Reimagining the Past

photo 4I returned from an amazing trip to India all the more excited about possible future projects not just because my ‘on the ground’ research was more fruitful than I expected, but because I’d been able to experience that critical connection to history that will (I hope) provide the window I need to reimagine the past. I’d felt this connection once before, in Venezuela, and it provided me the impetus for writing my first Ursula Marlow mystery, Consequences of Sin.

For a historical mystery writer, I need to feel a connection to the history I’m writing about. I want to convey the sensory experience of what it would have been like to live in another era and for that I need some means of accessing the past on a personal level to enable the true ‘reimagining’ process to begin. This is easy for me in a place like England where  family ties already establish that connection, but much harder when I consider other places and eras to which I have little in the way of understanding or connection.

I wasn’t sure what I’d find on my trip to India (apart from obviously some very beautiful places – see the photo of the Taj Mahal above – which is awe-inspiring – and the sharp contrast between poverty and luxury – also evident in Agra just streets away from the Taj Mahal). I certainly wasn’t sure what my reaction would be to the place or its history.

As it turned out, I was surprised how easily I felt an affinity to those Europeans who arrived in India during the late 18th and early 19th centuries (the period that I had, not surprisingly, been researching with a future novel in mind). Although many historical places were difficult to isolate against the noise, traffic and bustle of modern life in India, I had no trouble reimagining what it must have once  been like. I also found that I was beginning to inhabit the mind and imagination of some of the characters I had begun to sketch out in my head before my trip, and so much of what I saw, smelled, and heard could be accessed through the prism of their thoughts and background, not just my own.

photo5One of the most surprisingly things to come out of my research was that the place I had originally believed would be the initial setting for my story (Hyderabad) was totally displaced by my experiences in another city (Udaipur – photo to the right) and I saw quite clearly my characters inhabiting this landscape and not the one I had previously envisaged (only downside, a whole new set of history books to read!).

One of the best things about travel is that it rarely provides the experience you expect – and it’s in the unexpected that I find the greatest inspiration.

So now I’m back, I just need to get down to the business of actually writing. In the meantime, I’d love to hear some TKZers’ unexpected travel and research experiences – how have they inspired your writing?

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About Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Her first novel, Consequences of Sin, featuring the Oxford graduate, heiress, and militant suffragette Ursula Marlow, was published in 2007. This was followed by two more books in the series, The Serpent and The Scorpion (2008) and Unlikely Traitors (2014). Consequences of Sin was a San Francisco Chronicle Bay Area bestseller and a Macavity Award nominee for best historical mystery.

9 thoughts on “Reimagining the Past

  1. Glad to hear of your great trip, Clare. Thanks for the pics.

    Some time back I took a research trip to Vegas. I went with a friend, who had a trade show there, so we mixed the two tasks and shared the expense. I hadn’t been to Lost Wages in a long time, and we stayed in one of the big hotels. The first day I went down to the casino area with my notebook and started taking notes. I wandered around. I took an escalator down…and noticed, um, a number of, um, scantily clad, um, women…I pulled my collar to get some air, went down another escalator where there were even, um, more of the same…until I hit the floor and saw that I’d wandered into the area where the national adult entertainment expo was being held.

    Yes, this was rather surprising research from just, um, walking around.

  2. A few years back,I accompanied my wife and daughter for three weeks in a Spanish immersion school in Mexico. My plan was to write and explore while they attended classes.

    But I got sidetracked. I was captivated by the strange beauty of the country, and by the dark tales I heard about the drug cartels and citizen militias that opposed them. The villagers I stayed with and the priest and nuns I met at the school shared terrifying and entrancing stories about life and death in central Mexico. It all led to my novella Aztec Midnight.

    You just never know where you’ll find inspiration. The key is to pay attention.

  3. Gorgeous photos, Clare. A real trip of a life time. I was fascinated by a more mundane trip to a cat show in Fort Myers, Florida. The cats were exotic and so were the cat show people. I just had to write a book about that world. It became “Catnapped!,” my Dead-End Job novel.

  4. Mike – you are so right. The key is to pay attention and often when we’re at home we are so distracted by daily life we forget to look around us – when we travel somewhere new suddenly we ‘see’ stuff and start paying attention.

  5. Thank you for the great post, Clare and for the wonderful pictures! You ignited in me a desire to make a research travel for my books. For my first book, my travel was two kilometres away from where we live. To the apartment of my mother. I did expect often some mother-daughter conflicts instead of information for my book, which is inspired by my father’s story. Every time, I was surprised by new nuggets of very interesting information and we did have a lot of wonderful time researching in our memories about my father. Also the old photographs, which I thought I knew very well, provided me with ideas for great twists. I learned a lot about myself while writing about my father. And I am excited to discover my imagination while I write my next books. 🙂

  6. Although I’ve traveled for the almost-sole purpose of doing setting research (two weeks in San Francisco…love that city as a tourist, too), I try to find settings in the places I’ve actually lived. Since I’ve lived in a lot of places in Canada, Europe and Latin America, and since I’ve done tons of traveling for pleasure, I’ve no shortage of memories upon which to draw.

    I admire writers of historical fiction where setting is hugely important and so much research is required. I tire just thinking about all that research, but I can understand the fascination and passion that drives you.

    Perhaps one day I’ll write a story where setting is a character. So far I haven’t, and since I love new writing challenges, I may well do so. If I do, I’ll definitely pick an exotic (to me) place.

  7. Hi,

    I love Udaipur. I am so happy to hear that you will be setting your next novel in India. Wow! If you need any help, just hit me up. I am a proud and observant Indian. 🙂
    Best of luck on your novel and keep the great posts coming.


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