Category Archives: Research Secrets

An Interview with… Francesca Capaldi Burgess

I have been told about such a wide range of resources that writers have used over the years I have been doing my Research Secrets slots in the national writing magazine Writers Forum. Resources are a writer’s best friend when researching for your writing and everybody has their own unique resource bank.

Francesca Capaldi writes short stories for anthologies and national women’s magazines such as My Weekly and The People’s Friend. In the October issue of Writers’ Forum she told me how she has gathered together a large selection of social history books, many secondhand, for her historical based research.

Research books

She explained books are not the only resources she turns to again and again. When researching locations her research always involves a map and sticking it on her whiteboard.

Old map Littlehampton

Francesca revealed:

“Back in my youth I did a history degree and discovered that there’s nothing better than first hand research, and even better if you’re using primary sources. I used to love sitting in the records’ office, wading through a census or tithe map, gathering information not necessarily found in a book. I love social history, that of ordinary, everyday folk.” Francesca Capaldi Burgess

Some other resources she talks about in the feature are: Google Maps, town websites, Pinterest, libraries, museums, local archives,, newspapers, teh met office and documentaries. She said:

“If I’m at a talk or watching a documentary, I always take copious notes as I find I remember the details better. I also jot down ideas as I go along.”  Francesca Capaldi Burgess

Danger For Daisy by F Capaldi coverHer pocket novel for My Weekly, Danger for Daisy, came out on January 2019. It is about the newly single Daisy Morgan who is excited about celebrating her first Christmas away from home with her extrovert flatmates. Then she meets intriguing university lecturer Seth, who offers a completely alternative Christmas – an archaeological dig on a secluded island. As she gets to know the diverse bunch of people working on Sealfarne, and romance blossoms with Seth, she begins to enjoy her adventure. But a series of bizarre occurrences convince her all is not as it seems, and there may even be murder involved…

To read the complete interview check out the #216 Oct 2019 issue of Writers Forum.

You can follow Francesca on Facebook @FrancescaCapaldiAuthor or on twitter @FCapaldiBurgess

An interview with… Simon Whaley

In my Research Secrets column in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum this month #215 Sep 2019, I interview Simon Whaley about the research he does for his magazine articles.

Simon Whaley 2

Simon told me:

“What I love about research is the plethora of ideas for potential articles that it generates. You can be researching about one thing, and then come across one small fact that triggers an idea for an entirely different article, for an entirely different market.”

Simon Whaley

He said he uses a program called Evernote to store and organise all his research as it enables him to ‘tag’ notes. He often tags notes with useful contacts, the types of activity, such as event, attraction, tourist, walk and also with the locations such as county, country, towns and villages. This means when he searches something such as Walks and Shropshire it will bring up every note with those tags no matter which project he originally collected the information for.

Simon explained he always makes written notes when researching his articles, even if he has his Dictaphone switched on while interviewing someone. He explained he was once commissioned to undertake a walking route for Country Walking magazine when they discovered he wrote all his routes down in a notebook. The staff writer had dictated the route description into their smartphone, only to discover when they got back to the office four hours later that their smartphone had failed to record. You don’t have that problem writing in a notebook.

He labels all his notebooks and they in turn are an excellent resource.

(c) Simon Whaley

Simon’s notebooks

Simon told me how he had to endure a luxury overnight stay at Weston Park, home of the Earl of Bradford. Not only did he have to experience a 5-course meal sat at the same table used by the Heads of State when the G8 summit was held there, but he also had the opportunity to interview the Head Butler and the Head Gardener.

Photo of Graeme Currie, the Head Butler at Weston Park

Photo of Graeme Currie, the Head Butler at Weston Park (c) Simon Whaley

He said he finds his written notes invaluable when he comes to write his articles. He also takes lots of photographs, which he can refer to.

I take photos of everything: information panels, pages inside books, entry fee panels, accommodation rooms I stay in … everything! How many windows on the ground floor at the front of Weston Park? Eight. (I have a photo.) Which Heads of State were at the G8 summit at Weston Park? Clinton, Kohl, Chretien, Santer, Blair, Chirac, Hashimoto, Prodi and Yeltsin. (I have the photo.)

