Places real and imagined: settings in historical fiction

Stories demand settings, unless perhaps you’re writing some kind of strange existentialist speculative fiction. I’m not. Characters also come from somewhere. They go to school, they have jobs, they have someplace to hang their hats in the evening. All of these places have to have names and descriptions.

Non-historical fiction has rules of thumb for settings. If you’re going to say positive things about the school, small town, or business, go ahead and use the real name. But if you’re going to sprinkle the place with dead bodies and corrupt officials, make something up. However, if you’re writing noir or thrillers, you must use real settings; fortunately, these genres tend toward the urban and the international. Made-up places are far away; dark suspense relies on a sense of immediate and pervasive peril.

Historical fiction must also take place in real places. We can’t invent a fifth Inn of Court or a country that’s exactly like England except that it’s called Pictland. We populate our books with real people who come trailing locations in their wakes. Francis Bacon lived at Gray’s Inn on the outskirts of London, not at the Inn of Purpoole near Ludburg.

Map-grazing: a fun sport for procrastinating writers

When I start a new series or need to invent new characters, I spend a lot of time grazing maps. Many people love maps, I’m not alone in that quiet pleasure. It’s the armchair traveling, exploring topographies and routes of interaction. Place names are the scat of history, dropped all over the map by migrating peoples. (That metaphor works better if you think of yourself as a Labrador, nose to map.)

Most of my invented characters come from Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, because why not? I might have to go there someday to look around for a story. Since I don’t write gritty, dark tales, do I really need to spend time in backstreet Belfast or industrial tracts in Manchester?

Thomas Clarady, Bacon’s sidekick, is from the Jurassic Coast of Dorset. I haven’t pinned down his actual hometown yet, but it’s somewhere in the vicinity of Lulworth Cove. It’s an appropriate origin for a smuggler’s grandson. I am longing to set a story there, just to have an excuse to visit.

Alice Trumpington, aka Trumpet, comes from the east coast of Suffolk. I didn’t quite make it to the coast, but I did spend a week in Constable country. It’s the foreigner’s dream of the English countryside, with meandering rivers and broad fields separated by bands of woods filled with birds.

Her maternal kinsfolk are from Devon, nearer the north coast for a change of pace. I’ve been to Devon, many years ago before point and shoot cameras were invented, so I have no good pix of my own. I can’t remember how I landed on the name Welbeck, but her grandfather’s baronage came off the map: Winkleigh. There aren’t any towns in England too small for a Wikipedia page, but I try to find ones that won’t ring other fictional bells. And if I drop dead bodies here and there, or point fingers at a few corrupt officials, it was hundreds of years ago. I’m careful not to point fingers at real persons with known descendents.

I had lots of fun with maps writing Death by Disputation. I chose Babraham because it’s within walking distance of Corpus Christi College, where my characters resided (perforce; Christopher Marlowe went there). It’s also now mainly an institute involved in biomedical research, which Francis Bacon would have loved. Also because it sounds so funny in my native accent (BABE-braham.) So many itches scratched at once! (Photo of the church in Lavenham, Suffolk.)

I also used British History Online to discover which villages in the Cambridge area were mainly Puritan and which harbored crypto-Catholics. Hardly any of that managed to make it into the book, but it was fascinating to learn about. We think of these big, sweeping conflicts, but they were played out in communities within walking distance. It would have been easy and fun to sneak over to the next village and cut down their popish Maypole!

Extinct titles and deserted villages

Earls are usually the Earl of Someplace. Making these up isn’t as easy as you might imagine, because so many likely suspects are taken. Trollope invented many such names, for his Chronicles of Barsetshire (an invented locale.) He gives us Augustus Melmotte and Lady Carbury.

I like to use extinct titles when I can, for the verisimilitude. The longer ago, the better. Wonderful, data-minded people make lists of everything and put them on Wikipedia, providing us with virtual shopping lists, like this list of extinct earldoms in England.

I made Trumpet’s father the Earl of Orford. There have been three creations of this title, yet now it is extinct again. It’s a bit risky — they might create it again — but I like the name and the place, which has a fine old ruin of a castle. Someday I’m going to go there too. I want to contemplate the view from Trumpet’s bedroom window.

Another good source of titles are the names of deserted villages, aka lost settlements. These make good surnames too. These lists are irresistible to place name junkies. I have to be careful not to choose ones that are too funny or famously naughty. (People have compiled lists of rude English place names as well.)

My fiction is light, but not absurdist. I can’t use names like Outer Ottery or Greater Middlebury, much less Old Sodbury or Ramsbottom.

 

 

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