In another author interview flashback, I recount when Rebecca Smith told me she used photos and family history to write her saga, The Ash Museum, published by Legend Press. The interview appeared in my ‘Research Secrets slot of Writers’ Forum issue #234 Jul 2021.
The Ash Museum, is an intergenerational story of loss, migration and Rebecca’s search for somewhere to feel at home, inspired by people on her father’s side of the family and what happened to them. She follows their story for five generations and over one hundred years. The character, Emmeline Ash, was inspired by Rebecca’s great grandmother, Edith Hubback, who co-wrote Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers in 1906.
The Ash Museum is based on what happened to Edith Hubback and her children. Edith’s son, Rebecca’s grandfather, went to India as a tea planter in the 1930s. There he fell in love with and had four children with her grandmother who was Indian. Her grandfather was killed at The Battle of Kohima in 1944. After this happened, the English side of the family took over the care of the four children (including Rebecca’s father) and they were sent to a boarding school on the other side of India; they never saw their mother again.
“I have always wished I knew my paternal grandparents and great grandparents and particularly wanted to know more about my Indian grandmother, about whom we know very little. I wondered what it was like to be her, to have this English “husband” and then to lose him and her children.”Rebecca Smith
Rebecca’s character, Josmi, is based on what she imagined her grandmother to be like and is at the heart of her novel. In The Ash Museum, Emmie Ash (Josmi’s mixed-race granddaughter) wants to know more about Josmi, and this is one of the things that drives the plot. The novel is about the impact of this loss up and down the generations.
As part of her research Rebecca has collected hundreds of books that belonged to previous generations and she explained these were useful in creating characters and historical changes over the generations.
“We can tell so much by what people like to read. I have maps, books about rock climbing with my grandfather’s annotations, an atlas from the 1920s, and poetry, history, philosophy and most importantly, novels. There is a wealth of information to tap into.”Rebecca Smith
When it came to adding historical details to family meals, she used the only cookery book one of her great aunts had –Radiation Cookery Book: A Selection of Proved Recipes for Use with ‘New World’ ‘Regulo’- Controlled Gas Cookers (19th Edition, 1936). REbecca reckoned it must have come free with her stove. She recognised some of the things she used to cook when she visited and Rebecca tried cooking those and other things herself to get an understanding of the process and how they felt.
Inspired by her family’s history, she was planning to write lots about The Battle of Kohima where her character, James dies, so she read lots about it and watched documentaries, but in the end Rebecca decided to do things more from his ‘wife’ Josmi’s point of view and ended up with just one very short battle scene. She told me that a lot of her notes and links to articles and images were stored on her phone.
Rebecca explained when she started writing a cousin gave her boxes of family papers. The photos, particularly of when her great grandparents were in Canada, and when her grandfather was in India, were extremely useful. She also found her great grandmother’s diaries kept when her children were small invaluable because her grandmother, Edith Hubback, had recorded things that so many mothers do – funny things her children said and the dates of their first steps and other milestones.
“It was so moving reading these observations 100 years on and knowing what had happened to her children when they grew up.”Rebecca Smith
She elaborated that the photos showed how Edith had changed from being a beautiful young Edwardian in gorgeous dresses to looking quite broken in the 1940s after her son, my grandfather, had been killed. Rebecca wanted to capture that trajectory. Looking at photos of people and places over time to see how they have changed and traditions changed helped her to do this.
Another great research resource was when she was the writer in residence at Jane Austen’s House. She saw the way the curator (then Louise West) used objects to tell the story of Jane Austen and how much can be conveyed and evoked in an economical way and the importance of the visual in storytelling.
Rebecca told me as people walk around the museum, they learn Jane Austen’s story by looking at small things – a needle case made for a niece, Cassandra’s teapot, the quilt made by the Austen women, and of course the books and letters. this observation made her realise by using objects she could have strong threads in the novel without having to ‘tell everything’ that happened.
“I ended up using objects to structure the novel too – it is in the form of a visit to a museum. I plan around scenes and key images – that helps make the writing more manageable and the finished work (I hope) pacier and more memorable.”Rebecca Smith
Her tip to other writers who want to write a saga is to use your libraries. Librarians are a wealth of information and always pleased to help. she urges authors to make the most of their library card as it gives you access to wonderful resources, many of which you can use remotely so it does not matter where you live.
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