Category Archives: Research Secrets

An Interview with… Paul Anthony Jones

I interviewed Paul Anthony Jones about his research into positive words for his book, The Cabinet of Calm for the #237 Oct 2021 issue of Writers’ Forum.

Paul has been writing about language in some form or another for nearly a decade. His background is in linguistics, and based on that he wrote a book on the origins of words back in 2013. Around this time, he started a Twitter account, @HaggardHawks, to tweet about words and word histories that he had discovered in his research.

The Cabinet of Calm is his seventh language book – eighth book overall. He told me it feels different from other books he has written. The focus isn’t on the meanings and histories of words, but on how they can be interpreted or considered. Paul confessed it was an interesting book to compile but a real challenge to put it together.

“The idea for writing a book to bring together little-known calming and reassuring words began when I sadly, lost my mam at the end of 2018 and my dad a few weeks later at the start of 2019. I and my family were floored by what happened. I explain in the introduction to the book I’d initially resolved to take some time off when my publishers approached me with the idea of The Cabinet of Calm, exploring how language ties into tough times like I’d experienced.”

Paul Anthony Jones

Paul revealed he was in two minds about whether to take them up on their offer, until spring 2019 when he walked into the city centre in Newcastle to clear his head, and was wandering aimlessly around the shops when he spotted a shirt his dad had worn hanging in a clothes shop.

“It all came flooding back—and just as quickly as it had struck me the grief was gone again – I was back to normal. I remember walking out of the shop, going to get a coffee and thinking there’s a word for that.”

Paul Anthony Jones

A few years earlier he had written a blog about a word, stound, he had found in an old dialect dictionary. It’s defined as a wave of grief or emotion when a loss is suddenly remembered. He explained this was precisely what he’d experienced and knowing a word for it somehow made it easier because it meant that someone somewhere at some time had experienced precisely the same feeling, to such an extent they’d coined a word for it. It was at this moment he knew he had to write the book, and set to work brainstorming ideas for how it might come together.

Paul has blogged and written about language for so long now, he has accumulated quite a database to mine—besides an ever-growing collection of old dictionaries and glossaries he has picked up from second-hand stores and online sellers over the years.

One of Paul Anthony Jones’ bookshelves

He explained he raided all these for words to make interesting topics. After a few weeks’ work he had a list of about 300 possible entries. It took another month to cherry-pick the most interesting ones – those with the most intriguing meanings and histories – until he had trimmed the original list down to a shortlist of around fifty.

He divulged whenever he starts work on a new book, there’s three ways it comes together. First, something he already knows gives him the gem of the idea – in this instance the word stound. Secondly, there’s all the other words and etymologies he is already familiar with through his work to fit the same brief. Then there’s everything else: words and etymologies he does not already know, found from researching the new idea. Paul told me this is the best part and makes up the vast majority of material in the final draft. The initial idea forms the foundations, his research builds the rest of the book.

“In The Cabinet of Calm, the first chapter I wrote was actually for a word I found while searching specifically for topics to do with feeling overworked or overwhelmed: cultellation. I’d never spotted this word before; derived from an old surveyor’s tool, it describes the process of cutting a larger task into smaller more manageable jobs. It was the right mix of a brilliant-sounding obscure word, a perfectly appropriate meaning for what I was compiling, and a fascinating and very unexpected etymology.”

Paul Anthony Jones

Paul’s tip to anyone interested in writing about language or words is to track down reliable sources. It makes for much more rewarding research and raises the reliability not only of your work but of this genre of book as a whole. This makes the finished work more robust. You’ll know yourself what constitutes a reliable research source – even then, try to back everything up.

Paul explained The Cabinet of Calm went through quite a difficult draft period, with both himself and his publisher approaching the idea from two different angles. Initially, he wanted to bring together lots of much shorter dictionary-like entries, and divide the book in two halves—the first listing words for worldly problems, and the second for calming, reassuring words to act as their solution. His publisher had a different idea, and pushed him towards writing fewer chapters of more detail and content. It took quite a few attempts to get it right and Paul is happy how the final format works well.

The Cabinet of Calm: Soothing Words for Troubled Times
by Paul Anthony Jones

He advocates, no matter how you find yourself researching, that’s the best way for you. Many writers – especially when they’re first starting out, are overly self-critical, and feel they are not taking their writing or research seriously if they don’t fit the romanticized idea all writers are forever carrying a notepad, jotting down ideas in coffee shops, and pouring over piles of books in libraries. If this is how you work, great! But if it isn’t, it’s fine too.

“Work out what works best for you, and stick with it. By all means take ideas or inspiration from other people, but don’t compare yourself unnecessarily to them. We all have our own ways of doing things, and your writing will be happier and more fruitful if you allow yourself time to figure out what works best for you.”

Paul Anthony Jones

To find out more about Paul Anthony Jones you can follow his personal account on Twitter @PaulAnthJones and his professional account @HaggardHawks. You can also check out his websites: www.haggardhawks.com and www.paulanthonyjones.com.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #237 Oct 2021 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Katherine MacInnes

For the #246 17 Aug edition of Writers’ Forum, Katherine MacInnes, explained the challenges of writing a biography for a fatal historical event from the viewpoint of the people who were left behind.

Katherine with the figurehead from the Terra Nova ship that took the Scott expedition to Antarctica. The credit is Kate Stuart, figurehead of Terra Nova by permission of National Museum Wales.

