Saturday 7 September 2019

GUEST POST: Capturing Time and Place in a Sentence by Dean Hamilton

Way back in 2016 I read a novella by Dean Hamilton called Black Dog. It featured a swashbuckling tough character called Kit Tyburn and was a richly detailed portrayal of Elizabethan London.

A few days ago I started listening to the audio book of the first novel about the same character, THE JESUIT LETTER, and I have again been impressed with Hamilton's depth of historical knowledge and how he paints a realistic picture of 16th century England.

The creation of a believable setting is one of the key elements in writing convincing historical fiction, so I asked Dean to write a guest post explaining how he goes about casting the spell of time travel over his readers. I think the piece he wrote will interest readers and writers alike.

Capturing Time and Place in a Sentence

by Dean Hamilton

One of the challenges in writing historical fiction, is the effort to capture a setting.  How do you write believably about an era that is long vanished in time? How do you make that setting come alive, in a realistic and accurate way? How does that setting drive the story, characters actions and choices, and how do they interact with that world?

THIEVES’ CASTLE, my new book, is set in the Elizabethan era in 1576 in London. Most fiction embedded in the Elizabethan era tends to be tales of Court intrigue, set amidst the silken splendor of palaces.  Mine tends to hang about in ale-soaked taverns, muddy streets and fetid back-alleys where cold-steel by lantern light offers redemption or grim death by turns…

In THIEVES’ CASTLE, Kit Tyburn, ex-soldier turned play-actor and part-time intelligencer for the Queen’s spymaster Francis Walsingham, is back in London and adrift. Penniless, cut loose from both his playing troupe and his mercurial employer, Tyburn is hired to track down a missing gold-seller who has vanished, along with the monies needed for the completion of London’s first permanent theatre.

But London’s dark and fetid back-alleys hide deadly secrets, as Tyburn uncovers a more treacherous game – a war between two noble houses that pulls him into a murderous conflict on the streets, a deadly Spanish conspiracy and a twisted thief-lord chasing her vengeance.

The defining parameters for the setting of THIEVES’ CASTLE were driven by two ideas:
  1. Take Elizabethan historical fiction out of the silken palaces and court intrigue and into the streets of London. 
  2. Make those streets, taverns and hidden locales into as real place as you can, make London itself a detailed, complex, vibrant character in the books.

Tyburn, the protagonist, spends comparatively little time in the environment that most readers tend to associate with the Tudor world of fiction – the worlds of Kings, Queens, of palaces and grand homes or the splendor and intrigue of the Royal Court. Almost all the story moments that are set in such places are ones that Tyburn is uncomfortable and in an environment that is, at best, somewhat alien to him.

The streets however are different. In the streets, he moves with ease, he can blend in, find his way. He can move through the bustling crowds, the hawkers and the carters. It is a rhythm and a pace that he is familiar with and, in that familiarity, he brings the reader along to discover the discord and colour of the Elizabethan world.
“The weather was cold and damp and Tyburn’s breath hung in the air. A thin skiff of ice crackled underfoot where puddles had formed between desultory sets of cobbles and thick, sagging expanses of mud. Tyburn gave a rooting pig a sharp kick to open up some walking space between the stony wall of a building and a heavily laden cart. The cantilevered upper stories of the timbered houses on Shepard Lane hovered overhead like an oppressive canopy, giving the narrow laneway the feel of a mountain defile.”
Building an evocative setting for historical fiction is difficult, particularly for an era that few physical structures remain, such as the Tudor period. While most Tudor-era structures were laid waste by the impact of time, the Great Fire and, most recently, by the Luftwaffe and modern developers, there are still a wide range of primary and secondary sources that can help.

In trying to understand Tudor London and generate as vivid a picture of the setting as possible, the first and best starting point is to develop a picture of the physical geography of the place. A map is critical and there are a number of historical maps, panoramas, and other sources that you can use to dive into the structure of the city. Understanding how the city developed over time, the growth of population, critical infrastructure, points of entry, key industries and social structures all provide insight into the experience of walking those streets.

In the case of London, the Civitas Londinum map, also called the Agas Map, offers a brilliant view of London from about 1561. If you want, you can lose several hours exploring the interactive version online (, which is a fabulous resource for writers. Beyond whatever maps are available, there are primary sources that touch upon the social structure, geography and commerce of the day. Again for London, I would recommend John Stow’s A Survey of London, published in 1598, which offers up a richly detailed survey of the city and its inhabitants.

One thing the Tudor era does not lack, is written documentation. You can read plays (Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson), commercial records, court records, proclamations, crime or religious pamphlets, sermons, travellers accounts, cookbooks, books on manners, legal records, even books that delve into the vagaries of cozenage (con-artists and tricks), gambling, roguery, crime and begging.

All of these sources together need to be processed, reviewed and considered from the writer’s point of view. Detail and depth are terrific but they need to serve the story foremost. As fascinating as we might find the background of a certain church or street, it needs to illuminate some aspect of the story world or the characters inhabiting it. Details that are immersive, that involve all the senses, such as the stench of a shambles, or the strident shouts of street hawkers, the feel of a starched ruff, are all details used to pull the reader into the setting and to experience it more richly.

The key goal is to make the setting a living place, with hidden depths and byways, and a myriad bustle of inhabitants that make it more than a painted backdrop. Done right, it makes the world your story inhabits one that engages the reader and feels real and lived in. And engagement helps turn the pages!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief dive into settings in historical fiction! Feel free to dive in a little more and grab a copy of my new book THIEVES’ CASTLE, now available for Kindle ebooks and print on AMAZON.


Dean Hamilton works as a marketing professional by day and prowls the imaginary alleyways of the Elizabethan era in his off-hours. He is married, with a son, a dog, and a small herd of cats. He is the author of the gripping Elizabethan thriller series The Tyburn Folios.

Twitter: @Tyburn__Tree

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