By Blythe Gifford

We’ve all heard the advice:  You must visit the places you write about.  Theoretically, I agree with that, but from a practical point of view, I’m not in the position to fly abroad every time I start a book.  And since I write history, a trip to the place would still not be a trip to the time.  I would still have to create a world I’ve never seen.

How do you do that with an eye to authenticity?  I have a few tips.

First, choose your setting mindfully.  A familiar location will make it easier to gather information.  An obscure one may make it difficult to find enough detail to bring it to life.

The flip side of using a well known location is that it’s tough to fudge facts.  Any mistake will surely be found by an expert reader.

Be aware of the connotation of the setting you select and decide whether to play to it or against it.  Some locations, New Orleans, for example, are so strong that using them is almost like adding a character to your story.

When I say “setting,” I mean time as well as place.  For example, I have a manuscript set in Philadelphia.  Originally, the date was 1872, but I changed it to 1876.  Why?  Because the Centennial Exposition was in Philadelphia in 1876.  Even though my book did not revolve around the exposition, it meant I could find everything from train schedules to photographs to first person accounts of the city in that year.

Next, ground yourself and your characters.  Gather a detailed map, a calendar, and a guidebook or two.  Even if you create an imaginary town, know which direction the sun rises and sets.  Know the time and date and day of each scene.  This will help keep you, and your characters, in a real world, one in which Sunday comes every week, the seasons follow their course, and you can trace how long it will take to walk from one end of town to the other.

Again, as historical writers, this is harder than it sounds.  A current map has roads and buildings that did not exist when your story is set.  Even rivers have changed course over time.  Search used book fairs for older guidebooks and travel books.  Often, they include maps, detailed descriptions, photos, and first person narratives.

Third, a picture is worth a thousand words.  Along with my calendar, guidebook, and map, I always buy a good picture book or two.  One will be of the physical landscape.  That way, I am not dependent on another writer’s words.  I can look at the picture as my hero or heroine would and let them describe the scene.

Authentic images, photographs, engravings, or paintings, will give you detail no guidebook or official history will include.  In THE KNAVE AND THE MAIDEN, I had a scene set in the Cathedral at Exeter.  When the Cathedral’s official website gave me a virtual tour, I discovered that the Cathedral was under construction at the time of my story.  With that fact, I created a vivid, unique setting that supported the emotional theme of the scene.

The Internet is a gold mine for images.  With a search engine, you can find everything from professional photography of historic buildings in all seasons to engravings of street scenes.  In addition, many vacationers now post photos and travelogs.  Not only are those a source of pictures, they can provide first person descriptions of how hot it can be on the Thames in August.

Finally, the devil is in the details.  Instead of descriptions of panoramic views, select one small sensory detail, preferably a sound or a scent.  (There’s nothing wrong with a visual detail, but using the other senses brings it closer to the character.)  Then, make sure it has emotional resonance for your character.  No matter how good your research, it exists only to make your characters move easily in their world.  It should be inserted only when the character recognizes and reacts to it for a reason directly related to the storyline.

With these techniques, you can build a world that’s real to your characters and to your readers, even without getting on an airplane---or in a time machine.


Blythe Gifford’s debut novel, THE KNAVE AND THE MAIDEN, is a Harlequin Historicals January 2004 release.  According to, “she captures the history without bogging the reader down in trivial details.”

To learn more about Blythe and her upcoming releases, visit her web site at

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Copyright 2004, Blythe Gifford