Tag Archives: Research Secrets

An interview with… Alyssa Sheinmel

When I heard about Alyssa Sheinmel’s extraordinary research into face transplants for her novel Faceless, published by Chicken House, I was stunned the movie Face Off could have been based on reality. Face transplants are a real thing. Maybe not in the same way as in Face Off but still a possibility.

I was so intrigued to discover more I decided to interview best-selling YA author, Alyssa Sheinmel, for my regular Research Secrets section of Writers’ Forum, issue Aug 2016 #178.

Alyssa told me she knew she wanted to write a book about a girl who was in a horrific accident, a girl who struggled to understand how much of who she was is tied to what she looked like and it was her American editor who suggested a girl for whom a face transplant was her best hope at having a normal life after reading an article in The New Yorker about a full face transplant.

“I’m pretty sure I underlined more of the article than I left blank! My favourite line came from a plastic surgeon, who explained that while other surgeons made you well by taking you apart – by cutting out the parts of you that are no longer functional, that are diseased, that have turned toxic – plastic surgeons make you well by putting you back together. (A version of that explanation made its way into Faceless.)”

Alyssa Sheinmel

She explained she began her research by reaching out to doctors she already knew – her general practitioner, a friend who’d gone to medical school and a friend of her sister who was a plastic surgeon that specialized in reconstruction who answered her myriad of questions.

In particular, she wanted to ensure Maisie’s injuries were realistic. For example, could she have been burned in such a way that she’d need to replace her cheeks, nose, and chin, but retain her jaw? This doctor explained that pretty much everything about these surgeries is unusual, so there were no hard and fast rules. He also provided Alyssa with a detail that really stayed with her: it takes a while for the nerves to grow into transplanted skin, so for a period after her surgery, Maisie’s face would feel like sort of a mask hanging off of her – it might actually feel heavy. This detail made its way into Faceless.

Even so, Alyssa revealed she was worried about taking up these doctors’ time with her incessant questions but found these experts often wanted to talk about their respective fields

“It’s challenging when you’re talking to such ‘important’ people – when I was interviewing a plastic surgeon, for example, I kept apologizing for taking up time that he could be spending with his patients. But he insisted that he was happy to give me his time and answer his questions.”

Alyssa Sheinmel

Like all transplant patients, face transplant recipients are put on immunosuppressive drug regimens. Alyssa revealed her editor had a few doctor and medical student friends who were incredibly helpful with these questions in particular. What were the side effects like? How many pills would she have to take? At sixteen, Maisie has already been told that she can’t carry a child because her medication could cause birth defects. She found what the pills looked like by searching on Google.

Alyssa explained the immunosuppressive regimen became a big part of Maisie’s journey. It’s difficult enough for Maisie that she doesn’t look like her old self, but being on these drugs keeps her from feeling like herself too. She’s tired, nauseated, achy. She’s a former straight-A student who can barely stay awake in class anymore.

For Alyssa there isn’t always a straight a line between my research and the story as everything she reads and watches teaches her something about how to tell a story. She told me as she was writing Faceless, she found herself thinking about stories she’d read and movies she’d seen that – on the surface, at least – didn’t really have much in common with her book. But they still were every bit as helpful as all the articles she read and doctors she spoke to about face transplants. There were also things going on in her life that influenced the story such as, a family member underwent surgery and her stay in the hospital and subsequent recovery impacted on Maisie’s experience, too.

The emotional aftermath of surgery was another one of those times when her unintentional research came in to play. Years ago – well before she started working on Faceless – she watched a documentary called The Crash Reel about American snowboarder Kevin Pearce. Heading into the Vancouver Winter Olympics, it looked like nothing would stop Kevin from bringing home a medal (except possibly, his long-time rivalry with fellow-snowboarder Shaun White). But during practice one day, a horrific crash sends Kevin to the hospital, where he’s treated for a traumatic brain injury. All Kevin wants to do is get back on his board, back to the life he knew before – but his friends and family are worried that snowboarding again could kill him.

