Category Archives: Research Secrets

An interview with… Julia Jarman

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

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.

Julia explained:

“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.

Time travelling cat

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.

Peacewvrscover

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.

An interview with… Shahed Saleem

For my Research Secrets column this month I talk to Shahed Saleem about the in-depth research he did in the British mosque for his debut non-fiction book.

Shaded Saleem feature 1

This book presents the first overview of Muslim architecture in Britain, from the earliest examples in the late 19th century, to mosques being built today. Key architectural stages are identified and explained alongside the social history of Muslim settlement and growth. The mosques Shahed has written about represent a cross-section of the diversity of the Muslim population in Britain, and the types of mosque buildings that exist.

The British Mosque cover

Shahed explained:

“My core research methods for each mosque were building visits, oral histories, planning records and local history libraries.” Shahed Saleem

Gaining information from archive drawings was possible because of his background as an architect. Through planning records he could follow discussions and negotiation that took place around the design of the building. But his most informative primary source for researching was visiting each mosque and its surrounding area.

His research tip is to have a core research method you can use as a template for your particular project and then use more flexible methods around this which can be improvised depending on what you find out from that particular study.

To find out more about Shahed and his architecture practice take a look at www.makespace.co.uk 

Or follow him on Twitter @makespace_

An interview with… Stephen Potts

In Dec 2008, I interviewed award-winning screenwriter and novelist, Stephen Potts, about the research he did for his books and screenplay adaptations.

Pullman and Potts

(c) Stephen Potts

In 2007, he was commissioned to adapt Philip Pullman’s 1992 novel of doomed teenage romance, The Butterfly Tattoo, as a feature film. It was directed by Phil Hawkins. The film toured festivals in 2008, winning several awards (including Best Adaptation at the New York Independent Film Festival), and reaching 75 on IMDb’s moviemeter, before a US/UK cinema. The DVD was released in 2009.

BT DVD

Stephen told me:

“I’m aware I write visually (hence my interest in screenwriting). Unless I see a scene in my head I can’t write it.” Stephen Potts

He does not have a set method for research as he believes it should be appropriate to the task. It was interesting to discover that adapting The Butterfly Tattoo didn’t require visits to Oxford, where it’s set, as he had lived there for eight years. But it did require him to read and re-read the book, every interview Pullman had given where it was discussed, and every review of the book he could find.

Stephen explained:

“The questions here, in adaptation, were different: what was Pullman trying to achieve? What was the essence of the story? What are the inessential features, which could be changed to fit the different form of a feature film?” Stephen Potts

Stephen emphasised how the temptation, when you’ve invested time, money and effort in your research, and you’ve unearthed interesting nuggets, is to crowbar it all in to what you’re writing. He revealed he had to tell himself repeatedly that he was not writing history, but a story. If a piece of information served a story purpose, and was interesting to boot, all well and good: but he was adamant that the story must never serve as a showcase for More Interesting Facts.

“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” William Faulkner

Stephen Potts has been nominated twice for the Carnegie Medal (Hunting Gumnor, 2000; Tommy Trouble, 2001) and short-listed for the inaugural Branford-Boase Award (Hunting Gumnor, 2000) and Askews Prize (Compass Murphy, 2002).

You can read the full interview in the December 2008 #87 issue of Writers Forum. You can find out more about Stephen Potts and his books on his website.

An interview with… Sally Piper

Australian writer, Sally Piper told me all about her research into fear for my Research Secrets column in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum this month. She revealed that as a solo woman bushwalker she often felt afraid and wanted to know where this fear came from.

Sally Piper2

When I first found out about this I thought Fear was a very strange thing to want to research. Where do you start? Sally Piper started by reading memoirs of other female walkers and discovered how women self-limit their free movement because of real and perceived risks, which can cause themselves to live smaller lives.

“Fear… is born of a story we tell ourselves.” Robyn Davidson

This discovery inspired her to write her novel, The Geography of Friendship.

geography of friendship high resHer novel is about female friendships under pressure and is based loosely on the national park, Wilsons Promontory in Victoria, Australia where she had played as a child. But she had to deconstruct the landscape a bit to fit her purposes.

Ultimately it was inevitable that to really feel the fear she was going to have to do the walk herself. So to really understand what it was like to walk the Prom she undertook the 5 day hike alone noting how she felt, the weather, the terrain and how sounds were distorted by the absolute quite.

 

Sally believes that if she had not done the hike she would not have captured the beauty or the threats  of the Australian Bush the way she did in her novel.