Simon Whaley

Commemmorating the G8 summit visit to Weston Park on 16th May 19

Photo of the Heads of State signatures at the G8 summit at Weston Park (c) Simon Whaley

Simon’s research tip was to take photographs of the information panels as it is the best way to capture all the details and you can read it at your leisure when you get home.

You can find out more about Simon Whaley and his writing on his website:


Twitter: @simonwhaley


An interview with… Michael Rosen

I interviewed Michael Rosen about the research he does for his writing in 2009, when he was children’s laureate . 

Michael Rosen WBD 08 (84 of 147)

He explained when researching, he uses a mixture of the British Library, Internet, newspapers, Cecil Sharp Library and the state library of Melbourne (re Cuffay). He often starts with Google and goes from there. He revealed he often uses Carpenter’s Oxford Guide to Children’s Literature as a starting point.

Michel Rosen told me:

“In phase one of your research, you should allow yourself to be distracted by anything and everything that you discover. In Phase Two, you have to be ruthless and only stick with the subject in hand, or you’ll never finish the work.”

Michael Rosen

There is no pattern to the way he researches. He said he usually puts everything he discovers either physically into piles in his office, or log it into the computer. He likes to follow his nose – let one thing lead to another.

“Asking ‘what if’ and speculating are two important research techniques to discover a coherent narrative and ear-catching moments.”

Michael Rosen

In one of his ‘following his nose moments’ he discovered  museums in Britain kept the heads (or at least one head) of aboriginals who had been killed. Michael Rosen used this idea in You’re Thinking about Tomatoes when the protagonists hear the sound of bubbles and wheezing, and when they get to see what’s going on, it’s the head of an aboriginal man talking to them.

You’re Thinking about Tomatoes  and You’re Thinking about Doughnuts are two books that explore how things we see today, a museum and a stately home, owe their appearance and exhibits to aspects of the past.

You can find out more about Michael Rosen and his children’s books on his website:

An interview with… Ally Sherrick

In my Research Secrets column in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum this month #214 Aug 2019, I interview Ally Sherrick about the research she did to weave mythology into WWII historical events for her children’s adventure book, The Buried Crown.

BC Cover Final HR

Ally Sherrick set her story at the Sutton Hoo site,  where the famous early 7th century longship burial and grave of what is believed to be Redwald, King of the East Angles and High King of Britain was discovered in 1939 on the eve of the outbreak of war. The ship contained grave goods ranging from humble domestic items such as cups and buckets to some of the most stunning treasures ever discovered in northern Europe. Many of the most precious items, including the famous Sutton Hoo helmet, shield and sword belt, are decorated with dragons which the Anglo-Saxons believed liked nothing better than to sit beneath burial mounds jealously guarding treasure hoards.

Buckle replica

This was the inspiration for her idea of a story about a dragon-headed crown based during WWII. Ally told me:

A sense of place is very important to me in my writing, both as a source of inspiration, and also as a character. I had visited the burial mounds and museum at Sutton Hoo, run by the National Trust, a number of years ago, but of course, once I started writing my story, I knew I would have to go again. And I was keen to revisit Woodbridge, where George meets Kitty and where her granddad’s museum – loosely based on Woodbridge Museum – is located.

Her novel is full of realistic descriptions of what it was like for a child to be a refugee during WWII. She did extensive research into the Jewish child refugees who travelled to Britain on the Kindertransports. She was also inspired by the stories her dad use to tell her about what it was like to be parted from his family and sent to live in the countryside.

Ally Sherrick

As the story is set in rural Suffolk, Ally wanted to be sure to try and capture elements of the local accent for characters like Bill Jarvis, the cruel farmer George lodges with. Ally explained this involved listening to recordings of Suffolk voices on the internet and identifying little idiosyncrasies of pronunciation which would give a flavour of the difference in speech between Londoners George and Charlie and the Suffolk-based characters.  For example for words with ‘ing’ endings, Bill Jarvis will always say ‘en’ instead.

Though all the German characters in the Buried Crown speak English pretty fluently, Ally did have them use German phrases at certain moments for emphasis or added drama. She told me that even though she does not speak German herself, she was able to run things past a good friend who is German, and her publisher, Chicken House, also had this double-checked too.