In Faceless, Maisie was a runner before her accident – she ran track on her school’s team, she ran alongside her boyfriend, she ran for fun. Running was a huge part of who she was, part of how she defined herself – and after her procedure, she can’t run the way she used to. In fact, she might never be able to run again. Just as Maisie has to give up running, in The Crash Reel, Kevin Pearce has to come to terms with his new reality – a reality that might not include snowboarding.

Another piece of unintentional research helped her with the aftermath of Maisie’s accident – a novel called The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman, which I read years ago as well. It’s the story of an ordinary New Jersey librarian to whom the extraordinary happens: one day, she’s struck by lightning. Afterwards, the world looks different – literally: she can no longer see the colour red. Though Hoffman’s protagonist doesn’t have much in common with Faceless’s main character, Maisie (other than the fact that each have a run-in with lightning), they’re both characters whose lives are changed by somewhat random events, and they have to come to terms with a new normal.

“When I was a freshman in college, my psychology textbook taught me how to insert humour into a dry topic. Magazine articles have prompted (sometimes completely unrelated) story ideas. And certainly, when I watched a documentary about snow-boarding a few years ago, I had no idea it would someday influence a novel I wrote about face transplants.”

Alyssa Sheinmel

Alyssa’s tip to other writers when researching is to keep an open mind. She explains you never know where your next idea will come from, which book or article or essay will help you learn how to tell your story. Just keep your eyes and ears open, and learn as much as you can.

You can find out more about Alyssa Sheinmel on her website: www.alysasheinmel.com and follow her on Twitter: @alyssasheinmel.

To read the complete unabridged feature you can purchase a copy of the Aug 2016 #178 issue of 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… Sarah Aspinall

For my Research Secrets slot in Writers’ Forum issue Sept 2021 #236 I interviewed Sarah Aspinall about her memoir Diamonds at the Lost and Found: A Memoir in Search of My Mother, published by Fourth Estate and inspired by her glamourous, yet eccentric mother, Audrey Miller, later known as Audrey Aspinall.

Sarah knew she had to find a way of writing this book as every time she told the story of her childhood adventures people would gasp and say, ‘you have to write that, it’s such an incredible story.’ The word incredible always worried her a little, as she’d sometimes wonder if it all really happen as she remembered it.

“My memories were vividly of a wild harum-scarum life, travelling the world with my glamorous but eccentric mother, Audrey. We wound up in various strange exotic destinations around the world; sometimes we were in luxury hotels and fantastic mansions, other times we lived in cabins of cruise ships, or a cheap scruffy motel in the Killdevil Hills of North Carolina. We often stayed with people we’d just met. Many of these people were men, as the purpose of these trips seemed to be for my mother ‘to find true love.’”

Sarah Aspinall

Sarah revealed when she started writing she had no contacts as she knew most of the people as ‘Auntie Sadie’ or ‘Uncle Les.’ She had no idea how to start her research and all she had to go on was a big chocolate box full of photographs, some had dates and names scribbled on the back. There was also a battered address book held together with rubber bands, in which nothing was in order in its alphabetical pages. It was stuffed with scraps of paper with barely legible names and numbers. Yet, Sarah had spent most her childhood listening to her mother regale people with her amazing stories. These people would have heard them all and may be able to fill in the blanks.   

“I think even a simple memoir is a way of passing on something precious as everyone has a story to tell.”

Sarah Aspinall

Audrey’s own childhood in Liverpool was easy to write about, as Sarah told me she had already vividly conjured the sights, sounds and smells of the coal-yard belonging to her Uncle Charlie where she and her mother lived after being deserted by her father. Memoirs such as Helen Forrester’s story of her desperately poor childhood in Depression-ridden Liverpool of the 1930 were brilliant for details of daily life.

On Facebook there are pages such as Liverpool Hidden History, which has 42,000 members. Her queries about the lives of a bookie’s runner got many helpful responses from people whose own parents told them stories of illegal back street gambling.  She used some of these personal for moments such as Audrey’s description of running back from the pubs with all the bets and hiding under the big tarpaulin in the yard when someone had tipped off the police. Similarly with accounts of the evacuees getting on trains Sarah borrowed from real memories of people:

‘…as the train crowded with children pulled out of Lime Street station, some of the little ones were screaming for their mothers. I saw one mother being sick on the platform, but mine managed to stand tall.’ 

