Category Archives: Research Secrets

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

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.

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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_davies

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.

poo

“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: www.nicola-davies.com

An interview with…NJ Crosskey

In my Research Secrets column in the national writing magazine, Writers’ Forum, this month I interview NJ Crosskey about her ‘decidedly dodgy’ research for her debut novel, Poster Boy.

Research Secrets - N J Crosskey photo2

Poster Boy is about Rosa who is at her brother’s funeral with a bomb strapped to her chest. The story unfolds as a flashback showing Rosa growing up with her brother Jimmy and the events that led up to his death and ultimately turning him into a reluctant hero. This novel demonstrates how easy it is to manipulate and spin opinion using social media and fake news and how Rosa is able to see through the lies and the fear they are purposely creating.

NJ Crosskey explained to write this book she needed to know about making bombs, planting explosives, security details for government ministers, clandestine communications and specific locations. She told me:

“Research is the foundation that makes a story like Poster Boy credible. But just like the foundations to a building, it should be largely unseen. Whilst it may appear to the reader that the hours I spent online researching the construction and effects of suicide vests resulted in only a single line:

‘I’ve got the semtex and shrapnel to contend with.’

The truth is that knowledge drove the entire scene. Knowing the range, weight, and aesthetics of the device is what made the whole image plausible.” NJ Crosskey

She used Google street view to find perfect locations which she knew little about and was able to talk to experts by asking around amongst friends and on online writing forums. Her advice to other writers is to think outside the box when it comes to researching your novel. Facts are important, of course, but real human experiences and opinions are equally vital for ensuring your story comes across as authentic – no matter how fantastical your plot!

“There are so many tools these days for writers seeking information, we really are spoilt! As well as all the obvious places to find information (Google searches, newspapers and journals, text books etc), there are a whole host of other resources. You can find TED Talks by experts on almost any subject online, Ancestry.com is invaluable for those writing historical fiction, and sites such as Quora allow you to ask questions that can be answered by experts all over the world.” NJ Crosskey

Poster Boy_High res (1)

Poster Boy was published April 1st 2019 by Legend Press.

You can find out more by NJ Crosskey by following her on Twitter @NJCrosskey, or visiting her blog: https://njcrosskey.wordpress.com/

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.