Participants: Elizabeth Holland, Rik Lonsdale, Kathleen Marple Kalb, Gerald Hornsby, Anita Belli, Cheryl Whiting, Karen Heenan, Chris Towndrow, Leah (the dreamer), Eva Seyler, Bradley Galimore, Deborah Klée
Please introduce yourself and tell us about the different time periods you have used in your stories.
Elizabeth: Hi, I’m Elizabeth from Kent. My books are all set in the present. The Vintage Bookshop of Memories has a nostalgic feel to it. The MC, Prue, loves 1940s fashion and antiques. The village of Ivy Hatch is almost frozen in time.
Deborah: Hi everyone. I’m from Essex, UK. I am currently writing a novel set in 1980. Not contemporary or historical. Not sure what you call 60s 70s and 80s novels.
Elizabeth: This sounds really interesting! Just Bea really captured the present and I felt The Borrowed Boy captured the nostalgia so I’m looking forward to this.
Deborah: Hi Elizabeth. Thank you. Which year did you set Finding You in? Do you choose a particular year?
Elizabeth: It was set during 2020 with flashbacks over a 10-year period showing their relationship.
Rik: I’m Rik. My current WIP is set in contemporary time and spans about ten months.
Deborah: Hi Rik. When you say contemporary do you decide on an actual year? How do you avoid pandemic years?
Rik: Good question, it’s actually very near future (two/three years) so I’ve ignored the pandemic. Hopefully it will have worked out by then.
Kathleen: Hi! I’m Kathleen. I live in the US and write historical and contemporary cozy mysteries. This is a GREAT topic! I write historical mysteries set in Gilded Age NYC…and contemporary set at a small radio station in VT.
Anita: Hi. I’m Anita. Although I love reading historical, I have only written two; one set in 1936-1939 in the Spanish Civil War. The other was set in 1950’s in Colchester, Essex (UK) and Amsterdam; with flashbacks to Occupied Holland during WW1.
Gerald: Good afternoon, Deborah! I’m Gerald, from Birmingham, through East London and now Essex. Generally contemporary, although I have delved into the near future (10 years or so).
Deborah: Hi Gerald. Interesting to think about writing in the future as well as past.
Gerald: I really can’t get interested in the past. It’s been and gone. I like engaging readers in the present day, where they can see themselves; also warning of dangers of the near future.
Cheryl: That’s interesting, as I feel I can relate more to books I can ‘see myself’ in. I’m all about the here and now -preparing people for the future!
Gerald: Me too! Or the dangers of the near future!
Deborah: Knowing how to reflect the aftermath of the pandemic when you write in the future 2-3 years is tricky. It means a lot of contemporary novels will be set in 2019.
Gerald: In my contemporary novels, I’m ignoring the pandemic. Didn’t happen in my world. In my one post-apocalyptic novel, I don’t say *what* happened. It’s more about the people *it* happened to.
Chris: Hi all. Chris from Richmond. My space opera is set in the far future (say 3500 AD), my speculative fiction series is set in 2069, my comedy/drama series is set in present day (say 2018), but my #WIP is set in 1879 in the Old West.
Deborah: Hi Chris. You cover a lot of scope in your novels. Do you prefer writing future or past?
Chris: Most of these ideas date back many years, so the actual writing of them was not a conscious decision to focus on a preferred time period. As a scientist, I prefer near-future hard sci-fi, but at the end of the day my books are all human stories, like every writer’s. Too much Star Trek as a boy… But I’ve loved immersing myself in the Old West. The catalyst for this book was a film, as it is for many of my ideas. I have a Fargo-inspired book I’m pencilling in for next year.
Karen: I’m Karen, and I live outside Philadelphia, PA. I’ve published two books set in Tudor-era England, but I’m also working on a Great Depression novel set in Pennsylvania, which I will finish this year.
Deborah: Hi Karen. You have something in common with @KalbMarple What attracted you too writing in the Tudor period?
Karen: My mom let me watch The Six Wives of Henry VIII with her when I was sixish. She was bored by the end of Anne Boleyn, but I insisted we keep watching. Fifty years on, I’m still hooked.
Kathleen: Yes! I loved that!
Deborah: It is one of the most interesting times in UK history. I studied this period at school but am not brave enough to try and write historical novellas although I love reading them.
Karen: For my second book, I tackled the dissolution of the monasteries. I was afraid it would be boring, but thinking of it in terms of people turned it around. The monasteries served as schools, hospitals, inns. They provided food, housing, and work. And they disappeared in 4 years.
Eva: I’m Eva. My first book is a WWI book, but I have other WIPs spanning 1925-1952. I don’t really see myself writing in any other period than that span, but that could easily change!
Deborah: Hi Eva. Where are you from? Why were you attracted to writing those time periods?
