Category Archives: Research Secrets

An interview with… Juliet Clare Bell

For my latest Research Secrets slot in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum, I interview picture book writer Juliet Clare Bell. She talked me through her research process and how this has inspired some of the thorough and often unusual research she has done for her picture books.

JCBfeature

In the interview Juliet Clare Bell told me about the psychologist Graham Wallas who published The Art of Thought in 1926. In this book he identified a four-step process of problem-solving, insight or creative breakthroughs. Juliet Clare Bell summarises the four steps as:

“[1] Preparation –where you formulate your problem, then read, sketch, write, research etc., often very intensively. This, he believed, was absolutely necessary in creative thinking. During this intensive stage, you often end up feeling stuck, and to get past this mental block you must move onto phase two:

[2] Incubation where you let it sit whilst doing other things. If the answer you’re looking for feels really close, he argued, don’t force it. Trust that the process will lead to phase three:

[3] Illumination –often thought of as a ‘Eureka!’ moment –when the answer bursts into your consciousness. The final phase is:

[4] Verification –a conscious, formal activity, where you test it out and ensure that the insight is correct, or that the idea for your story fits.”

Juliet Clare Bell on The Art of Thought  by Graham Wallas

All writers love the illumination phase when writing seems to happen without much conscious effort, but Juliet Clare Bell finds it really useful to think of it in these phases. She explains you need to create the environment for it to happen, by preparing well with research and formulating ideas, and then you need to put in the work in phase four with the editing, even if the story does not change much from the original version.

“I’d recommend approaching people who are experts about an area. In my experience they’ve been really helpful and willing to share their interest. For fictional picture books, I like spending time with people whose lives are similar to those I’m writing about, as I did for The Unstoppable Maggie McGee and Benny’s Hat, both illustrated by Dave Gray. You might do loads of research for a book but it’s often one small snippet you read, or hear in an interview, that can really bring the person to life, or change the direction of your story.” Juliet Clare Bell

The Unstoppable Maggie McGee

Juliet Clare Bell told me it’s taken her a long time to really ‘get’ the idea of incubation, to the point where she now factors it into her schedule of writing. She can’t just do the research and then get straight down to writing it. For a week or two, she needs to let it sit whilst her unconscious gets on with making links with everything she has immersed herself in and other things she has learned or experienced.

Her advice to other writers is to trust in the process and treat incubation and illumination as skills which can be practised and improved on. Create an environment where phases 2 and 3 can happen, and that means being active when you’re reading/conducting your research (phase 1): before you start reading, ask yourself specific questions about the person/subject that you’re really interested in and which your readers will be interested in discovering, but also be on the lookout for the little nuggets that illuminate something interesting.

Author picture - Juliet Clare Bell

Juliet Clare Bell is always interested in the human side of things (so the personality of the inventor, explorer, mountaineer, scientist) and there might be one line in a whole autobiography that makes me say wowthat’s the angle I’m looking for.

To find out more about Juliet Clare Bell you can check out her website www.julietclarebell.com or follow her on Twitter @julietclarebell

To read the complete feature take a look at #218 Dec 2019 of Writers’ Forum magazine.

I have also reviewed some of Juliet Clare Bell’s picture books on my blog. Have a look at Two Brothers and a Chocolate Factory: The Remarkable Story of Richard and George Cadbury, illustrated by Jess Mikhail and Benny’s Hat, illustrated by Dave Gray.

 

An interview with… Helen Lipscombe

In the #217 November issue of Writers’ Forum Helen Lipscombe told me all about researching both espionage and ballet for her debut children’s novel, Peril En Pointe.

Peril En Pointe book cover

Her main character, Eva, needed physical strength, mental resilience, the ability to speak several languages and an excuse to travel the world. Helen explained how Natalie Portman from the 2010 movie, The Black Swan was her inspiration for the book.

2010 film, The Black Swan - Natalie Portman

From the moment she saw her dark eyes gazing at her through that mask Helen knew Eva would be a ballerina and her setting would be a ballet school for spies. This lead her to research for accurate accounts of the lives of female spies. On the Imperial war Museum’s website, she read all about a spy called Odette Samson.  Odette was also the name of the White Swan in Swan Lake and inspired Eva’s code-name ‘O’.

“I read that Odette Samson had been awarded a George Cross for her refusal to name her fellow secret agents during the second world war. Despite having three young girls, she had volunteered to work for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), but in 1944, was captured and brutally tortured. (The Nazis extracted her toenails; a feature I bestowed on Swan House’s battle-worn Spy Craft teacher, the Captain).”

Helen Lipscombe

Odette Samson

Odette Samson

In order to capture the heightened atmosphere of a live performance, Helen revealed she went to see Swan Lake by the Russian State Ballet and the Royal Ballet’s production of Romeo and Juliet.

“I also took part in a backstage tour of the Royal Opera House which proved particularly worthwhile. Walking through the maze of corridors as the dancers do every day; standing amongst the sets and lighting; handling the ballet shoes, headdresses and props, and watching the dancers rehearse gave me a real feel for the setting.”

Helen Lipscombe

To read the complete interview check out the #217 Nov 2019 issue of Writers’ Forum.

You can find out more about Helen Lipscombe you can follow her on Twitter @Helen_Lipscombe or Instagram @helenlipscombe

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, ancestry.co.uk, 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:

Website: www.simonwhaley.co.uk

Twitter: @simonwhaley

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SimonWhaleyAuthor

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: www.michaelrosen.co.uk

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: www.allysherrick.com 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: www.anajohns.com