Often a place is as strong a character in a novel as any human. For example, it’s impossible to imagine Bronte novels set outside of the West Yorkshire Pennines, an area now referred to as ‘Bronte country.’ The town of Rye in E. F. Benson’s books is easily as vivid as his irrepressible characters Mapp and Lucia, although he called the place Tilling in a thin disguise. Locations can inspire writers like nothing else. Dickens, who used London over and again as a character in his work, described the city as a Magic Lantern, a popular entertainment of the Victorian era, which projected images from slides. London scenes fired his imagination. He once said, ‘a day in London sets me up and starts me’, but outside of the city, ‘the toil and labour of writing, day after day, without that magic lantern is IMMENSE!!’
These writers, and many others, used first-hand experience of a place. The Bronte sisters spent their whole lives surrounded by the moors featured in their books. Benson lived in Rye, where he also served as mayor. Dickens lived in London until he died, apart from early years in Kent and short periods spent in Europe. They all wrote what they saw. Not to say that simply being in a place is enough for a competent novelist. The Brontes, Benson, and Dickens brought writerly skills to bear when choosing the exact appropriate location — a forbidding valley, a claustrophobic living room, or a dark alley — to enhance a scene or a character’s mood. They also used the way in which seasons, weather, and time of day, affect a place and give it atmosphere and mood. But they did all have the advantage of writing what they saw. Which is not the case for the writer of historical fiction.
Historical fiction authors use place as much as writers of contemporary fiction, if not more. Locations in historical fiction are often the foundations on which narrative is built. How a place looks, smells, feels is as important as how characters are dressed, speak, or as the food they eat. Locations are likely to appear very differently to today — described effectively they can skewer a period to the page for the reader. The hours of necessary research, sometimes onerous, are always worthwhile. Hilary Mantel, author of Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall, has said, ‘If you don’t like research and don’t consider it important then it’s better, in my view, to leave the historical novel alone.’ In the recently published The Spanish Knight’s Secret by Peter Christopher, 16th century Malta — in particular Fort St. Elmo during the Great Siege of Malta — is so skillfully portrayed that the reader is transported there, almost against her will. Although familiar with present-day Malta, Christopher dug deep to find the details that bring Fort St. Elmo of 1565 so alive.
Many authors of more recent historical fiction — of which I count myself — also use location in a novel as strongly as any living characters. But memory, rather than research, is often the key for recent historical fiction. Laurie Lee’s 1959 novel Cider With Rosie, was based on Lee’s youth in the village of Slad, Gloucestershire, in the period soon after the First World War. The village and surroundings are lovingly portrayed, obviously from his recollections of childhood. The West Midlands town of Wolverhampton is as much a character as any person in my novel, The Speech. But it’s the Wolverhampton of 1968 that’s evoked, during a period when I was a student there. I was able to draw on strong memories of the town — pubs, streets, shops, the college I attended, statuary, municipal buildings, houses and flats — to evoke the Wolverhampton that would have been familiar to Enoch Powell and the other, imaginary, characters in the novel. I was even able to describe the smell of the local brewery, which pervaded the town from time to time. All of which were building blocks to a vivid representation of place. And, as we know, evocative portrayal of place is essential in historical fiction, whether set in the 1960s, medieval era, or earlier.