Snow Widows: Scott’s Fatal Antarctic Expedition by the Women Left Behind was Katherine’s way of showing the familiar story of these heroic husbands, fathers, sons and brothers who lost their lives on this epic expedition from the point of view of the women whose lives would be changed by it forever. Her aim was not to analyse, but to try to place the stories in their historical context and let the women speak for themselves.

Snow Widows: Scott’s Fatal Antarctic Expedition by the Women Left Behind by Katherine MacInnes

Katherine told me how these women were truly inspiring.

“If I had chosen my subject on the basis of available material I would not have written Snow Widows. When I first started researching the Snow Widows over a decade ago, they were invisible. I was looking for inspiration at the time because my husband was about to climb Everest (our children were nearly five, nearly three and nearly one). He climbed it and came home, but by then I had discovered the treasures that are Oriana, Kathleen, Caroline, Emily and Lois. They have continued to be inspiring companions for me over the years as I hope they can now be for those who read my book.”

Katherine MacInnes

Katherine elaborated how Oriana Wilson, a true partner to the expedition’s doctor, was a scientific mind in her own right. She was a naturalist and partnered her husband on scientific expeditions to New Zealand.  She was a recognised collector for the Natural History Museum and I discovered two species had been named for her. 

Kathleen Scott, the fierce young wife of the expedition leader was also a renowned artist and sculptor She made portraits of most of the great and the good such as, George Bernard Shaw,  Asquith and was a confidant during his time as PM. 

The indomitable Caroline Oates was the very picture of decorum and everything an Edwardian woman aspired to be. She was very wealthy and sent funds to Cpt Oates.  She’d been widowed before this expedition, and ran a large country estate.  Increasingly private and cautioned the family not to talk to outsiders about Cpt Oates.  

‘Empire’ Emily Bowers had travelled the globe as a missionary teacher. had travelled the globe as a missionary teacher. She was ‘Birdie’ Bowers’ mother.  Her father had been a tailor, but she never admitted her lowly origins. Her daughter married co-op movement’s Sir William Maxwell, and became Lady Maxwell.  She lived on the Isle of Bute, Scotland – so quite remote. 

Lois Evans led a harder life than the other women, constantly on the edge of poverty.  She was a talented and popular singer in South Wales. She wasn’t treated equally with the other wives – getting a much lesser amount of the funds raised for the families, (Evans was a rating, the others were officers). Evans was unfairly blamed for the mission’s downfall – he was assumed to have caused a fatal delay. Scott’s posthumously discovered diary says “loss of reason” but now thought to have had a head injury. 

Her starting point was having the famous story as the obvious performance on the stage and the background people as the story in the wings and then she inverted it. Out of choice, she took a seat that gave her a clear view in to the wings of any theatre, the dancers warming up, the actors mastering their nerves. She wanted to see the back of the embroidery, an x-ray of that famous picture, the ‘making of’ at the end of a film.

Katherine told me one of the biggest challenges was researching the expedition from the women’s perspective as most of these women were intentionally invisible, almost self-erasing. Another challenge was giving these women equal balance within the book. Most of them burned their letters before their death (some of them burned their husband’s letters too). The only letters we have from Oriana Wilson are those that she sent out to friends where the friends kept them.

“I wrote articles in magazines and newspapers in the UK and NZ to ask if anyone had some in their attic. Several people did, including one sketch, the only one of hers that survives. It is, appropriately since her husband was Head of the Scientific Staff on the expedition, of two Emperor Pengiuns. Its rather moving. She drew it in April 1912 before she knew her husband was dead. In her sketch one of the penguins is walking away into the distance.”

Katherine MacInnes

She told me original documents have a special power – a link to the past. So she mined numerous sources including Kathleen Scott’s diary, housed at Cambridge University Library, various archives, family papers and books published by surviving expeditioners. She discovered much has been lost, including 50 letters from Taff to Lois, and Wilson’s correspondence, destroyed by Ory, fortunately after an early biographer had read it.

She also bought a book Edward Wilson, Nature Lover on Amazon. Until then everyone had thought that Kathleen and Oriana were not ‘focsle’ friends. But she found an inscription in that book in a hand she recognised as Kathleen’s. So they can’t have fallen out that badly after all. Handwriting gives us not only an indication of character but of emotion. When Kathleen Scott learns of her husband’s death nearly a year earlier, her normally wide rounded script (three words to a line) becomes small and pinched as she tries to master her emotions. It is a direct cipher to a state of mind in a way that carefully stoical, self-curated words may not be.

Her tip to other writers thinking of writing a biography is to buy file dividers and use them, religiously. And be really suspicious of existing photograph captions, especially if your protagonists were as overlooked as hers were. Katherine found so much mis-captioning even with mainstream photo libraries, archives and authorised biographies of the more famous protagonists.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #246 17 Aug 2022 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An Interview with… Rebecca Smith

In another author interview flashback, I recount when Rebecca Smith told me she used photos and family history to write her saga, The Ash Museum, published by Legend Press. The interview appeared in my ‘Research Secrets slot of Writers’ Forum issue #234 Jul 2021.