Eva: I live in Oregon USA! I’ve always loved art and film from those time periods as well, I’m not honestly sure why it appeals to me so much.
Bradley: Hi, my name is Bradley, I vary my time periods from current time to distant past and distant future with a few alternate realities in between.
Leah: Heya, I’m A teacher of English and a published poet. I’ve been writing poetry and fiction, running workshops on writing for over ten years. My youtube channel link is in my bio.
Why have you chosen to write about a specific period(s) in time? What came first inspiration for the story or the wish to write about that time?
Rik: The story came first. The time seemed natural then. The story needed some events to have happened that haven’t yet, but I didn’t want to write too far ahead where tech would have changed so much.
Elizabeth: I write about now because I don’t have the desire to research any certain time period. If the passion isn’t there then I don’t want to include it as it’ll show in my writing. Usually, the story comes to me. I have another WIP that has a nostalgic feel to it.
Gerald: I like to warn about the dangers of climate change in my (unpublished) dystopian novels. So, I like to set them in a future time which is familiar to the reader (present day + 10 years max) but then show what *could* happen in that time if we don’t act now.
Rik: I like that period also. There is both predictability and un predictability about it, but it avoids total sci-fi (not that I have anything against SF, read a lot)
Deborah: There is a danger that they will date. We are starting to see films set in 2020 that were once futuristic.
Gerald: I think the problem with some far future sci-fi is that it looks a bit ridiculous nowadays. We’re still not wearing one-piece PVC suits or using flying cars. So, my sci-fi future is very similar to present day + self-driving cars!
Rik: But some doesn’t age e.g. Ian M Banks. Way out in the future, we’re never going to get there.
Gerald: That’s why I generally don’t specify which year mine is set in. In my head, it’s now (for the contemporary novels), but if someone reads it in 3 years’ time, they might thing it’s now for them. And I suspect visceral memories of the pandemic will fade quickly.
Eva: Not many people were really writing stuff about WWI that resonated with me so I wrote what I was looking for! Most of the rest of my WIPs are derivative somehow from The War in Our Hearts.
Rik: Excellent. ‘Write the book you want to read’
Anita: I was intrigued by how my Spanish neighbours would not talk about ‘their’ war; and wouldn’t buy bread from a bakery which had been on the ‘wrong’ side. ‘The pact of forgetting’ ran deep and I wanted to understand why
Elizabeth: I love how this intertwines history with real-life.
Deborah: That does sound intriguing. I find stories about the Spanish Civil war intriguing.
Rik: But some doesn’t age e.g. Ian M Banks. Way out in the future, we’re never going to get there.
Deborah: I set my WIP in 1980 as it was an interesting time – women just realising they had power too, new wave entertainment, new opportunities/ entrepreneurs. And crazy fashions and hair.
Bradley: I believe that a good story teaches us important messages through contrast/showing the way a situation is in repetition because there is still something to learn. One of my favorites to approach is discussing colonization of Mars because of current news/innovation.
Eva: For fiction, usually fantasy with a medieval flavour, mostly because that’s what I like to read. If not, I try to capture a more universal, ambiguous setting that focuses on idea, experience or emotion (that’s poetry and fiction now) to connect with any reader anywhere.
How do you research the time period and ensure that your references are accurate? If writing about the future – how do you research what might be?
Karen: I’m lucky that the Tudor period is so well-documented, and that a lot of original source material is now available online. When I find something that can’t be proven one way or another, I default to plausibility. Looking forward to doing more 1930s research.
Kathleen: I’ve always been drawn to two main time periods — Victorian, and Tudor. But my main character came to me first, and she’s a person (an opera star specializing in male roles) who would not have existed earlier.
Elizabeth: The Vintage Bookshop of Memories was easy at the historical element is clothing. I had a wonderful time on the internet looking through all the fashion.
Deborah: I loved your references to Vintage clothing Elizabeth. I am doing the same now as my protagonist has a dressing up box full of outfits from different eras.
Kathleen: It’s fun — and so important to the atmosphere, too!
Deborah: I am loving your calendar images Kathleen and your descriptions of clothes and hats in A Fatal Finale
Elizabeth: I’m really looking forward to your next book Deborah! I’ve always enjoyed fashion and appreciated 40’s style, so it was a great basis to build on.
Anita: Books, mostly. I have read a lot about Spain and the war, and also about the impact of Picasso’s painting of Guernica on recruiting the International Brigades. That was starting point. I love writing about Art and War.
Rik: I spent a whole day in The Caixa with Guernica some years ago. The painting is a story itself. Deeply moving.
Deborah: This comes over in your two books, Anita, The Art Forger’s Daughter and The Traveller and the Rose. Both great reads – well researched.
Anita: thanks Deborah. I have been exploring more contemporary themes recently, but I love writing about a time when women never went out without a hat and people smoked indoors! It made plotting easier when people didn’t have mobile phones and social media.
