In January 2022 I interviewed Stephen Wade about the research he did for his fiction novel, The Lovers on Asphodel Way. The interview appeared in the #241 Feb 2022 issue of Writers’ Forum.
It is set on a Yorkshire building site of a new housing estate during 1972. The story encompasses the worries and fears of everyday life at this time. The Lovers on Asphodel Way is published by a new publisher called Inky Lab who are based in Newcastle. They have published four anthologies and my book is part of their new fiction list.
Most of his published books have been non-fiction and this one is fiction. Even so Steve revealed the research was basically the same, but in addition he had my own memories.
“Although I never took any photos at the time, luckily, on the main heritage site for the Leeds area, Leodis, I found houses and streets from all decades throughout the twentieth century. Imagining places has always been the first stage of my research, followed by tracking down objects, pictures, and of course, memoirs of times and places.”Steve Wade
After his first draft, he realised that there was a lot he still needed to know, especially since he had only been working as a labourer in his student years. He realised he couldn’t carry a hod, lay a brick or spread concrete on a drive and he needed facts about the men on the site and the women workers in the places around the site, in particular a corner shop and a working men’s club. he told me for the latter, he used the newspaper archive for the basic facts – the Times Digital Archive for the year 1972. he also accessed the Lancashire Library Service digital archive, after first joining the Lancashire Library. This provided all kinds of details, including costs.
He used family anecdotes about when his dad was a baker to help him create the atmosphere and find his character’s voices. Most helpful of all the sources was the memories of the man who ran the site – the gaffer – who knew his father, who bought back memories of the way he spoke and his overall attitudes. But again, people who knew him provided more detail.
Steve said discovering information about life doing Voluntary Services Overseas proved to be a challenge. In the end, he looked at some old archives from a woman who worked for the Women’s Volunteer Service in Korea, and he transmuted her work – arranging concerts and music – into his story, which (in one strand) concerns a father writing to a son in Africa which is a contrast between the lawlessness the father sees at home and the surprising civilised and progressive context in Africa, reported by the son. When Steve looked at some memories of people who had done VSO, he found the British view of Africa was still governed at that time by the distortions of the media.
“As for the use I made of the Korean material and the Women’s Voluntary Services, this was wonderful source material, because the woman whose archive I accessed had been a working-class Lincolnshire woman whose family had lived lives of great service (from being in the second world war to the Korean and then in the Middle East). Her letters home gave me the authentic feel of the period because she was still working abroad into the 1980s, mainly in Germany.”Steve Wade
Steve elaborated that these letters are the only ones that deal with the world well outside the Yorkshire village and people. He used them to make the exotic references more distinct and interesting, so the element of surprise and even shock in the letters from Africa gives the reader an element of the unexpected. It also has a modern resonance because the Africa depicted is not at all like author Joseph Conrad’s, or anything similar.
In the novel the writer of the letters in Yorkshire is a doctor, and he looks backwards in time for a kind of comfort, seeing the modern world as threatening, so he over-stresses the dangers he perceives around him as he writes his letters. The creation of his character proves how useful our own locality is because the model for him was a corner house in my own town, which had gradually been vandalised over a period of a few years.
Steve explained when doing research organisation is crucial. For his non-fiction he gathers all kinds of materials in folders, and relate the material to chapters, after first outlining the chapter content but for his fiction he revealed it was easier for him to put them in folders that roughly related to stages in the book.
“I tend to write fiction in passages and moods, short bursts. This relates to my fondness for notebooks and coffee shops. I tend to take my notebook somewhere beyond phones and doors, to somewhere where I will not be contacted, and then write a few pages. These pages then go into the folders for each stage as the story unfolds.”Steve Wade
He told me his oddest piece of research was for the working men’s club. Back then, these places really were old school and very ‘unwoke.’ There were snooker rooms and bars where women were not permitted. There was a male culture that thrived away from home. What I did was invent an old soldier who is full of stories, strange exaggerations, and make his recalling the past a satire on him. In other words, he is something of a grotesque. He comes out as a Python-type character.
His research tip for other writers is when you need to have authentic voices from the past, use the Old bailey Sessions Online. Here, dipping into any criminal trial between 1683-1913, who have the actual voices of ordinary people of all trades and places, to read – exactly as they spoke. Characters may be lifted from these very rich and fascinating trail transcripts.
Steve told me researching archives is particularly rewarding and surprising. He once found, in a pack of letters between mother and son, from way back in 1977, some pressed flowers and dried blood. The son had died on his way to take part in the Zulu War. The family history site is a wonderful resource because they have all kinds of previously hard to find court and prison records. The Ancestry site is also particularly useful.
You can discover more about Stephen Wade and his books on his website: www.stephen-wade.com
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