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Establishing Time And Place In Novel Scenes, by Anne Perry

The reader needs to know as soon as possible, at least roughly, when and where the story is taking place.  Unless told otherwise, we tend to make assumptions and then are put off if they turn out to be wrong.  If we are drawn into the story, we picture the people and the places, probably drawing on what is familiar to us already, and invest the characters with our own feelings.  It breaks the emotional link if we have to rub it out and start over again.

There are ways of telling the reader.  Some are very unsubtle, like putting up a heading, e.g. Berlin, 9th November, 1938.  That tells you something very precise, but does it make the hair stand up on the back of your neck?  It does if you know that it was a night of horror that has become known in history as ‘The Night of Broken Glass’, a turning point in the persecution of Jews just before World War ll.  We are not all historians, nor do we all have memories with such exact retention.  Anyway, telegraphing it ahead like that is a bit clunky.  It is better to feel it, and there are several ways to achieve that.  We need not only to know, we need to feel it, and to care.

An observation about clothes can help.  Is your hero wearing breeches?  Or a toga?  Chain mail armour?  A military redcoat?  A burnouse?  Has your heroine a puritan collar, a lace ruff, a farthingale, a floor-length gown by Balenciaga?  And so on.  Such things can also give useful information like occupation or social class – not to mention sartorial taste!

Transport can be very telling, particularly the time it takes to get from one place to another.  A car?  What make, and what speed?  A hansom cab?  A post chaise?  A fiacre (you don’t get many of them!)  A sedan chair?  A tumbril (don’t get many of them either, thank goodness!)  Trains – The Flying Scotsman or The Orient Express?  An Aeroplane?  What is the condition of the roads – indeed, are there any?  (Signposts are a bit of an obvious device.)

Street lights?  Gas or electric?  Lanterns?  Rush torches with tar and flames?

What can you hear?  Wind, waves, machinery?  What can you smell?  (You don’t need to be too graphic about that!  We have less tolerance to bad smells than we used to.)

Domestic surroundings can be pretty good, such as furniture, fabrics, lighting and types of fireplace.  Are there windows, and do they have glass in them?  You can use any of these (but not all of them!), without it clogging up your first few paragraphs.  Domestic equipment can be excellent.  Use the flat iron while you are having a vital conversation!  Or stoke the fire, do the laundry, vacuum the floor etc.  Do you turn on the tap for water, or go out to the pump in the yard, or fetch from the well.  That will ground you in the here and now – or the there and then, as the case may be.

Food is good too, it can be very particular to time and place, and social position.  What is for breakfast, and do you make it for yourself?  Porridge, then devilled kidneys, tea, toast and bitter marmalade?  Or pancakes and maple syrup, OJ to drink?  Fresh croissants and a small, strong coffee?  You get the idea.  The reader is informed by tasting, seeing as the characters do.  They are not told where they are, they simply feel it.  Exactness can come later, when it is needed and fits in naturally.  Enjoy your journey.


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