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Books set in an international locale

By Jonathan Posner
February 20, 2024

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” That was L.P. Hartley’s opening line for his 1953 novel The Go-Between. And he has a point – the social norms of even the recent past are so substantially different from those of our modern day, that the past is truly a ‘foreign country’.

So imagine what fun it must be for an author to set their novel not only in the past, but in a historical foreign country as well. How much more research do they have to do, to understand both the time and the place?

Before I explore how other authors have approached this, please indulge me. I must mention that this is a particularly relevant issue for me – as my next book The River of Fire will be set mainly in Italy in 1536-38. Which is why I am currently looking into a trip to modern-day Italy – and specifically to two places. The first is Bologna, which I am assured has a lot of well-preserved medieval buildings that will give me a clear picture of 16th century Italian architecture. The second is Pozzuoli near Naples, which is the location of Monte Nuovo, a 120 metre+ mountain created by a volcanic eruption in 1538 in just one week. I need to place my heroine Mary Fox there during the volcanic event. Hopefully the trip will give me enough local knowledge to make Mary’s adventures in Italy feel real – or at least authentic!

But enough of me – on to other authors.

The absolute master of the international historical novel is George Macdonald Fraser. His eponymous hero, the Victorian adventurer Harry Flashman, has adventures in the USA (which is a foreign land from where I’m sitting), as well as China, Germany, Russia, Borneo, Madagascar, Afghanistan, Africa and India – to name but a few. Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not recommending you rush out and get hold of a copy of Flashman or any of the other books in the series. Harry Flashman is a truly vile character – a liar, cheat, cad, coward, misogynist, racist and bully – all the things we love to hate in a Victorian ‘gentleman’. By today’s standards, he is totally unacceptable; someone you wouldn’t just cross the street to avoid – you’d scarper into the next county. Yet, Macdonald Fraser sends him all over the world, and slots him into pretty much every major event of the 19th century, neat as ninepence. From the Charge of the Light Brigade to the Indian Mutiny; from the raid on Harpers Ferry to the siege of Cawnpore, and from the retreat from Kabul to the Boxer rebellion, Flashman is there, egging on the real people from the sidelines. And in each story, Macdonald Fraser brings the landscape and the natives to life in the most brilliant way – so you feel you’re really there. The fact you’re there alongside such a deeply unpleasant anti-hero is just collateral damage. I can honestly say that all the Victorian-era world history I have learned has come from reading these books – and I’ve since understood just how surprisingly accurate it is.

But let’s move on to more sympathetic characters. I am fortunate to be a Paper Lantern Writer, standing in awe of my excellent writing colleagues who set their books in international places. Of course, for some of the US Lanterns, Britain is a foreign land, and I am constantly impressed with just how well-researched their settings are.

Edie Cay’s When the Blood is Up series of British Regency novels are a case in point – perfectly set in London and the home counties as if written by a long-time resident. Alina Rubin’s Hearts and Sails series is another example. Set in London, Newcastle, Plymouth and at sea, her books evoke the sense of time and place brilliantly. Jillianne Hamilton’s Homefront Hearts series is seamlessly set in England during World War 2, and C.V. Lee’s Roses & Rebels series is an excellently researched saga set on the island of Jersey in the late 15th century.

Then there are the Lanterns who set their books in places I would call ‘international’. Rebecca D’Harlingue takes us to Amsterdam in the 1660s in her novel The Map Colorist and Spain in 1661 in The Lines Between Us.  Michal Strutin goes all the way to the biblical past in Judging Noa, and Vanitha Sankaran goes back to 14th century France in Watermark.

Let me end with a small plug for the blog I’ll be posting this Friday; my Words with a Wordsmith interview with a Scottish author, V.E.H.Masters. I’ll keep my powder dry on her books, but sufficient to say they are set in various 16th century European locations. Please do check it out on Friday.

My final thought? It’s kudos to all the writers who have the dedication, energy and expertise to research not only the past, but also a foreign past as well. If my Italian setting feels half as real as they make their locations, I’ll be one happy writing bunny.

Jonathan Posner

Written by Jonathan Posner

Jonathan writes action and adventure novels set in Tudor England, with fiesty female heroines. He has a trilogy that starts with a modern-day girl time-travelling back to the 16th century, as well as a spin-off series (one book so far, with the next due in 2023), and also a prequel.

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3 Comments

  1. C.V. Lee

    Sounds like a marvelous trip and will definitely help make that setting feel more real.

    Reply
  2. Anne M Beggs

    So many places to travel in books.

    Reply
  3. Anne M Beggs

    And, yikes, have a GREAT in Italy! Italia no ka oi!

    Reply

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