Extract from Diamonds at the Lost and Found: A Memoir in Search of My Mother

Sarah explained she was aware of Audrey being very much the family star from the photos of her at the time in dance clothes, or leading the Orange Day parades or as the May Queen. She found accounts of these big celebrations of a working-class Liverpool childhood on social media. Watching archive from Pathe news on YouTube was useful gave a sense of the crowds watching a horse parade and the nodding heads of the horses. Sarah said there are hundreds of wonderful Pathe news clips online which really transport you to the past and spark the imagination. 

For her mother’s eventful voyage to America just after the war when she was twenty, Sarah bought James Steele’s book Queen Mary, which is rich in images that show the fabulous décor of the ballrooms and cocktail lounges and gives you a sense of daily life for the different class of passengers. She also signed up to ancestry.co.uk to look for clues to her parents’ family histories and was thrilled to find it has passenger lists for sea voyages. 

“Discovering her name handwritten on the list was magical. Revealing she had written in one column she was a ‘journalist’ I’d known she had a social diary in the local paper, Talk of Many Things by Audrey Miller but was disappointed to find no records for those years.”

Sarah Aspinall

Sarah told me that travelling back to places in the book was the most powerful way of reaching back to the past. Scents and smells are amazing at unlocking memories. Walking the streets of New York helped her to write about the city Audrey discovered in 1946. Although the air would have been a little different then, many things would not have changed. Sarah knew she would be dreaming of something more thrilling than her godmother’s small flat in the suburb of Jackson Heights. Using this memory, she wrote:

‘Of course, in my fantasies I was in the New York of the Movies.. off sipping Martini at the Copacabana Bar with Cary Grant, not sitting each night in Mike and Sadie’s little apartment with our TV dinners on a tray.’  

Extract from Diamonds at the Lost and Found: A Memoir in Search of My Mother

A lightning bolt of memory came when her childhood friends reminded her of the stuffed snake toy she’d named Sabet Sabescue. Sarah divulged she suddenly remembered this was the name of the man who had taken them on the felucca boat down the Nile. HIs smile remained like the Cheshire Cat, long after the rest of him had vanished, hovering at the edge of my memory, along with the thrill of driving too fast in his open car with the wind in my hair. This is perhaps the most exciting thing about researching a memoir – the finding of these tiny keys that unlock a secret storehouse of forgotten memories.

For writing any book, and particularly a memoir Sarah’s advice is to get a good editor, or friendly reader to find cuts to make in your writing. Every line of a memoir can feel precious to you, because it is so intimately your story. She rarely read drafts of people’s books which wouldn’t benefit enormously by a tough edit. Writers must invite it, or even insist on it, as friends hate to tell the awful truth. You need to insist ‘be brutal, find me whole sections to lose, not just a few lines here and there’.  

Trims and tightening can help a lot, but the painful truth is often whole chunks of story just need to go even though they may have taken a lot of time and be beautifully written. Sarah elaborated that she cut three last chapters out completely, although they represented months of work because two trusted friends both said the same thing ‘it is better without them; the story really ends earlier.’ They were right. This is when she found a publisher.

Her research tip is to interrogate friends and family about tiny details of what they remember, as the name of an old toy can bring so much flooding back. Use the sense of smell to unlock the past. Sarah explained that if she smells Youth Dew her mother’s perfume whole scenes come back to her. If you can revisit places close your eyes and breath in, as it may allow you to time travel.

Sarah is happy for anyone wanting writing tips or advice to contact her via Facebook or Instagram. She doesn’t use twitter much. 

You can find Sarah Aspinall on Facebook @sarah.aspinall.355 and Instagram @sarahjaspinall

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of Sept 2021 #236 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… Delores Gordon-Smith

For my Research Secrets slot in the February #251 8 Feb 2023 issue of Writers Forum I spoke to Delores Gordon Smith about how she researched her radio play based on the mysterious death of Charles Bravo in 1876.

