In any writing project, no matter what genre it is, I believe the most important part is the bit that comes first – the research. But where do you find the information you need and once you have gathered it how do you use it in your book? In my Research Secrets column in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum I ask top authors to share their research tips.
In January 2009, I interviewed Julia Jarman about the how her research inspires her children’s novels. She often mixes genres, but history is usually part of this mix. Julia’s inspiration for her novels tends to come from her historical research. But, there is nothing that fires up her imagination like a good artefact. She likes to hold and feel an item.
Julia Jarman has written over twenty children’s novels and picture books for Anderson Press, including Peace Weavers and the Time-Travelling Cat series. The Roman Eagle is the third book in the Time-Travelling Cat series.
“First, I have an idea, such as when I wanted to write a time-travelling cat book about the Romans. I had written other books in the series on the Egyptians and the Tudors but, the Romans have always fascinated me. I remembered someone had told me about Calleva Atrebatum, the deserted Roman town near Silchester, where the Roman wall still exists. I did some research on the Internet and then went to visit it. I found out many of the artefacts they had found during excavations were in Reading Museum. I went to Reading Museum to see some of the artefacts that were unearthed by the Victorian archaeologists.” Julia Jarmin
Julia had read of a Roman tile with a cat’s paw print embedded into it and came across a similar tile at Reading Museum from Calleva. She found out when the tiles were turned out of their moulds, they were left to dry before being fired in a kiln. They must have been left to dry on the ground because many have been found with footprints of people and animals that walked across them. A cat had walked across this tile while the clay was still soft. It must have been made by one of the first domestic cats in Britain, bought over by the Romans. This is the point she knew she wanted Ka, the time-travelling cat from her stories, to have made this paw print.
Whilst looking around the museum, she also came across a cast bronze figure of an eagle which inspired her. The wings of this bronze eagle were missing but, they would have been outstretched as shown on the book cover of the Time-travelling Cat and The Roman Eagle. The historians think, because of the way the bird’s claws were rounded, it was clutching an orb. It is believed that the eagle was probably part of a larger figure of an emperor or a god.
This set her imagination to work and a whole load of what if… questions started whirring in her head. What if… it was part of a staff used at the forum at Calleva and what if… this important symbol had been stolen by one of the tribesman.
“This is the way I work. I have a loose story idea then I see the artefacts and then I start to do some firm plotting. But, I don’t let the facts tie me down. I use them as a launch pad for my imagination. It is not so much what the object is, it is what it can be; it is the possibilities.” Julia Jarman
Again for Peace Weavers, she had her initial idea when she visited a school on an American airbase in East Anglia, where they had uncovered an Anglo Saxon burial ground during a recent archaeological dig. She was particularly interested to find out more about an Anglo Saxon warrior, buried with his sword, shield and horse. On the cover of the hardback, the bottom half of the picture shows these skeletons.
At the same time they found the skeleton of a very tall woman nearby, hers was the tallest skeleton uncovered and her jewellery was very different from that of the other skeletons. This started Julia wondering about her and her jewellery and what sort of life she had.
“All stories are a mix of real life and imagination. You prime your imagination by asking yourself questions. I do my research at the beginning and if I need to know anything else I do more research. I don’t have a system but I just try to immerse myself in the subject. I just to love find things out, but once I’ve found my story I’m eager to get writing.” Julia Jarman
The librarian on the base introduced her to West Stow, a reconstructed Anglo Saxon village. In this village, the houses have been rebuilt complete with authentic style furniture and cooking utensils. Visitors can go into the houses, smell the wood smoke, feel the solid wood and imagine living in early Anglo-Saxon times. At certain times of the year, the village is used by groups of costumed Saxons who bring it to life with demonstrations of textiles, weaving, basket making and cooking.
Julia went to experience the food, the music and the atmosphere and it was there she found and bought replicas of the sleeve clasp and the brooch.
“I like to have something tangible in my hand to inspire me. Holding them was better than the pictures and an added bonus is they are good for showing on school visits. These artefacts engaged my imagination. The sleeve clasp in particular is key to my plot.” Julia Jarman
You can read the full interview in the January 2009 #88 issue of Writers Forum.
For more information about Julia Jarman and her books see her website: www.juliajarman.com where she shares her Writing Recipe for cooking up stories.