Her advice to other writers is to experience first hand what you hope to subject your characters to.

“Research can sometimes occur by osmosis. Before I’d even taken my first step on the hike I started to collect new material for the novel, most notably by the way others (mainly women) responded to me doing the hike alone.”

Sally Piper

To find out more about Sally and her books check out her website: www.sallypiper.com. Or follow her on Twitter @SallyPiper

You can read the full interview in the March 2019 issue #209 issue of Writers’ Forum.

An interview with… Penny Joelson

My Research Secrets slot in Writers’ Forum features YA writer, Penny Joelson. She explained how she wove personal experience and research into her YA novel, Girl in the Window.

research secrets - penny joelson4

The book is about a teenage girl called Kasia, who has ME so spends most of her time staring out the bedroom window. Nothing ever happens on Kasia’s street so when she sees what looks like a kidnapping, she’s not sure whether she can believe her own eyes. she notices a girl in the window opposite and hopes she saw something too but when Kasia goes to find her she is told there is no girl.

In the feature you can see a copy of the interview that Penny used as part of her research to gain a young teenage perspective of ME.

I prepared a survey with open questions and an option to add further information. I was overwhelmed with the response and the moving stories I read.

Penny explained that while some research needs to be done before writing, she prefers to write a first draft and then do more research, check facts and add details. This stops her from info dumping and the feeling she must include everything she discovered.

covers

You can read the full interview in the Feb 2019 #208 issue of Writers Forum. You can find out more about Penny Joelson and her books on her website: www.pennyjoelson.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @pennyjoelson

An interview with… Savita Kalhan

Savita Kalhan’s latest novel The Girl in the Broken Mirror published by Troika Books and nominated for the Carnegie Medal 2019 is the story of Jay, a 15-year-old British Asian girl who is raped. Savita told me all about the resources and techniques she used to research this YA novel for my Research Secrets column in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum.

Savita Kalhan6

Savita explained:

Sadly, as the #metoo and #timesup movements have illustrated in recent times, the incidence of sexual assault is much more prevalent than once thought, and stories of survivors have been publicly accessible. I drew on these experiences of survivors when I was writing this book. I also talked directly, and in confidence, to women who have been sexually assaulted about their experiences and how they dealt with them. I also spoke to friends and relatives of victims.

Savita does not have a set pattern for her research but her tip to other writers is even though you can get caught up in your research and you may feel you have wasted your time it is better to know far more about the themes and subject of your book than to know less. But the best tip she was ever given was:

The best writing tip I was ever given was to sit down and write, and then read, edit, fact-check, and rewrite, because that’s what writing is all about.

You can read Savita Kalhan’s Research Secrets feature in the January issue #207 of Writers Forum.

You can find out more about Savita and her books on her website www.savitakalhan.com

Or follow her on Twitter @savitakalhan

 

 

An interview with… Jon Mayhew

Featured in my Research Secrets column this December is YA writer Jon Mayhew. He told me about the research that went into writing his supernatural adventure, Mortlock.

Mortlock3

His initial idea came from a school production of Oliver.

I was watching the scene in which Oliver is ‘sold’ to Mr Sowerberry the undertaker and the phrase ‘undertaker’s mute’ was used. The idea of a child trudging behind funeral carriages all day intrigued me and I began to wonder what would happen if that child found that he could wake the dead. Alfie Wiggins was born and so the story began.

He spent time researching the streets of the Seven Dials in London to observe the Victorian architecture and recreate the atmosphere in his novel. A trip to Bamburgh Castle where he had the opportunity to view a funeral carriage, the Dee estuary and childhood memories of Liverpool all helped to create a realistic and evocative Victorian London backdrop.

RSJM2

His publisher, Bloomsbury needed Jon to check all the extracts from traditional ballads that preface each chapter were out of copyright. Even though Jon is well-versed in traditional music he was able to check the songs were in the public domain with a trip to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library in London.

Jon’s advice to other writers is to enjoy your research but enjoy your writing more and don’t let any of those fiddly details get in the way of a good story. He said:

The research is important because it does give the book a sense of realism and it is easier to visualise characters and settings. I like to think of the research used in a book as the tip of an iceberg. Only a little of the research is actually relayed in the book but it’s there, lurking beneath the surface.

This particular interview was first published in Writers Forum in May 2010. You can read the full interview in the Dec 2018 #206 issue of Writers Forum.

You can find out more about Jon Mayhew and his books on his website: www.jonmayhew.co.uk of follow him on Twitter @MayhewJ