Delores told me writing a story set in 1876 was a bit of a new venture for her, as all of her novels are murder mysteries set in the 1920’s. Murder, Charles Bravo: A Radio Play, published by Williams & Whiting, is very different.  

In the phonetic alphabet ‘Charlie’ stands for the letter C and ‘Bravo’ for the letter B.  Which may lead anyone to suppose that a murder mystery with a character called Charles Bravo as the victim must be fiction. It isn’t.  The murder – or, perhaps, more accurately – the death of Charles Bravo was one of the most notorious unsolved mysteries of Victorian England.

On Tuesday, the 18th April 1876 Charles Bravo, a young barrister aged thirty, came home to his beautiful and wealthy wife, Florence, who he’d married four months previously.  That night he was taken gravely ill and, after three days of agony, died on Friday the 21st.  After his death the autopsy revealed that Bravo had taken a dose of between twenty and thirty grains (about half a teaspoon) of the poison, antimony. But who gave him the poison?  That’s where the mystery lies.

Like many avid readers – and most authors are avid readers – some of the very first grown-up books Delores read were the Sherlock Holmes stories. She explained Sherlock Holmes’ background is so vividly depicted that, almost without knowing it, any child reading the stories will accumulate a substantial store of knowledge about Victorian England – hansom cabs, steam trains, the gas-lit streets, the huge gaps between rich and poor, the old rural way of life and the smoky industry of the city; all that’s in Conan Doyle, a foreign but familiar landscape. 

The Charles Bravo mystery fits right in – it’s a Sherlock Holmes story without Sherlock, populated by an arrogant young barrister, a damsel in acute distress, a mysterious elderly doctor, a foreign companion who evidently has a secret of her own and a kindly, alert lawyer. The mystery has intrigued many writers from Agatha Christie to Julian Fellows.    

However, as any writer knows, the finished book or play is the tip of an iceberg of research. That sounds very daunting but it’s easier to get your head round the idea if you break it into the various steps. 

First of all, the setting, period or the subject – preferably all three – have to be something that you’re interested in anyway. Victorian England and an unsolved murder mystery?  Yes, that box was ticked. I think this initial interest is really important because you’re going to be spending a lot of imaginative time in this world that you’re creating. 

Incidentally, it’s where the story’s set that is probably the most important. If you think about the books that you’ve really enjoyed, the chances are it’s the setting, along with the characters, that’ve drawn you into the book. Delores advocates you should try to discover the real facts about the time, place and subject and don’t rely just on what you’ve seen on TV or read in popular novels. 

Those have their uses but wherever you’re setting a story try and make it real.  This rule applies as much to stories set now as to historical fiction and as much to a story set locally as to some exotic destination. If you’re interested enough in your home town to set a story there, then you’ll include the sort of detail that’ll make it come alive for the reader. How? Well, if you want to set a story in your home town, for instance, you’ve got a huge advantage as you know your town inside out. However, try and see the town or city through a visitor’s eyes. What would strike a visitor as unusual?

She told me the descriptions of Holmes’ London are so realistic many readers think they know the place, but the interesting thing is that Conan Doyle wasn’t a Londoner. He came from Edinburgh and gives his impressions of London as they’d strike a visitor. One little clue is Sherlock Holmes’ address, 221B, Baker Street. That “B” isn’t a London way of numbering apartment, flats or rooms; it belongs to Edinburgh. Then, of course, as your story develops, you’ll be able to add to your initial knowledge by the close-up detail you’ll need to make an individual scene come alive. 

Delores discovered the landmark book on the subject is How Charles Bravo Died by Yseult Bridges, published in 1956.  Here, she recounts in great detail, the story of the two inquests (the case never came to trial) that were held, as well as giving a plethora of fascinating background detail on the various people involved. This book is one of those great things that occasionally happen to a writer, an absolute gift for anyone interested in the subject. 

“I didn’t think the Bravo case could be turned into a novel. With the transcripts of the inquests so faithfully recorded by Yseult Bridges, the story seemed tailor made for a radio play. I wasn’t making up dialogue but using (and, obviously, editing) what was actually said. Okay, so I had to make up some dialogue but I tried to keep that well within the bounds of what the various characters are recorded as thing and feeling.”

