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Writing About Where You Know: Tips For Historical Novelists

Writing About Where You Know: Tips for Historical Novelists

Should you use real locations or fictitious ones in fiction? In recent posts, Sandy Osborne, Katharine D’Souza and Jan Ruth have demonstrated how setting their novels in real places well-known to them had helped them promote their work, and we will be sharing more authors’ views on this subject over the coming months. But using a familiar setting isn’t always as easy as it might sound, as historical novelist Michael  Wills explains below.

Cover of The Wessex Turncoat by Michael WillsThe first part of my new novel The Wessex Turncoat is based in my home town, Salisbury.

“It is too early yet to say if it has given me any sales advantages, but I would like to give a word of caution about this approach.

“My novel is about the plight of ordinary men pressed into the serviceof George III to swell his depleted army destined to attempt to quell the rebellion in America.

“I found that very thorough research about eighteenth century Salisbury was necessary before putting fingers to computer. Not only have street layouts changed quite dramatically since the period in question, (many had water channels in the centre to remove city detritus), but also many street names have changed. For example, if I had mentioned Exeter Street, (the current name for a major thoroughfare), 21st century inhabitants would immediately recognise where I was talking about. But in fact, at the period of my novel the street was called Draghall Street.

“Another thing which might get the pedants mailing you is that many pub names have changed. In fact there is some controversy about when the names changed. I have risked opprobrium by calling what is now the Red Lion, the “Red Lion and Cross Keys”. The website about the hotel states that the name was changed in 1761, the plaque on the outside of the building says 1776!

“The foregoing apart, I think that it is a sound approach to use a place you know well as the setting for a novel.”

For more about information about Michael Wills and his writing, visit his website www.michaelwills.eu.

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  1. I lived in Salisbury for ten years and still miss it – just reading that it was set there makes me want to read it – I want to be able to recognise the streets and placenames so yes, it works 🙂

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