The Ash Museum, is an intergenerational story of loss, migration and Rebecca’s search for somewhere to feel at home, inspired by people on her father’s side of the family and what happened to them. She follows their story for five generations and over one hundred years. The character, Emmeline Ash, was inspired by Rebecca’s great grandmother, Edith Hubback, who co-wrote Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers in 1906.

The Ash Museum is based on what happened to Edith Hubback and her children. Edith’s son, Rebecca’s grandfather, went to India as a tea planter in the 1930s. There he fell in love with and had four children with her grandmother who was Indian. Her grandfather was killed at The Battle of Kohima in 1944. After this happened, the English side of the family took over the care of the four children (including Rebecca’s father) and they were sent to a boarding school on the other side of India; they never saw their mother again.

“I have always wished I knew my paternal grandparents and great grandparents and particularly wanted to know more about my Indian grandmother, about whom we know very little. I wondered what it was like to be her, to have this English “husband” and then to lose him and her children.”

Rebecca Smith

Rebecca’s character, Josmi, is based on what she imagined her grandmother to be like and is at the heart of her novel. In The Ash Museum, Emmie Ash (Josmi’s mixed-race granddaughter) wants to know more about Josmi, and this is one of the things that drives the plot. The novel is about the impact of this loss up and down the generations.

The Ash Museum by Rebecca Smith

As part of her research Rebecca has collected hundreds of books that belonged to previous generations and she explained these were useful in creating characters and historical changes over the generations.

“We can tell so much by what people like to read. I have maps, books about rock climbing with my grandfather’s annotations, an atlas from the 1920s, and poetry, history, philosophy and most importantly, novels. There is a wealth of information to tap into.”

Rebecca Smith

When it came to adding historical details to family meals, she used the only cookery book one of her great aunts had –Radiation Cookery Book: A Selection of Proved Recipes for Use with ‘New World’ ‘Regulo’- Controlled Gas Cookers (19th Edition, 1936). REbecca reckoned it must have come free with her stove. She recognised some of the things she used to cook when she visited and Rebecca tried cooking those and other things herself to get an understanding of the process and how they felt.

The cookery book that belonged to Rebecca’s great aunt

Inspired by her family’s history, she was planning to write lots about The Battle of Kohima where her character, James dies, so she read lots about it and watched documentaries, but in the end Rebecca decided to do things more from his ‘wife’ Josmi’s point of view and ended up with just one very short battle scene. She told me that a lot of her notes and links to articles and images were stored on her phone.

Rebecca explained when she started writing a cousin gave her boxes of family papers. The photos, particularly of when her great grandparents were in Canada, and when her grandfather was in India, were extremely useful. She also found her great grandmother’s diaries kept when her children were small invaluable because her grandmother, Edith Hubback, had recorded things that so many mothers do – funny things her children said and the dates of their first steps and other milestones.

“It was so moving reading these observations 100 years on and knowing what had happened to her children when they grew up.”

Rebecca Smith

She elaborated that the photos showed how Edith had changed from being a beautiful young Edwardian in gorgeous dresses to looking quite broken in the 1940s after her son, my grandfather, had been killed. Rebecca wanted to capture that trajectory. Looking at photos of people and places over time to see how they have changed and traditions changed helped her to do this.

Edith Brown nee Hubback c.1907

Another great research resource was when she was the writer in residence at Jane Austen’s House. She saw the way the curator (then Louise West) used objects to tell the story of Jane Austen and how much can be conveyed and evoked in an economical way and the importance of the visual in storytelling.

Rebecca told me as people walk around the museum, they learn Jane Austen’s story by looking at small things – a needle case made for a niece, Cassandra’s teapot, the quilt made by the Austen women, and of course the books and letters. this observation made her realise by using objects she could have strong threads in the novel without having to ‘tell everything’ that happened.

“I ended up using objects to structure the novel too – it is in the form of a visit to a museum. I plan around scenes and key images – that helps make the writing more manageable and the finished work (I hope) pacier and more memorable.”

Rebecca Smith

Her tip to other writers who want to write a saga is to use your libraries. Librarians are a wealth of information and always pleased to help. she urges authors to make the most of their library card as it gives you access to wonderful resources, many of which you can use remotely so it does not matter where you live.

You can follow Rebecca Smith on Twitter @RMSmithAuthor and Instagram @rebeccamarysmith7

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #234 Jul 2021 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Writing 4 Children or Research Secrets interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An Interview with… Tania Unsworth

This week’s author interview is a flashback to when I interviewed Tania Unsworth For my Research Secrets slot in Writers’ Forum, issue #233 Jun 2021. Tania talked to me about how in-depth research permeates every aspect of her novel, The Time Traveller and the Tiger, published by Zephyr.

Tania told me that even before she began writing the book, she knew she needed to tell part of the story from the point of view of the tiger. But she didn’t want him to be a creature of whimsy or magic. She wanted him to be real. Or as close to real as she could manage, given the impossibility of knowing exactly what it’s like to be another animal. It was important for her to learn as much as she could about the physical characteristics and behaviour of wild tigers.

To do this she started by revisiting two classic books: My India the memoirs of legendary tiger hunter-turned conservationist Jim Corbett, and Peter Matthiessen’s powerful Tigers in the Snow. Then a quick google search turned up The Tiger by John Vaillant. Tania told me the latter extraordinary, beautifully written book was full of information and imagination-triggering insights. It also had a lengthy bibliography enabling Tania to source less well-known – but vital – texts, such as Richard Perry’s The World of the Tiger and Spell of the Tiger by Sy Montgomery.