Delores Gordon-Smith

Her tip to writers wanting to write their own radio play is to not only research the subject matter but to also do the research into the genre.

“A radio play – at the risk of sending obvious, it’s all got to be done in speech. Obviously you can have a character’s voice-over as an intimate chat to the listener – a sort of breaking the fourth wall.”

Delores Gordon Smith

She elaborated how Inner thoughts can be given as a voice-over and the sound effects (buzz of conversation from a crowd in court) etc help to set the scene as, unlike a novel, you can’t fall back on straightforward description. Delores said signalling to the listener that we’ve moved onto a new scene can be tricky and recommends a couple of tricks, such as having the narrator say words to the effect of, ‘It was later that day when Mr X came to see me..’ etc.  

Other than that – the technical side of remembering it’s all spoken word with no visuals or description – the process is much the same as writing a novel. That’s imagining yourself in the lives of these characters and bringing them to life as best you can.  

Discover more about Delores and her books on her website: www.doloresgordon-smith.co.uk.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #251 8 Feb 2023 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 Raisin

In a Research Secrets interview for #250 4 Jan 2023 issue of Writers’ Forum, I spoke to Rebecca Raisin about her travel research into Van Life and Christmas traditions in Lapland for her latest romance novel, Flora’s Travelling Christmas Shop.

In typical romance style the heroine is going through a bad patch where her life seems to implode and she can’t understand what she’s doing wrong. Flora’s best friend Livvie comes up with an audacious plan for her to become a Van Lifer and live her dream selling Christmas decorations from her van at a market in Lapland.

My beautiful van Peppermint

Rebecca told me Lapland has this magical allure thanks to the Aurora Borealis and it’s one of the most festive places on the planet so felt is was the perfect backdrop to send Flora in her van. She revealed she uses Pinterest to make vision boards about each novel before she begins as it helps as a visual prompt when she describes the town, characters and what they’re up to. She makes her boards ‘secret’ so no one has access to them before she has finished writing the book.

To flesh out her characters she starts by doing a personality profile on each main character – what they look like, and then more important parts like what they’re afraid of, what they want most. She told me she writes copious notes, their backstory, whether they’re whimsical, sassy or confident but secretly unhappy.

“I also use online personality tests and input what I think my character would choose and use those results to flesh them out even more. One of my favourites is www.16personalities.com. This helps me to make my characters relatable so the reader can sympathise with them and cheer them on.”

Rebecca Raisin

When setting books set in exotic locations, Rebecca explained she looks for off-the-beaten track experiences, foods, culture, lore about the place. She wants the reader to be wowed by learning something they didn’t know before. For Lapland, with its artic climate she focused on finding out more about the setting through official websites like: www.visitfinland.com/lapland/ and when something piqued her interest she searched further afield.

She finds Instagram great for providing images that take root in her imagination so she can then create more vivid descriptions. She searches hashtags such as #Wanderlust #VanLife #Nomads #Lapland. For example:

Cradling the mug to warm my hands, I look at the snowy view outside and know that moments like these are why people choose Van Life. There’s no one about, just me and the snowy cotton-ball landscape.

Extract from Flora’s Travelling Christmas Shop by Rebecca Raisin

Rebecca told me the most unusual piece of research she did for Flora’s Travelling Christmas Shop was to find a local sauna at a swimming centre and try it out. After reading so much about the health benefits, she wanted to experience it for herself to help her describe it throughout the book.

“I found it mercilessly hot and hard to breathe and I only lasted about five minutes.”

Rebecca Raisin

This research, along with her reading, filtered into her writing, as can be seen in this following extract:

One thing I’m curious about, why are saunas so popular here? Is it because of the arctic temperatures? A way to warm up?’

‘Yes, that I suppose but it’s mainly for the health benefits. For general wellbeing. If the sauna can’t cure you, nothing can. I use it for detoxing, anti-ageing, to speed up my metabolism. Back in the day, my grandmother gave birth to all her babies in saunas, as did many in her generation, thinking it was the safest, most sterile place for such a thing. Every single member of my family has a sauna at home – they use the sauna, then swim in the icy cold lake and head back into the sauna. It’s invigorating, makes you feel alive! It’s just one of those things that’s ingrained in us.’

