Saturday, January 15, 2011

Guest post from Julie K. Rose: A Sense of Place

Today Julie Rose, a regular blog visitor, is dropping by with a guest post about the power of place in historical fiction.  Her debut novel The Pilgrim Glass, a finalist in the 2005 Faulkner-Wisdom creative writing competition and semi-finalist in the 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards, slips back and forth between present-day and 12th-century Burgundy.  Jonas Flycatcher, an artisan hired to restore a stained glass window for the cathedral of Mary Magdalene in Vézelay, France, meets and falls in love with a woman who seems to be channeling a medieval pilgrim. 

Also, over the next couple of months on her blog, Julie will be offering a series of posts on historical fiction beyond the Tudor trend.  Welcome, Julie!


One of the great joys of reading historical fiction, for me, is not only the sense of another time that an outstanding writer can foster, but also a sense of place. It's a chance to be an armchair traveler – and like Doctor Who, good historical fiction helps you travel both in time and space.

For me, authors like Patrick O'Brian, Connie Willis, and Heather Domin do just that – you feel the oppressive openness of the ocean in O'Brian (how's that for unintended alliteration?), the wintery isolation of Willis' mediaeval Oxfordshire, the sun-baked Roman courtyard in Domin's novel. As an author, it's a unique challenge. It's difficult enough to capture the feeling, the soul, of a place in modern times, never mind imagining what it would have been like 200, 600, 1,000 years ago.

Capturing a sense of the great basilica at Vézelay – both past and present - was the genesis of my novel The Pilgrim Glass. My husband and I visited France in November 2002, traveling to Burgundy and Paris. He was a budding oenophile, and I had always had an affinity for France (I suppose seven years of school French will do that to you). We'd had a lovely time in Beaune and the Côte d'Or and, on our rainy drive back to Paris, decided to stop off in Vézelay on a whim.

It was bitterly cold that day – well, bitterly cold to a couple of Californians. The town was mostly empty, and we drove our rental car up the narrow, winding street and parked right under the shadow of the massive Romanesque basilica. We were the only people there, and the silvery light from the clear windows made it feel both more lonely and more awesome (in both the old and new senses of the word). We explored the crypt below the altar, and the cloisters, and the park. We read the stories of the capitals and the tympanum, and admired the last of the roses clinging to the garden wall.

I wanted to know all about this place, the starting point for so many mediaeval pilgrimages to Compostela. What did it feel like to stand, alone, in that great echoing space hundreds of years before? What was buried under rubble and centuries? Who else stood in that spot, what did they think, did they see the same things I did, feel the same things? What was it like when the light was golden, and not silvery? What was it like to know only how to read the capitals in the church, and not words on a page?

Historical fiction allows us to suggest answers to these questions, to travel both in time and space. I hope the novel conveys a sense of this lyrical village on a hill, both in the present and in the past. I hope, through Jonas, I've conveyed the awe and wonder I felt in the great cathedral that cold morning in early November.


Julie K. Rose is a regular reviewer for the Historical Novels Review and has published short stories in a variety of speculative fiction publications. She is also an art history buff, mandolin mangler, mystic poetry lover, terrible singer, history lover, and wanderlust-addled bleeding heart liberal. The Pilgrim Glass, her first novel, is available now at Amazon (trade pb or Kindle) and at B&N.  For more details, see Julie's web site.


  1. " What was it like to know only how to read the capitals in the church, and not words on a page?"

    That is the essence of challenge for the historical novelist.

    Also understanding that the texture of the lustre of the place would be different when the light was the golden spill of late summer rather than the silver shimmer of early winter.

    Though this year I'm living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, my home is in Manhattan. It's a most excellent place to contemplate such issues, as I learned my very first days there which were in summer. I had gotten my first temp job, working in a law firm. I immediately pulled overtime due to an emergency court filing deadline. As I emerged from the subway into the -- in those days, not now -- dead neighborhood after ten pm, the street light sparkled on the flecks of glass here and there on the sidewalk. It could be snow or ice, and, I realized, it will be snow and ice I see right here some months down the year. I knew I already lived in NYC and was not merely inhabiting some of its space.

    Love, C.

  2. I loved this post, Julie. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective! Can't wait to check out your work :)

  3. @Foxessa That was lovely!

    @Rebecca Thank you so much!

  4. I love historical fiction in which the sense of place is so well done that I feel like I am there. My favorite book for location is Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doeblin. The action takes place around the Alex and Rosenthal Plaze in 1929 Berlin. I went to the library and got a 1928 tourist map of Berlin and traced the whole novel on it. My favorite line from the book is "The Rosental Plaze amuses itself" which sounds better in German.
    Thanks was a great post and I look forward to the future ones on hostorical fiction.

  5. @Alex - I love that you got a map out to follow the story! Nowadays, I love digging into a current location using Google Maps or Google Earth as well, but those old maps and photos are so amazing.

  6. Oh I completely agree with you... it is great to immerse myself into a great historical fiction... love going back to a different time and place. For example, I just finished reading Aileen G. Baron's latest book in her Lily Sampson series (3rd book) titled, "The Scorpion's Bite." The story plot is set in the Middle East during WW II... it was a fascinating read.