The Time Traveller and the Tiger by Tania Unsworth

Tania explained she did far more research for The Time Traveller and the Tiger than ended up in the novel, filling her notebook with pages and pages of unused facts, along with drawings of various jungle creatures, because she approached the research in a broad, almost scattershot way, happy to go down any number of online rabbit holes, or wade through scientific accounts detailing how tigers are able to see in the dark or the life cycle of bamboo trees.

“I wasn’t always sure what I was looking for, but I knew it when I saw it; the spark of something I could use, the sudden reshaping of an idea. Casting a wide net in this way made the research process far more dynamic. It didn’t just provide authenticity for my story, it also helped me discover how to tell that story.”

Tania Unsworth

Along with books, Tania scoured YouTube for clips of tigers roaring, growling and ‘chuffing’, and watched documentaries such as David Attenborough’s Dynasties to get a sense of the physical presence of tigers – the way they move and sound and react to their environment.

Her book is set in the jungles of central India, and initially she thought it would be enough to go through Google Images for pictures of ‘Kipling country’, and do a thorough online search on the flora and fauna of the region to find out what a banyan or a peepal or a sal tree actually looked like. But she soon realized that this wasn’t going to be enough. Tania revealed spending a week in Kanha and Bandhavgarh – two tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh changed everything.

“Setting is important to me as a writer, particularly in this book, where the beauty and fragility of the natural world is a big part of the story itself. You can’t tell what the jungle smells like (wild basil and warm grass) just from looking at pictures. And no audio recording of birds and animals can compare to standing in the forest and hearing them for yourself. The notes I made during my week in India transformed the second draft of my book and helped to bring my story to life with a hundred details. The way that termite mounds glitter with tiny fragments of mica. The sound of dew dropping from leaf to leaf in the early morning. The shafts of sunlight pouring through the trees like columns in a temple…”

Tania Unsworth

Her trip wasn’t just useful in terms of providing authentic details. It also gave herideas for plot and character development. For example, the villain iis a man called Sowerby who operates out of a remote hunting lodge. She had a lot of fun describing his study – a ghastly collection of knick-knacks and furniture, all made from animal parts. The inspiration for this came from a visit to the Museum of Science in Boston where I’d marvelled at the reconstruction of a gun room belonging to a certain Colonel Colby, crowded with animal skins and trophies.

When Tania googled ‘objects made from animal parts’ she came across hundreds of old photographs of items – from chairs to waste-paper baskets – that had been constructed out of various wild creatures. Discovering this long-ago trend for grisly home décor gave credence to my description of Sowerby’s room.

To find out more about Tania and her novels visit her website: www.taniaunsworth.com and follow her on Twitter: @TaniaUnsworth1.

You can read my review of The Time Traveller and the Tiger on my blog here: Book Review: The Time Traveller and the Tiger.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #233 Jun 2021 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Writing 4 Children or Research Secrets interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An Interview with… Lev Parikian

For my Research Secrets slot in the national writing magazine, Writers’ Forum #235 Aug 2021, I interviewed Lev Parikian about how his research for a previous book helped him to structure his creative non-fiction book, Into the Tangled Bank, published by Elliott & Thompson.

Lev explained, Into The Tangled Bank, grew from his second book, Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? which is the story of the year he spent trying to see 200 species of British bird. It had occurred to him, while travelling the country researching the previous book that as well as the fascinating birds he encountered, the people watching them were worthy of study, whether they were novices with only a vague interest in what they were looking at or expert ornithologists with deep knowledge. It made him think of how we all experience nature in our own individual ways, so the broad idea of a book about ‘how we are in nature’ was born.

Into The Tangled Web by Lev Parikan

In honing the idea from that initial concept it occurred to Lev that he could weave together three stories: his own journey through nature; the people he met on the way; and some of the great naturalists of the past who devoted their lives to studying the mysteries of the natural world.

Lev told me his initial research included everyone he found who fell under the broad definition ‘naturalist’. He noted their dates, area of interest, where they lived, and how they might fit into the arc of the book. From there he whittled it down. He wanted it to move from the familiar and domestic – the wildlife we encounter in our homes and gardens and on our doorsteps – gradually outwards to take in a wide variety of habitats – not just the wild places like nature reserves and mountains and lakes and clifftops but local parks and zoos and even museums, where the wildlife is laid out for us to survey in close detail and at our leisure.

“I love birds, but the lives of twelve ornithologists might not have offered the range I was looking for.”

Lev Parikian

Lev revealed it was important to him to cover a variety of disciplines. This is why he included Walter Rothschild, founder of what is now the Hertfordshire wing of the Natural History Museum; the great poet John Clare, who wrote with such power about the nature on his local patch near Peterborough; Thomas Bewick, the engraver whose illustrations were many people’s introduction to the appearance of birds and animals they would never encounter in the flesh; Sir Peter Scott, a man of extraordinary breadth and founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (among many other achievements); Gavin Maxwell, who by all appearances preferred the company of otters to humans.

Charles Darwin’s English Heritage house in Kent, UK

The places he visited became gradually wilder – from the rather genteel surroundings of Charles Darwin’s English Heritage house in Kent to Skokholm, a small island off Pembrokeshire which was the first bird observatory in Britain, and is home to a couple of hundred thousand seabirds and just a handful of humans.