Extract from Flora’s Travelling Christmas Shop by Rebecca Raisin

Her research into Christmas traditions revealed the typical cosy way in which Finnish people celebrate Christmas. It’s traditional to celebrate Christmas from the 21st of December until St Knut’s Day January 13th. Finnish people tend to work a lot in the lead up so they can spend the holidays with their families. On December 24th they decorate the tree, have a warm glass of gløgge, or mulled wine before their joulusauna.

Rebecca explained she spends a lot of time reading travel blogs and searching on Instagram for people living the same sort of Van Life lifestyle. She advocates reading travels blogs is an authentic way to learn about what struggles they face along the way, as well as the gems they find that an everyday tourist might miss. Usually her heroines are thirty-somethings travelling on a limited budget so she hunts for others who go from country to country and live a frugal existence selling what they can and living outside of ordinary. She revealed YouTube van diaries were also a fun way to tag along these journeys from the comfort of her own home.

Rebecca told me she is particularly interested in food when researching for a book, as it’s a great way for characters to try something new and is a scene setter. Popular during the festive season in Lapland is joululimppu which is Christmas bread.

She explained that like a lot of the Finnish food it’s a mix of strong flavours that just seem to work. She found the ideal recipe for joululimppu on www.cuisinefiend.com.

“Browsing food blogs is a very addictive past time of mine, especially when researching for a Christmas book set in a country foreign to me. I like the personal touch when reading blogs and that the creators are clearly passionate about their subject. I read up on certain recipes from that country, in this case Finland and then lace them throughout the book, trying not to info dump, but so they appear naturally to the reader.”

Rebecca Raisin

This can be seen in this extract from Flora’s Travelling Christmas Shop:

Stalls sell roasted chestnuts, and piparkakut a traditional Finnish gingerbread. There’s a sign for the ultimate comfort food riisipuuro otherwise known as rice pudding, mugs of steaming hot cocoa and warm pastries. The scent of Christmas – a mix of nutmeg, vanilla, star anise – is heavy in the icy air.

Extract from Flora’s Travelling Christmas Shop by Rebecca Raisin

You can find out more information about Rebecca Raisin and her books on her website: www.rebeccaraisin.com

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #250 4 Jan 2023 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… Stephen Wade

In January 2022 I interviewed Stephen Wade about the research he did for his fiction novel, The Lovers on Asphodel Way. The interview appeared in the #241 Feb 2022 issue of Writers’ Forum.

It is set on a Yorkshire building site of a new housing estate during 1972. The story encompasses the worries and fears of everyday life at this time. The Lovers on Asphodel Way is published by a new publisher called Inky Lab who are based in Newcastle. They have published four anthologies and my book is part of their new fiction list.

Most of his published books have been non-fiction and this one is fiction. Even so Steve revealed the research was basically the same, but in addition he had my own memories.

“Although I never took any photos at the time, luckily, on the main heritage site for the Leeds area, Leodis, I found houses and streets from all decades throughout the twentieth century. Imagining places has always been the first stage of my research, followed by tracking down objects, pictures, and of course, memoirs of times and places.”

Steve Wade

After his first draft, he realised that there was a lot he still needed to know, especially since he had only been working as a labourer in his student years. He realised he couldn’t carry a hod, lay a brick or spread concrete on a drive and he needed facts about the men on the site and the women workers in the places around the site, in particular a corner shop and a working men’s club. he told me for the latter, he used the newspaper archive for the basic facts – the Times Digital Archive for the year 1972. he also accessed the Lancashire Library Service digital archive, after first joining the Lancashire Library. This provided all kinds of details, including costs.

He used family anecdotes about when his dad was a baker to help him create the atmosphere and find his character’s voices. Most helpful of all the sources was the memories of the man who ran the site – the gaffer – who knew his father, who bought back memories of the way he spoke and his overall attitudes. But again, people who knew him provided more detail.

