower class. She is Anglo-Irish and of the Church of Ireland religion; he is Irish and Roman Catholic. While they grew up as childhood friends, everything about their situation as adults is designed to keep them apart. The growing unrest in the Irish countryside could only add to the complicated nature of their relationship.

As for location, almost the entire novel takes place in the environs of Oakleigh Manor, Bridget’s ancestral home. Oakleigh is a fictional place so, to know how it truly feels to walk around such a house, I visited Palmerstown House in Co Kildare. While it is from a slightly later time period, the majesty of the place is the same. It was a pleasure and a privilege to wander its halls and rooms, get a sense of how both the family and servants lived in it, and convey a similar impression in my depiction of Oakleigh.

Lower class dwellings also feature in my book, in particular Cormac’s family cottage. Visiting Bunratty Castle & Folk Park in Co Clare gave me a wonderful insight into the various aspects of an Irish village and its humble buildings. However, the best connection I could make to that – and I would not have called it research at the time – was staying at my grandparents’ old Irish cottage when I was a child. Everything about it, from the whitewashed walls to the smell of the turf fire, gave me all the details I needed to recreate it in my book.

Though I came at my research the long way round, I’m glad to say I finally got there in the end! In writing A Class Apart, I have endeavoured to transport readers to a time and place of significant upheaval in Ireland’s history and to show it from the perspectives of both sides of the class divide.

Thanks, Susie. Anyone familiar with Downton Abbey will recognize those servant bells!

A Class Apart by Susie Murphy

It’s 1828, and Ireland is in turmoil as Irish tenants protest against their upper-class English landlords.

Nineteen-year-old Bridget Muldowney is thrilled to return to the estate in Carlow she’ll inherit when she comes of age. But since she left for Dublin seven years earlier, the tomboy has become a refined young lady, engaged to be married to a dashing English gentleman.

Cormac McGovern, now a stable hand on the estate, has missed his childhood friend. He and Bridget had once been thick as thieves, running wild around the countryside together.

When Bridget and Cormac meet again their friendship begins to rekindle, but it’s different now that they are adults. Bridget’s overbearing mother, determined to enforce the employer-servant boundaries, conspires with Bridget’s fiancé to keep the pair apart.

With the odds stacked against them, can Bridget and Cormac’s childhood attachment blossom into something more?


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.