During his week on Skokholm, he was torn about how best to spend my time. He was writing about his own experience of the birds, so wanted to spend as much time as possible outdoors looking at the birds and picking the brains of Richard and Giselle, the observatory’s wardens; but the island has an extensive library, filled with the works of its founder Ronald Lockley and much more, all of which he wanted to read. It was impossible to do everything.

“At the heart of the book was a desire to reflect the various ways we experience nature, whether actively (yomping across a boggy moor hoping for a glimpse of a disappearing curlew) or passively (slumped on the sofa listening to David Attenborough describing the sex lives of aardvarks). And really all that was required in that department was to observe people (including myself) as keenly as I observed nature. There was a fair amount of eavesdropping, but I also made a point of striking up conversations whenever I had the opportunity (and when appropriate) and listening to what people had to say.”

Lev Parikian

Lev explained he found recording all this information difficult and admits he is not naturally organised. But he does have a notebook, which he carries with him most of the time, and whenever possible he jots things down. He also makes use of technology which he said he finds indispensable.

“I took a lot of photographs with my phone to remind me of particular settings or encounters, and if I overheard something particularly interesting or funny it was generally quicker to jot it down in the Evernote app on my phone.”

Lev Parikian

He described the process of writing Into The Tangled Bank, as absorbing everything like a sponge and then squeezing it out afterwards. The trick, he claims, is knowing which is the good stuff.

You can find out more about Lev Parikian on his website www.levparikian.com and follow him on Twitter @levparikian and Instagram @levparikian and Facebook @levparikianwriter.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #235 Aug 2021 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Helen Yendall

I interviewed Helen Yendall about her research for her debut novel, A Wartime Secret. In my Research Secrets slot in issue #245 13 Jul 2022 of Writers’ Forum, you can read all about the research Helen Yendall did for this historical novel set in WWII and how this research inspired her plot, setting and characters.

Helen explained that A Wartime Secret, was inspired by the true story of a bank and its staff that were moved to the countryside for the duration of the war. The main character is feisty Maggie Corbett, who moves from London to the Cotswolds with Rosman’s merchant bank. She’s a fish out of water in many ways. Although it’s set during the war, it’s an upbeat story and one reviewer described it as ‘EastEnders meets Downton Abbey’.

She discovered the story of the bank moving to Upton for the duration of the war, when she visited an exhibition at Upton House called Banking For Victory. This was long before she decided to write a novel about it. The house was reconfigured as it would have looked during the 1940s and Helen revealed she visited it more than once. By the time she realised it would make a great setting for a novel, the exhibition was over. However the National Trust researchers were was able to confirm many of the details she remembered. 

A Wartime Secret by Helen Yendall

Real aspects of Upton House are included in A Wartime Secret: the outdoor swimming pool, in which bank employees swam before work (and which features in an incident in the novel), the Mirror Pool in the grounds, which was filled in during the war, so it didn’t act as a marker for enemy planes and one of the Canaletto paintings, which currently part of Upton House’s art collection.

“I always had Upton House in my mind when I pictured my fictional Snowden Hall but I moved the house slightly, from Warwickshire to Gloucestershire, to create a little distance from the real place.”

Helen Yendall

Helen does a lot of research before she starts to write a novel, as it always gives her ideas for her plot. For example, the real bank – M Samuel & Co – was actually moved from the City of London to Warwickshire in 1939, as soon as war broke out. Helen decided to move the bank in 1940, once the Blitz had started. She told me this was vital for the very first scene of the book when Maggie is lying face down on the floor of a bus, during a raid, an idea that she said came from The People’s War by Felicity Goodall. This book contains an extract from a woman’s diary, describing her reactions in an air raid.    

Primary sources were invaluable to Helen. She explained when you’re writing historical fiction, you really need to try to immerse yourself in that time. If you can read letters or books written in that time or watch films made during that era it all helps.   

But her research was not always plain sailing. Helen discovered several thousand adult Jews were smuggled into Britain during WW2 but couldn’t find out anywhere how this was done. So, although it features in her story, she had to be vague and non-specific about it and let the reader imagine contacts and underground organisations for themselves.

“Sometimes you simply won’t be able to find something out and you can spend hours and end up no further forward. If this happens to you, ask yourself if it’s absolutely essential to the story, or can I get around it in some way? Sometimes, if you’re a little vague about how something might have happened, I think that’s better than putting in lots of details that might actually be wrong.”

Helen Yendall

For A Wartime Secret, Helen needed to know how long it would take a letter to arrive and then how long it would take for her character to receive a reply, within Britain. She struggled to find this out so in the end, she emailed her question to an expert at the Postal Museum https://www.postalmuseum.org/  and had an answer within a few days.

Another valuable resource for Helen were the 1940s Facebook pages she belongs to. She said someone on those will often answer a question, if she is stuck. However, she reminds people it is wise to double-check information found via social media.

“It is worth joining a few relevant groups that are interested in the same era as your novel is set. They can provide a wealth of information, photographs and helpful links.”

Helen Yendall

For people wanting to do their own research into WWII, Helen suggests looking at the British Newspaper Archive as it contains 50 million pages of news stories from 1699 to 2009. She explained it is a paid subscription service, starting at £6.67 a month if you subscribe for a year and there are lots of articles available for free.