Steve said discovering information about life doing Voluntary Services Overseas proved to be a challenge. In the end, he looked at some old archives from a woman who worked for the Women’s Volunteer Service in Korea, and he transmuted her work – arranging concerts and music – into his story, which (in one strand) concerns a father writing to a son in Africa which is a contrast between the lawlessness the father sees at home and the surprising civilised and progressive context in Africa, reported by the son. When Steve looked at some memories of people who had done VSO, he found the British view of Africa was still governed at that time by the distortions of the media.

“As for the use I made of the Korean material and the Women’s Voluntary Services, this was wonderful source material, because the woman whose archive I accessed had been a working-class Lincolnshire woman whose family had lived lives of great service (from being in the second world war to the Korean and then in the Middle East). Her letters home gave me the authentic feel of the period because she was still working abroad into the 1980s, mainly in Germany.”

Steve Wade

Steve elaborated that these letters are the only ones that deal with the world well outside the Yorkshire village and people. He used them to make the exotic references more distinct and interesting, so the element of surprise and even shock in the letters from Africa gives the reader an element of the unexpected. It also has a modern resonance because the Africa depicted is not at all like author Joseph Conrad’s, or anything similar.

In the novel the writer of the letters in Yorkshire is a doctor, and he looks backwards in time for a kind of comfort, seeing the modern world as threatening, so he over-stresses the dangers he perceives around him as he writes his letters. The creation of his character proves how useful our own locality is because the model for him was a corner house in my own town, which had gradually been vandalised over a period of a few years.

Steve explained when doing research organisation is crucial. For his non-fiction he gathers all kinds of materials in folders, and relate the material to chapters, after first outlining the chapter content but for his fiction he revealed it was easier for him to put them in folders that roughly related to stages in the book.

“I tend to write fiction in passages and moods, short bursts. This relates to my fondness for notebooks and coffee shops. I tend to take my notebook somewhere beyond phones and doors, to somewhere where I will not be contacted, and then write a few pages. These pages then go into the folders for each stage as the story unfolds.”

Steve Wade

He told me his oddest piece of research was for the working men’s club. Back then, these places really were old school and very ‘unwoke.’ There were snooker rooms and bars where women were not permitted. There was a male culture that thrived away from home. What I did was invent an old soldier who is full of stories, strange exaggerations, and make his recalling the past a satire on him. In other words, he is something of a grotesque.  He comes out as a Python-type character.

His research tip for other writers is when you need to have authentic voices from the past, use the Old bailey Sessions Online. Here, dipping into any criminal trial between 1683-1913, who have the actual voices of ordinary people of all trades and places, to read – exactly as they spoke. Characters may be lifted from these very rich and fascinating trail transcripts.

Steve told me researching archives is particularly rewarding and surprising. He once found, in a pack of letters between mother and son, from way back in 1977, some pressed flowers and dried blood. The son had died on his way to take part in the Zulu War. The family history site is a wonderful resource because they have all kinds of previously hard to find court and prison records. The Ancestry site is also particularly useful.

You can discover more about Stephen Wade and his books on his website: www.stephen-wade.com

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #241 Feb 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… Sue Moorcroft

Today you can discover what Sue Moorcroft told me about her research into the seasons for her romance novels in the interview for the #240 Dec 2021 issue of Writers’ Forum.

Sue explained writing a summer novel and a winter novel each year makes weather a consideration. When she was writing about Switzerland she used an online snow-cam and other online resources for typical temperatures and daylight hours.

She also keeps my eye out for seasonal events or traditions that she could be used in her novels and keeps a note on any posters about seasonal events – a Christmas tree competition or an artificial beach in the local town centre during the school summer holidays, etc.

“I had a Christmas wreath made last year and the florist explained it was compostable so I brought that into Under the Mistletoe and found a demonstration of how to make one online.”

She revealed when writing a Christmas book she bears in mind Christmas can affect everything. For those who celebrate the season, things are worse or better if you tag ‘at Christmas’ onto a situation. He lost his job at Christmas. She found her long-lost sister at Christmas. Christmas affects what restaurants or pubs look like, menus, what shops sell, what’s on the radio or TV and how people spend their time. Even a Christmas gift is meaningful for both plot and characterisation.