Gerald: As I just said in response to a different question, I ‘tweak’ present day, with a bit more tech. No PVC one-piece suits or flying cars. When you look at what people in the 1960s thought the future was like, our present isn’t terribly different to theirs.
Chris: That’s my approach to #scifi . I try to ground things in ‘foreseeable future tech’ like spaceplanes, the Hyperloop, sensible timescales for commercial space travel. Most of it’s Earth-based anyway.
Deborah: (responding to Gerald) Except for the technology phones, music, etc.
Gerald: I’ll give you phones. Although The Man From Uncle was calling across the world from his fountain pen. We still don’t have that, alas. But the rate of change is slow. Design is morphing, but travel is similar (but more so and more reliable).
Anita: (responding to Gerald) Except in social media which has revolutionised social attitudes. This is the biggest change of all
Gerald: That’s a good point. Almost universal access to this internet thing people keep going on about. TV / video on palm-sized devices. Access to information and communication with others.
Kathleen: Late 19th century has always been a favorite time of mine — so I knew the big stuff…but I’m constantly online nailing down the small things: how wide were sleeves that year, what does a charm bracelet look like — when does baseball season start?
Deborah: Thank goodness for Google! If we had to go to a library to gather all of that info. we would never get to finish writing the book.
Eva: I am a huge nonfiction and history nut so research is very enjoyable for me. Also reading novels from the time period helps!
Bradley: So for references using Mars specially, the @NASA website, Das Marsprojekt by Wernher von Braun, @NatGeo’s “MARS” and @PrimeVideo’s @ExpanseOnPrime. All of which address the planet and possible/real things to consider in conversation about it.
What sort of time period do your stories usually span weeks, months, years, decades? How do you make the transitions clear – whether that is the difference of a few days or hours or a dual time line?
Anita: The Traveller and The Rose covered a couple of years of The Spanish Civil War and the resolution was back in the UK after that war ended and WWII began. The Art Forger’s Daughter needed more space; the MC was 16 at the start and 21 at the end. She had to grow up!
Elizabeth: Mine tend to span about a year. I use holidays (such as Christmas) and changes in weather to show the time passing.
Rik: A great question which I am currently wrestling with! The transitions, time signposting, jumps in time. Feedback from beta’s tell me I need to tighten all this up. Stories aren’t balanced in time. A single day can take many chapters and months, or even years, a few lines. I recall a quote from somewhere forgotten ‘twenty years later’. A transition and a half methinks. I am trying to avoid using day/date tags to signpost. I feel they are authorial intrusions. I’m trying to make the passage of time integral to the story so seems natural to the reader. It’s tough.
Deborah: I agree that it can feel intrusive but as you say a bit of a challenge. I keep track myself so that if I say last week, I know it was last week.
Chris: Usually weeks. Transitions happen between chapters, and I mention the day or the month as an anchor. My space opera has two timelines 1000 years apart – one leapfrogs days or decades at a time, the other is pretty much sequential days.
Deborah: I always seem to write one chapter for each consecutive day and use a calendar to check which day of the week it is. I will have to try bigger gaps of time. I did a dual timeline in Just Bea.
Gerald: Generally, days. I rarely mention specific days of the week, but use “did you have a good weekend”, or people waking up or starting work for a new day. Generally, the day of the week isn’t important to me. I’d love to write a whole
Chris: Yes, I’d love to write a book with a short time span too… not that there’s room in the queue for it!
Leah: Depends on the piece and necessity of expansion or contraction of time to plot and characterization. No one wants a minute-by-minute recount of a character’s day unless it serves a purpose. Same with skipping large spans. Showing time transitions can be as simple as connectives (After, tomorrow, last week, before) or visually with astrix or symbols I’m a line. The more dramatic the shift the clearer you have to signal… unless making it hard to follow is the point…
Deborah: I know that editors like you to be consistent and specific in showing time.
Leah: Certainly, with a whole text structure, but if i.e. Say a military hero taking strict records, suddenly becomes more erratic it might serve the story or character… inconsistency reflecting the same in the experience of what’s happening. Only if it serves a purpose. I guess that’s a tradition version of colouring outside the lines that I’ve mentioned before…
Karen: I envy people who can write over short time periods. Songbird covers 12 years; A Wider World takes in my MC’s entire life (over 50). My third Tudor novel (drafted, not published) is short at only 5 years. I think my 1930s book will only cover a 2-year span.
Deborah: I find it fascinating that we are drawn to write using different time spans. Because I am keeping track of the days, I find it hard to miss a chunk but will try this in a future novel.
Kathleen: Most of the action in my books seems to take place in a period spanning a few weeks to a month…it may have something to do with mystery structure, or I’m just not good at long timelines!