Helen warned it’s very easy to get carried away with your research and end up with much more material than you can ever feasibly use, at least in one novel. Her advice is no to try to cram in everything you learn about a period of time. Be selective. If one strand won’t fit into this book, perhaps you can use it for another – a sequel perhaps.

Follow Helen her on Twitter: @helenyendall and on Facebook: @helen.yendall. You can also check out the posts on her blog at: www.blogaboutwriting.wordpress.com.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #245 13 Jul 2022 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Writing 4 Children or Research Secrets interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An Interview with… Jules Wake

For the #238 Nov 2021 issue of Writers’ Forum, I interviewed Jules Wake about the research for her historical novel inspired by Latimer House.

Jules told me she had no intention of writing a historical novel but the idea for The Secrets of Latimer House was one of those wonderful, serendipitous times when a fully formed idea just popped into her head, literally overnight, inspired by a talk by the real life events that took place at Latimer House in Buckinghamshire during World War II. The house, home to a secret POW camp housing senior officers of the German armed forces, was bugged from top to bottom, so that their every conversations could be recorded. 

The Secrets of Latimer House by Jules Wake

She explained that this in itself was fascinating, however what really sparked her interest was the number of women at the house who were involved in a wide variety of roles from interrogating prisoners, translating transcripts from German to English and analysing data through to compiling intelligence reports.

“Writing a historical novel during lockdown presented quite a challenge compared to writing my next novel The Cosy Cottage in Ireland, written by my alter ego, Julie Caplin. For this I was able to rely heavily on You Tube videos to visit numerous tourist locations by proxy.”

Jules Wake

Jules elaborated that when it came to writing The Secrets of Latimer House, she had to be more innovative because she couldn’t use a lot of the usual channels for her historical research during the lockdowns. she told me she would have normally started by visiting the Imperial War Museum or the National Archives at Kew which holds many of the original reports and documents from Latimer House. Unfortunately, with the National Archives closed, she couldn’t do as much original research as she would have liked, so had to do a lot of desk research instead.

This involved reading a lot of books. Jules told me she read a number of reference books for research and was careful to find a second source of the same information and to use historical accounts as inspiration to create fictional versions.  For example, in one reference book there was a detailed account of how someone was recruited to work at Latimer.  Jules described how she created a fictional alternative to this scene by reading up on the process from different sources.

She explained that Michael Smith’s, The Debs of Bletchley Park, gives several different accounts of Wrens being recruited to Bletchley Park, as does Sara Baring’s autobiographical account of her life at Bletchley in The Road to Station X. From these she constructed her own recruitment scene based on the sort of things that would have happened, rather than on exactly what did happen.  

Jules said reading more generally about wartime Britain was also invaluable, enabling her to write with a better understanding of what ordinary people experienced during the war. It gave her a flavour of what people’s lives were like and their different attitude towards everything from views on foreigners, bombing raids and joining up through to American GIs, the black market and rationing. 

“As my story is narrated in third person but from the view point of three different characters from very different backgrounds, it was important for me that each of them used the right sort of language.  I nearly came a cropper when I wanted to use the phrase, ‘in slow motion’.  The technique of slow motion in films hadn’t been invented in 1943! I also spent a lot of time googling the origin of phrases and items that we take for granted.”

Jules Wake

She particularly recommends reading self-published titles, which can be goldmines of information as they’re often written by real enthusiasts and experts with access to first-hand accounts. For example, Derek Nudd’s Castaways of the Kriegsmarine (his grandfather was actually the Commander at Latimer House) is an incredibly detailed account of information garnered from prisoners at the house, which gave Jules a lovely insight into what went on at the house, including the fact that prisoners were taken out on trips. This allowed her to create her own scene of prisoners being driven around London which was loosely based on true accounts of prisoners going out on journeys designed to undermine their confidence in the success of the German bombing campaigns.

She revealed, the accounts of the German Jews living at Latimer house who worked as listeners and translators, including Egon Brandt and Franz Lustig were invaluable. Both were  German Jews who had escaped to Britain and their memories helped shape one of her characters, in particular their views of the German prisoners and the work they were doing.  

Her advice to writers of historical fiction is to use your research to inform and direct but not to let yourself be led by it. Readers want to know that they are in safe hands but hate being patronised by too much superior knowledge.

You can find out more about Jules wake on her website www.juleswake.co.uk and on Twitter @Juleswake.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #238 Nov 2021 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Alex Evelyn

For my Research Secrets slot in this month’s #244 9 June 2022 issue of Writers’ Forum, I interviewed debut children’s writer, Alex Evelyn, about her research into botany for her middle grade novel, The Secret Wild, published by Walker Books.

Alex Evelyn explained she was actually writing a time travel story set in Egypt when the idea for The Secret Wild came to her. So she filed the original idea and switched her research from pharaohs to plants. The idea for her main characters Fern and Special came to her when she was helping at a plant sale at her village primary school. The children were queueing up to buy mini cacti, and when they had their new ‘pet’ in their hands they were chatting about what they were going to call them and where in their bedrooms they were going to put them. Alex did some research which showed house plant sales were booming amongst younger people, which gave her story idea roots. Alex revealed:

“During my research I was surprised to learn that there is such a thing as botonaphobia. Fern’s friend Woody’s character was already partly based on my own journey with anxiety, and when I read about this very specific fear I had to explore more.”

Alex Evelyn

She explained one of the things she has learnt about anxiety is that your own fears can be almost incomprehensible to others who don’t suffer from the same fear. This was the case for her with botonophobia – she couldn’t imagine how anyone could be scared of something she found so soothing. Fern is also very confused by it, but as she learns about friendships, she learns not to judge this unusual fear of Woody’s.

“I am very aware that writing for young children I need to entertain first and educate second – and never, ever to preach. Characters and a well-paced story have to form the backbone, the STEM is merely the flesh.”

Alex Evelyn

Alex told me one of the most useful resources she didcovered during her research was a second hand collection of Kew Garden botany books from World of Books. Determined to become an overnight expert she ploughed straight in to their Latin for Gardeners but no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t remember the plants’ Latin names, and so the part of Fern’s character that drives her scientist Dad Darwin mad was created – she, like Alex, can never remember names and responds more to how the plants look and feel than by being successful at categorising them.

To see plants through a child’s eyes or to ‘think the right height’ she dipped in to the Plantopedia by Adrienne Barman, a beautifully illustrated book that categorises plants using criteria that appeal to a young child.  From the ‘imposters’ to the ‘stinkers’, the ‘useful’ and the ‘healers’ to the ‘poisoners’. Alex explained the book brings the amazing plants on this earth to life as if they are characters.

The Secret Wild by Alex Evelyn

Alex divulged her setting was inspired by a visit to the Natural History Museum in London when she strolled past a sign for an open garden on the roof on an office block. She wondered what was hidden away up there, beyond the reach of our eyes. The shoot of an idea began to sprout – a glasshouse in the sky that held plants from the wilder places of the world.

“I am not a natural city dweller, and so it was easy to write Fern’s astonishment at arriving in such a big, overwhelming place. Fern is much more at home surrounded by the wilds of the rainforest. The minute we could get back on to the streets of London I was there with notebook in hand. I wanted to try and show that as a Londoner you can feel that you live in a village tucked in to the greater mass of the city.”

Alex Evelyn

Alex revealed that one of her favourite pieces of research was visiting the great glasshouses of Kew Gardens as this helped with writing the five senses. Feeling so hot that sweat ran down her legs, seeing water droplets on luscious leaves and feeling the texture of the plants bought them to life in a way she could never have discovered from books alone.

Kew Gardens

Alex told me she often ‘writes with her nose’ and it was the smell of the Kew glasshouses that helped her write the scene when Fern and Woody first walk in to Oleander’s glasshouse in the sky:

As they stepped forwards, they parted a cloud of butterflies which scattered like tiny pieces of torn paper being blown in the wind. A warm, figgy smell wrapped itself around her nostrils, sweet and delicious.

Extract from The Secret Wild by Alex Evelyn

Alex’s tip to other writers is to let your research lead you to places you haven’t necessarily planned. She elaborated that she often finds her narrative guided by things she discovered by digging a bit deeper and a bit wider. Nothing is ever wasted, even if you don’t end up using your research directly it might inform the depth of a character or a setting. But you do have to know when to stop. Research can be a lovely black hole that stops you from focusing on the hard task of drafting words in to a story. 

You can follow Alex on Twitter @alexrevelyn.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #244 8 Jun 2022 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Writing 4 Children or Research Secrets interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An Interview with… Simon Bowden

For my Research Secrets slot in the #239 Dec 2021 issue of Writers’ Forum I interview retired chief superintendent, Simon Bowden, about the research he did to write his first crime thriller, Hidden by the Law.

Simon first had the idea for his novel back in 2013, but could never quite find the time to write. The coronavirus lockdown of 2020 provided him with the space and time to commit to writing Hidden by the Law, which is the first of the Seth Hannen stories.

Simon explains the books starts in 1992, when Seth, our protagonist is a young constable. Back then the radio’s and issued kit were very different to today and Simon recalled what kind of radios and equipment were issued and used by uniform officers. He still found he needed to check dates that things like the radio system changed from UHF radios to the current Airwave Tetra system, as he knew getting that kind of detail wrong would soon be called out by police officers who may read the book. He revealed the procedural parts of the book were fairly easy to write about as he has experience of interviewing numerous suspects over the years, so things like the police caution, or the opening to an interview remain indelibly printed in his mind.

Even so there was a lot of specific research he had to undertake for Hidden by the Law. For example, the first chapter finds Seth working the Royal Ascot horse racing meeting. He told me to ensure he got this correct, he needed to check the dates for the meeting that took place back in 1992, to ensure he chose the right day for ladies’ day etc. 

He wanted his villain to be driving a new Aston Martin of the day, and there is a scene where Seth removed the keys from the ignition, while stood outside the car. So, he looked at photographs of the interior of the car to make sure the keys would be reachable from the window. If the car had a strange place for the ignition key, the scene would not have worked, and he would have had to choose a different car. 

He also researched the lunar cycle for one of the characters who carried out a burglary on an evening of a new moon. 

“It would be easy to make up a day and just say that it was a new moon, but I know some people will check that kind of detail. While the book is a work of fiction, the setting and circumstances need to feel realistic.” 

Simon Bowden

In another example, Simon told me he had one of his characters carry a gun in an ankle holster, and while he does not give too much detail on the weapon, he researched which guns would generally be able to be carried in that fashion, as it would not have worked having him carry a great big Magnum pistol on his ankle.