Ally said:

I am extremely grateful to everyone who helped me with checking the various elements of my story. Some of them were acquaintances, but others I approached via museums or special interest societies, the contact details for which I sourced from the internet. All were more than happy to help, and I know the book is more authentic as a result. As I say in the acknowledgements, all errors are my own! 

Ally’s tip for other writers is to follow your curiosity wherever it may lead you. She found it added extra dimensions and layers to her novel.

You can read the full interview in the August 2019 #214 issue of Writers Forum.

You can find out more about Ally Sherrick and her books on her website: and follow her on Twitter: @ally_sherrick

An interview with…Ana Johns

In my Research Secrets column in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum this month #213 Jul 2019, I interview Ana Johns about the research she did for her novel, The Woman in the White Kimono. This novel can be described as Romeo and Juliet meets Madam Butterfly.

Kimono High Res Cover (002)

The main protagonist is a twenty-first century investigative reporter who embarks on the most personal story of her life. She is trying to discover the truth about a woman with whom her father had a forbidden relationship with more than a half century ago. As her father’s secret past unfolds, the truth will reveal as much about him as about the woman and baby he left behind. 

Ana Johns feature2

Ana told me that she worked backward, borrowing heavily from her father’s life, his ship, his military records, his cancer, and forward using her imagination by asking, “what if?” What if they preceded with the wedding without her parent’s blessing?  What if she were pregnant? To answer those questions, she studied 1950s international marriage and birth registry laws for the United States, Japan, and the military. Ana told me all the information was attainable online.

She explained:

This is where search engines are a writer’s best friend, even if you don’t know where to look for specific records, a single query will provide several links that point you in the needed direction. These sources, along with countless articles on the bureaucratic red tape those laws created, provided the working story structure for my dual narratives—the bones if you will. Ana Johns

Ana told me that she found internet articles and blogs invaluable but it was the real-life connections she made through various Japanese Facebook groups and military forums that gave the novel real authenticity.

Through the forum, the adoptees invited me to join their private Facebook community (again, I can’t stress the importance of these groups) where I was then invited to attend the first US Elizabeth Saunders Home reunion in San Diego on Shelter Island where the US statue of The Girl with Red Shoes stands for informal face-to-face interviews. Ana Johns

Girl With Red Shoes CA

The adoptees also inspired several of the character’s backstories that Naoko meets in a maternity home.

“Jin is somewhat lucky. At least she only battled one demon.”

My heart drops. Tears follow. Their moisture floods my fingertips and seeps through. That is why she took Jin under her wing. Stood up for her. Mothered her. I didn’t know. I didn’t guess. I didn’t ask.

“So, you see?” Her lips pull high and her shaky words fight to work through them. “When my child asks his or her new parents, ‘Why was I given away? Where did I come from?’ They won’t have a wedding story of magical lights and forbidden love to share. They will have nothing to offer, because with a story as horrible as mine, I have nothing to leave.”

“You leave life, Hatsu.” I slide close, wrapping her in my arms and whisper through tears. “You leave life.”

Extract from The Woman in the White Kimono by Ana Johns

Ana revealed that even the fictional outcast village where Naoko and Hajime rent a home was based on a discovered headline “Google crosses line with controversial old Tokyo maps”

It’s not the run-down little house that causes my alarm, but the community. It’s in a region that houses Eta, outcasts. The Burakumin are at the bottom of the social order. They are poor, some of mixed blood, and work necessary trades of death: butchers, leather tanners, undertakers. Therefore, they’re deemed tainted, unclean and unlucky.

I am the unlucky one.

My family will forbid it. To live here would damage Father’s reputation and Taro’s prospects to earn one.

Extract from The Woman in the White Kimono by Ana Johns

The novel may have begun with Ana’s father’s story, but through her diligent research it evolved into a story that belongs to many.

You can read the full interview in the July 2019 #213 issue of Writers Forum.

You can find more information about Ana Johns and her writing at:

An interview with… Jennifer Rees

To commemorate the centenary of women police force in the Metropolitan Police Jennifer Rees and her co-author Robert J Strange have written a fascinating and enlightening non-fiction book, Voices from the Blue: The Real Lives of Policewomen (100 Years of Women in the Met) .

Voices from the Blue cover

I interviewed Jenny Rees for my Research Secrets column in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum. Jenny explained how archives were a great source of inspiration for their research. The National Archives hold many of the historical files for the Metropolitan Police. There was also the Metropolitan Police Archives in Camden, which hold the judicial histories of London and the London law courts.


