Thursday, January 06, 2011

Essay by Katharine McMahon: "Those Haunting Places"

Please help me welcome Katharine McMahon to Reading the Past today.  She has contributed a wonderful, thought-provoking essay on the power of place in her novels.  I think the last paragraph will speak to many of us, whether we're writers or readers of historical fiction (or both).


I have a friend called Charonne who has become my official companion on expeditions into the past. Picture us, half a decade ago, in the Ukraine - the Crimean Peninsula to be precise which is on the opposite side of the Black Sea to Turkey - on the site of the infamous battle of Balaklava (Charge of the Light Brigade fame), so cold we could hardly stand up, listening to the guide telling us that all would have been much better for the Russian army if their general had possessed a ‘mep’ (map) of the terrain. This was research for The Rose of Sebastopol, a novel set during the Crimean War of 1854, which follows the fictional adventures of one of Florence Nightingale’s would-be nurses.

The point is, I can’t write about a place unless I’ve been there. There are few things in life more exciting than visiting a place that has become part of my fictional landscape. By the time I visited Balaklava, I’d half written the book. If anything, the Crimea was even more evocative and haunting than I’d imagined. Since the Crimean War, other armies had trampled through, not least the Nazis, and Balaklava Harbour had been the secret hiding place for the Cold War Russian submarine fleet. Standing in that icy wind, understanding the lie of the land, and the sheer horror of camping out on such exposed plains - with inadequate equipment and all the great coats drowned in the harbour - added a deal of poignancy to that novel.

The Crimson Rooms was less tricky to research location-wise. I chose a little town where my family has always begun its country walks. I wanted the site of the murder (central to the plot), to be within reach of the city, but in a secluded place, and I knew just the spot. One blazing hot summer day my husband, daughter and I went on the murder walk, and paced out the logistics of the killing. And in the book you’ll find just such a baking hot day, just such potential for violence amidst a tranquil rural landscape. There are other landscapes in The Crimson Rooms straight out of my own past (though I would like to stress that the book is set in 1924 and I am not that old). The Wheelers set up their marital home in a place called Wealdstone, which is a late Victorian suburb of London, on the overground line and therefore accessible for those late nineteenth century commuters. My mother was brought up near there, and I use to live in a similar little terrace house when I was first married. And then there’s Evelyn Gifford’s much grander house in Maida Vale. Now these days, the model for that house belongs to a very dear friend of mine and it’s slap up to date. I transposed the past on it, so that Evelyn’s house is dark and run down and full of old, dusty things - and people. This is a London book, and the characters have tea in cafes and tramp the London parks. Mapping the city, following Evelyn’s footfall, was part of finding the plot. The past hovers just beyond the modern city.

As I write, I can feel my fingers tingling. This is why I write and read historical fiction. It’s like when a modern painting has covered over an old masterpiece. Scrape away the surface, and there’s something wholly different underneath. But it was always there, so even in the modern world, the past lurks.


The Crimson Rooms was published in trade pb by Berkley on January 4th at $15.  In the UK, it's available from Phoenix at £7.99. My review is here, if you missed it.  The Rose of Sebastopol is out in paperback from Berkley ($15.00) and Phoenix (£7.99).  At her blog, Katharine McMahon is recording the progress of her upcoming novel about the French Revolution.  Her official website is


  1. Katharine is one of my favourite modern authors, i've read all her books. loved The Crimson Rooms but I think my favourite is Footsteps. Marvellous evocative writing that consumes every hour until the book is finished and severely diminishes the time i spend writing my own.
    thank you for this


  2. Wonderful post, and so true--those places steeped in history (and what places aren't?) spark the imagination and ask such brilliant questions--one can't help but want to know more! Thanks for this evocoative essay, Ms. McMahon--and thanks for posting, Sarah!

  3. thank you for the essay.

    I am reading Footsteps at the moment and am loving it.

    I do love to read about somewhere I have visited and read more about history that is there to be told.


  4. This was a wonderful essay. I love books where I can really feel the time and place as though they for also characters. I am going t have to read some Katharine McMahon.