There are many components that make a book a compelling read. A fast moving plot, memorable characters, witty dialogue and, not to be overlooked, fascinating settings.
Whether the story develops in a familiar place, in exotic surroundings or in a fantasy world, it's one of the author's tasks to bring it to life for the reader, make the scene not just a mere background, but part of the fabric of the book.
I have asked a few fellow authors to talk about the settings they have chosen for their books, how they went about describing them, what role the location plays in the story.
Today Mark Patton tells about recreating a world gone when writing historical fiction and the way he has researched the places he was describing in his novel, An Accidental King.
A sense of place in historical fiction: Thetford in 46 AD.
My novel, An Accidental King, is set in the early years of Roman Britain. Its protagonist, the pro-Roman client king Cogidubnus, has his home in Sussex, in a landscape I know well. The book, however, is centred around Boudicca’s revolt against the Roman Empire, and I knew from an early stage that I wanted to engineer a couple of meetings between Cogidubnus and Boudicca herself.
The easiest way to do that was to take him onto her territory, which is in Norfolk, a landscape I know less well.
Some years ago, archaeologists discovered an important site on the outskirts of the Norfolk town of Thetford which, from its size and date, is likely to have been, if not her home, then certainly a place familiar to her. There is nothing to see on that site today, but I wanted to get a feel for the landscape, so I spent a few days in Thetford in my early days of research for the book.
|Thetford Castle (David Robertson, licensed under CCA)|
The town has a Norman castle built on top of an Iron Age hill-fort. The hill-fort predates Boudicca by several centuries, but its ramparts are such a dramatic feature of the landscape that I figured it was likely still to have some significance. By the time I left Thetford, I knew it would be the backdrop for some of the most dramatic scenes in the book, and I had in my notebook passages of description that are now in the book almost unchanged:
“The coronation took place late in the afternoon, in an ancient stronghold surrounded by two high banks and two deep ditches, their slopes yellow with daffodils. Gnarled oak trees grew all along the banks, their bare branches outstretched towards the heavens, their trunks draped in swathes of ivy, like bright green dresses…”
I visited the castle on several occasions, and at different times of the day, making a record of the sights, sounds and smells. At one point I caught sight of a goshawk hunting, and I managed to find a role for her in the story.
Nearby are the Neolithic flint-mines of Grime’s Graves, which I had last visited as an undergraduate in 1983. They pre-date Boudicca by almost three millennia but, in the small on-site museum, I discovered that evidence had come to light that some of the shafts had been re-opened in the 1st Century AD. This was all the persuasion I needed to bring my protagonist here in the last part of the book, when he has every reason to fear for his life:
“I looked up. The ceiling above me was as high as the shaft down which I had climbed … There was a miniscule rim of daylight above me, a hoop that appeared to be less than half an inch wide, indicating, presumably, a wooden cap. It would have been impossible to climb out in any case, since the shaft was far narrower at the top than it was at its base. … Escape was not an option.”
Grimes Graves (Ashley Dace, licensed under CCA).
This scene is inspired by the enigmatic last words of a Roman emperor, as reported by the historian, Suetonius, but to say more than this would spoil the plot!
Mark Patton is the author of two historical novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, both published by Crooked Cat Publishing.