Jenny told me:

“Researching through the eras from those at the start of women in the Metropolitan Police to the complete assimilation of women into full integration with their male counterparts in 1973/4. The roles of women changed, they were expected to work alongside the men and deal with an increasing diversity of roles and crimes.” Jennifer Rees

Voices from the Blue tells the story of the hundred years of service of female police officers within the Metropolitan Police through the voices of the women who fought their way towards equality and won the respect of both their colleagues and the public. The authors have interviewed hundreds of former and serving policewomen and with the co-operation of the Metropolitan Police and the Women’s Police Association now have access to the files and stories of thousands of former officers who served over the past hundred years. Those police archives, together with material held by the National Archives and private libraries, provide a detailed and fascinating oral history of the challenges women police officers faced down the years.

Jenny explained:

“Context was the key factor for us. If the historical research brought context to the stories in a particular chapter we used them, but we were critical of each piece of research we used. Some were essential and made it into the finished version of the book, others unfortunately went by the wayside as we had a publisher word count constraint.” Jennifer Rees

You can read the full interview in the May 2019 #212 issue of Writers Forum.

You can follow Jennifer Rees and Voices from the Blue on Twitter @Namkha211

An interview with… Nicola Davis

For my Research Secrets, column in February 2009, I interviewed children’s natural history book writer, Nicola Davis.


Nicola’s skill is writing narrative non-fiction in a way young children will understand. She has written several books in the Walker Read and Wonder series, including Big Blue Whale, One Tiny Turtle and Ice Bear. She has also written science books for older children, including Poo a Natural History of the Unmentionable, Extreme Animals and Who’s Eating You – a book about parasites.


“I love my subject so research is a pleasure. Also, research gives me ideas for HOW to approach a subject, as well as providing the WHAT part. Writing a book makes you ask two questions: What am I going to write and HOW am I going to write it. Research a BIT to give you some of the WHAT of your book; then write an outline to give you the HOW, which will help you generate the right questions to ask to get all the rest of the WHAT.” Nicola Davis

Nicola has spent most of her life studying animals in one way or another so she is aware research doesn’t fall into a particular category. Much of the material that goes into her books is stuff she already knows. She explains she just needs to top up some of her general knowledge with a bit of Googling and library work.

She tries not to write about animals or habitats that she hasn’t seen but her work as a wildlife researcher, tour guide and TV presenter in all sorts of places certainly helps. She has visited animals in Newfoundland, Alaska, Kenya, Madagascar, Australia, Tobago – much of that time she is sailing on board various sorts of boats from 25 foot wooden sail boats to cruise ships. 

“I often use New Scientist and other more specialised scientific journals, plus a large library of zoological reference on my own shelves. It depends entirely on the project….For Ice Bear I knew most of the polar bear stuff but wanted more about polar bears and Inuit culture and both books and Internet were good for that. For Extreme Animals I collected likely material from trawling New Scientist and other journals for about six months before I put the book together.” Nicola Davis

Her aim is to show children that science isn’t a stone tablet… so if there is controversy over something, or an area where we just don’t know, she strongly believes it’s exciting, interesting and VITAL to say so.

Some information is simply too big and complex for young children. They need a background of other knowledge to understand it. Nicola’s text may not be able to deliver all of the tricky concepts, but it can, by subtle suggestion and association, prepare their minds to receive it later. For example, bat echolocation is fabulously complex, making use of frequency modulation and Doppler Effect in ways that science is only just beginning to fully understand. This is way too much for a young child, but the essence of the idea can be carried very simply:

“…bat shouts as she flies, louder than a hammer blow, higher than a squeak. She beams her voice around like a torch, and the echoes come singing back. They carry a sound picture of all her voice has touched.” (Nicola Davis from Bat Loves the Night, Walker Books 2001, page 14

It isn’t the whole story, but it’s true, accurate and lays the right foundation. Also and perhaps more importantly, it gives a feeling, an atmosphere of what is going on during echolocation; it imparts to the reader a basic emotional understanding of the facts.

You can read the full interview in the February 2009 #89 issue of Writers Forum.

You can find more information about Nicola Davis, her books and her writing at: