Creating a Sense of Place in Time in Historical Fiction

A sense of place anchors the historical novel in its rightful time zone because the place is defined by the time. For me one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing historical fiction is doing the research and within that realm the most rewarding part is on-site research. So visiting the place, even hundreds of years later, is better than not visiting it at all.

In a different life I used to teach history and one of the most difficult things about doing that was trying to create a sense of place in time. By that I mean conveying an understanding of what a place was like at a certain point in the past: what it looked like, sounded like and smelled like. This is of course is what the historical novelist strives to do.

One of the exercises I would sometimes give my pupils was to imagine they were walking down the main street of their home town, firstly in the present, then 100 years ago, then 200 years ago and so on, you get the picture. The idea is not to jump straight from 2013 to 1513 in one great leap of imagination but to strip away the years as if they are layers of paint covering over a much used canvass.

You start by subtracting items from the landscape, e.g. electric street lights, petrol engine transport, double glazed windows and so on. You’ll get to the point where you not only abandon clocks and watches but the whole fabric of a society that works to the clock rather than the natural cycle of the day. You’ll also be adding in a few things that we’ve dispensed with over time: stone weights for hand looms, loin cloths and so on.

The point of using this method with children was to get them to ask questions but the method is equally valid for the historical novelist because asking yourself questions and seeking the answers is what research is all about.

These days, historical sites are probably easier to visit than ever before but, depending on your time period, this can mean spending a significant amount of time exploring. It might be a visit to examine a physical landscape or a specific building.

I like to take my own photographs because it gives me a record not only of the place but of particular views of the place. On a battlefield site for example it is essential to be clear which army was where and who approached from which direction. Photographs are very helpful in remembering whether it was uphill or downhill, through woods – assuming the woods are still there! – or across a moorland plateau.

I remember when I did the research for the battle of Mortimer’s Cross, I took extensive videos of the area and still photos from different aspects. I’ve visited a number of battlefields and it is a useful exercise but it is worth bearing in mind that the landscape has changed significantly in the past 500 years and applying the principles of landscape change – such as they are – can be quite tricky.

One example might be the case of the humble river: sometimes a river has increased its breadth or volume over the centuries, sometimes it has become narrower or shallower and sometimes it has remained about the same. Not to mention the possibility that it has changed its course completely! So, as always, one needs to combine some academic research with an onsite visit. Ask yourself a few questions before you even get to the site. To stick with the river example: were there a lot of mills along the river or weirs or fisheries? Was it navigable in your chosen time period?

When I was writing a scene about a group of characters crossing a river in a specific place, I had to consider in addition to the questions above: was it at a known ford and what natural hazards would there have been in that stretch of water?

Now you might very well say: so, they were crossing a river – who cares about all the peripheral stuff? But my view is that it not only helps the reader to understand the position the character is in but it also helps the writer to achieve a more consistent understanding of place in time. Physical descriptions give the reader a physical environment.

I don’t know about you but I really get a kick out of exploring ruined historical sites. I’ve been visiting them since I was a small boy but only when I started writing historical fiction did I begin to understand why they mean so much to me. Some of them have a genuine aura about them but they can also help to give the writer a sense of place.

Now, here we need a health warning: ruined castles can be very evocative, take Dunstanburgh for example on the north east coast of England. I spent ages taking photos of it which looked amazing against the sun, but that is not historical research. It wasn’t a ruin in the time period I am writing about; it was a large thriving community operating at the hub of an even larger local community.

So, as with all research, objectivity is important. As a writer my interest is professional; what can this ruin tell me about its existence at an earlier time? Often, for me, it raises as many questions as it resolves.

So what do I get out of it? Well, perhaps I am fired up with enthusiasm to research an aspect of late medieval building that I had not considered before. But often it is a more basic, elemental outcome such as when I visited Middleham Castle in Yorkshire – the great Neville powerbase and incidentally later the residence of a well-known Leicester car park attendant. Middleham gave me the ‘wow factor’ – its sheer grandeur was enough to make the visit worthwhile. Even now, ruined, it is majestic and if I thought that, then how impressive might it have seemed to a visitor in the fifteenth century?

I’ve scratched the surface here and I could go on, but you’ll probably be hoping I don’t! I’m sure other writers have their own ideas about how to establish a sense of place in time and their own methods of conducting research onsite. This is a very sketchy impression of mine.

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4 Responses to Creating a Sense of Place in Time in Historical Fiction

  1. Great sense of feeling to this write-up. It embodies the spirit of the past path you’ve chosen as your writing medium… Welcome to the Book Fair… 😉


  2. Feud_writer says:

    Many thanks Francine. Hope the Book Fair goes well.

  3. Martin Lake says:

    I really enjoyed this post, Derek. I love the idea of subtracting the artifacts as your walk somewhere. A great idea which I shall unceremoniously nick from you.

  4. Derek Birks says:

    Thanks Martin. I’m sure it’s not original – I must have nicked it from somewhere! I’ve found it extremely useful and also quite fun too.

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