Bradley: My stories exist within and outside of time simultaneously. My goal is to say these are things that we still must consider because they are still unresolved. That way the work can become “timeless”.
How important is the setting for your story? Where have you set your stories and why?
Karen: Setting is very important, but it’s what I’m least good at writing. I always worry that my people exist in a box. Songbird takes place mostly in the public and private areas of several palaces, in London, and in France when the court travelled. Songbird came about from a throwaway fact in a Henry biography, that he loved music so much he purchased children to sing in the royal choir. A Wider World, my recent novel, follows a character from Songbird into adulthood and, well, a wider world.
Anita: This sounds like something I would like to read, @karen_heenan I would love to get around to writing about the Tudor Court.
Karen: And you should try writing about it – there are so many different angles and people and situations to choose from. I really grew to loathe Henry, but he did collect (and occasionally marry, and frequently executed) fascinating people.
Leah: Setting can be as important as any other character in the story, places have personalities, pathetic fallacy, they present physical help or hindrance to the hero/one. Can be elaborate or simplistic as needed, create mood or wreck it. Transports the reader elsewhere.
Rik: I have a vivid sense of my locations. Interestingly I have had beta’s who say they also get a good sense of setting and others who want more ‘detail’ of these fictional places. But to know where I am helps me.
Elizabeth: For me, setting is so important! As a reader, I love to feel immersed in the book, and the place it’s set is a huge part of that.
Gerald: For me, it’s quite important. It plays a role in the story, and some of the events couldn’t happen in a different setting. I use locations which are familiar to me, although I might rename them. If the relative geography is important, I’ll use a Google map of a location from a different country. I’ve used a tiny fishing village in Croatia and a small town on the Oregon seashore.
Chris: Same here. I’ve used Google maps to research a tiny Swedish village, specific roads in Ohio, the correct bridge in New York, even a cafe in Montreal!
Gerald: I wrote an entire novel once based in Los Angeles. I’ve never been there in my life. And I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve ‘driven’ up and down the Pacific Coast Highway on Streetview. I’d love to do that in real life someday.
Eva: I’m really character-driven, so setting is often incidental. My MGs are set about an hour from where I live in Oregon USA, and I LOVE being able to run up as needed to absorb the atmosphere. The War in Our Hearts is set in Britain and France.
Chris: Very – though seldom do they need to be specific places. One exception is in my #scifi where I use real locations, including a French chateau B&B we’ve stayed in, and a French seaside village we know. It enables detailed description through true experience.
Deborah: Describing a place you know is very effective. A good reason for lots of holidays – when we can travel again.
Anita: Often a starting point for me. Spain, because I lived there and loved it. Then Art Forgery in WWII had to be Amsterdam! In my contemporary stories, I have used backstage in theatre as a setting; my soul home. And Camden Town where I spent much of my formative years.
Bradley: Setting is important for the progression of the story. However, for me, it works as a vehicle but not as a concrete necessity for movement. I focus my stories on Earth, but my characters are no stranger to Mars, Atlantis, the Andromeda Galaxy and their own minds.
Can you name a book(s) where the place has been like a character in its own right? How does a successful author achieve this?
Anita: I have just finished Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. The River Thames is written as a character and drives the narrative. A beautiful read if you haven’t found it yet
Elizabeth: My favourite books are those cheesy romances where they escape to a seaside village to start a new life. I LOVE them. Being swept away to an idyllic village puts a smile on my face. I get to know the place just as well as I get to know the MC.
Karen: There are quite a few, but the one that springs to mind is Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility. Old New York is a full character in that story. It feels so real it’s like time travel.
Deborah: I loved that book! I also enjoyed A Gentleman in Moscow. Beautiful prose and a strong sense of place.
Rik: ‘The Island of Sea Women’ by Lisa See. The island is part of every character’s journey. The author paints a hugely vivid picture. In the writing this hardly seems to intrude on the story. If I could tell you how she does it, I’d be a better writer myself!
Kathleen: Elizabeth Peters’ historical mysteries set in the 1890s Egyptology scene were amazing for that!
Anita: I also love The Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch. Wonderful magic and crime!
Bradley: An excellent example of this can be seen in a book Im currently writing a review for. All The Rage by @RosamondDrKing utilizes the Abattoir as a setting but one that exists amongst multiple places thus it becomes the narrator/character we experience the work with.
Chris: I read “Unspeakable” as research for my #WIP and there’s a real sense of the town in that. I’m currently reading “Lake Woebegon Days” which is very descriptive. For me, I seek to achieve good description by picturing it and writing what I ‘see’.
Eva: Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden pops immediately to mind.
Leah: I actively teach students to read Steinbeck’s settings as another character, Dracula is likewise, Alan Moore’s ‘Voice of the Fire’ the setting is the MAIN character. Just about anything by MZB, Sara Douglass, Scott Lynch, Neil Gaimen, Tolkein…