Simon revealed his characters are a mix of people he knows in real life. Only the cameo roles of a couple of my friends are real, the rest are based upon his own experiences of criminals or police officers. He researched criminals from online media sources to get the ‘feel’ of what they are like and how they could be portrayed. His personal knowledge of drug users and their habits came in useful, although he did also read some information from organisations that help drug users get clean to help him write the descriptions of what a drug user feels and goes through when taking drugs.

Hidden by the Law by Simon Bowden

Simon’s tip to other authors wanting to write a crime series is to write what you know, so if you are writing crime, set it in a circumstance or place that you know well. That will help you find research areas more easily and allow a real sense of reality to your story telling. For example, if you work in telecoms in London, set the story in London and use what you know from your business to inform the plot. He warned there is a lot of misinformation online so suggests you should take extra steps to verify what you find.

“For me there is a fine line between fiction that is completely false, and fiction that takes place in a real setting, place, or time.  I think had I set the book in a fictional town, then authenticity would be less important, but using a real place pushes you to make sure that it feels right, and that a reader could drive or walk through the town or village and recognise it from the book.”

Simon Bowden

Simon’s second book follows on from the first, although it can be read as a stand-alone. It follows Seth in his first assignment after leaving the police service, so will have less of an epic timeframe. He used his knowledge of human trafficking and terrorism to create a credible story of someone born and brought up with committing an act of terror in mind.

Simon blogs on his Facebook page @simonbowdenauthor, and tweets @AuthorBowden.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #239 Dec 2021 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Owen Dwyer

In this months issue of Writers’ Forum, May 2022 #243, I interviewed psychological thriller author, Owen Dwyer, about his research secrets. He told me all about how he weaved true events into his fictional novel, The Garfield Conspiracy, published by Liberties Press.

The book is about a writer suffering from a mid-life crisis who begins to be visited by the characters he is researching for a book he’s writing on the 1881 assassination of President James Garfield. Owen started his research with Roscoe Conkling, whose name he had come across whilst exploring on Wikipedia. The strangeness of the name intrigued him.

Roscoe Conkling, leading Senator of his day

Further investigation revealed Roscoe Conkling to be the most influential Republican senator of the Reconstruction Period (between the end of the Civil War and beginning of the twentieth century in America). Owen discovered he was a political enemy of President Garfield and a hero to the assassin Charles Guiteau.  

Owen turned to primary sources to do more in-depth research into Charles Guiteau, such as the New York Library of Congress, which has a great reservoir of material from Guiteau’s trial, including transcripts, newspaper reports and testimonies. He discovered that far from being a natural killer, Guiteau was a weak and vulnerable man who never fired a gun in his life before the assassination. He had a serious mental illness which went untreated and was dismissed at his trial. He was also heavily influenced by his religion, as many of his time were – it was hard to comprehend how literally people took ‘the word of God’.  

This realisation inspired Owen to research the Oneida County community, a group of people in the Oneida district of New York often called ‘bible communists’.

“I read an article from the New York Herald, written in the 1870s by a journalist called Norduff, in which he described the habits and behaviours of the Oneida County community including one incident where a young man called ‘Charles’ who was subject to their practice of ‘mutual criticism’, fainted from the pressure of having to stand and listen to his peers deriding him without being permitted to reply.”

Owen Dwyer

Owen wondered if this man could it have been Charles Guiteau. He was both intrigued and disturbed to discover how Charles Guiteau mind worked, how he inhabited an entirely different world to those around him.

Charles Guiteau, the ‘lunatic’ assassin

Charles Guiteau genuinely believed he deserved high office up to and including the presidency and that by killing Garfield he was advancing his cause. He was also convinced that he was acting on direct instructions from the ‘deity’ by committing the murder. this realisation helped him to shape his character within the novel.

Owen revealed that finding the historical characters’ ‘voices’ was difficult as there are no recordings of any of the nineteenth century characters in existence. He had to rely on their personal letters and political speeches, which by their nature were elaborate. My characters therefore ended up with florid vocabularies, with which they reproached my main protagonist for his irreverent, scandal worthy and preposterous behaviour.

The fact Guiteau shot Garfield is not in dispute. It was the reason why he shot him that led Owen into the conspiracy zone.

“I thought of several possible masterminds who might have been manipulating Guiteau for their personal political or financial gain and stress tested these against known historical data to see which was the most plausible. I wanted to make sure my theory would stand up to the scrutiny of a thorough historian.”

Owen Dwyer

Owen’s advice when approaching research is that you should start with your objective and work backwards. Don’t accept the first corroborating piece of evidence you find, but cross-check against other sources. That way, you’ll properly interrogate your subject, make it more plausible and possibly unearth other interesting information you might not otherwise have found.

The Garfield Conspiracy by Owen Dwyer

In The Garfield Conspiracy Owen accessed and studied the mind of a ‘lunatic’, which gave him new and valuable insight into mental illness – he felt more informed and sympathetic as a result – about both himself and others.  

If anyone wants to reach out to Owen Dwyer, he has said he would be delighted to hear from you on his website owendwyerauthor.com, twitter @owendwyerauthor, and / or Facebook @owendwyerauthor.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #243 4 May 2022 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.