“Ideas are like gold dust. When I get one, I write it down. I can usually make my ideas fit the season with a bit of plot dexterity but definitely an ice hockey player fits nicely into a winter book and a vineyard owner into a summer book.”

Sue Moorcroft

Sue told me people with knowledge are key to her research and she is always interested in what they have to say and will follow up with more questions. She revealed she often uses social media to find the people she needs. For Under the Mistletoe she needed help from a teacher on the subject of bullying and help from an artist, as it’s my heroine Laurel’s occupation. She explained people can be incredibly kind.

When writing Under the Italian Sun she saw a documentary on the subject of post partum psychosis and followed the filmmaker on Twitter. He was the subject of the documentary, too, as he’d lost his mum young and didn’t understand why there was such a mystery around it. Sue told him how much she’d enjoyed the documentary and she was writing a book that covered the same subject. He offered her a video chat where she could find out more information.

In Just for the Holidays a forced helicopter landing took place. The process is called autorotation, the skill of keeping the rotors moving using pitch and yaw when the engine cuts out – a bit like a sycamore seed twirling to earth. Sue had trouble finding a helicopter pilot who wanted to help but eventually, via a friend of a friend, she found one. He took her up in a helicopter and they ‘pretend crashed’.

“It was awesome! I absolutely loved it. We shot down to earth and then he just pulled it up and landed (this is called ‘flare and run-on landing). Chatting afterwards, although it had taken ages casting around to find him, it turned out he knew my auntie.”

Sue Moorcroft

Sue also loves to visit the countries she write about. She regularly goes to writing retreats and courses in Umbria, Italy and has used the setting for several of her novels. Under the Italian Sun and One Summer in Italy are both set there so she was able to use her extensive photo library as a resource.

I know a lovely Italian lady and I asked her if she could help with things that were hard to research from here, or are cultural, such as what kind of beer this person would drink or how people behave if they have nuns to lunch, and she answered every email. She also put the Italian phrases right for me. It gave me a lot of confidence in the authenticity of the setting and themes.

On a visit, Sue told me she tends to eat local food, especially any particular to the region. Menus are also helpful, and available online. Settings can help an author weave a romantic spell around the reader. Her tip is to pick a setting that heightens the emotional stakes and visit it.

Find out more about Sue Moorcroft on her website www.suemoorcroft.com and follow her on Twitter @SueMoorcroft and on Instagram @suemoorcroftauthor.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #240 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… Christina Courtenay (Pia Fenton)

For the #242 30 Mar 2022 issue of Writers’ Forum, Christina Courtenay (Pia Fenton) explained to me why seeing and experiencing things first-hand is the best kind of research.

Being half Swedish, she has been interested in the Vikings for a long time and wanted to showcase their amazing achievements as craftsmen, traders and explorers, as well as their fearlessness, curiosity and sense of adventure.

She started by researching the background and history, then studied particular aspects more in depth, which included reading loads of books, watching a wide range of TV programmes and visiting museums. She found there are a lot of resources out there on the Vikings and her main problem was in trying to choose the resources that would be most useful.

Christina told me that if she can’t find the relevant non-fiction books in the library, she will buy second-hand copies online from AbeBooks, where she has discovered some real bargains. Whilst reading, she take notes and compiles a summary of the information she needs.

“It is a long process and it’s ongoing as I keep finding and adding more information all the time. I also chatted to re-enactors and contacted an archaeologist who is a specialist in the Vikings. I managed to make contact via social media – Twitter and Facebook are very useful for that.”

Christina Courtenay

To keep track of her research, she creates Word documents with headings like ‘Clothes’, ‘Food’, ‘Weapons’ etc in alphabetical order and whenever she finds new and relevant information she adds it under the specific heading so she can easily find it later.

Christina revealed her most frustrating experience when writing her Icelandic stories was they had to be mostly written without ever going to Iceland, and it wasn’t until right before her deadline that the Covid restrictions were eased and she finally managed a trip over there. Before this she had to rely on contacting all the people she knew who had either been to Iceland or lived there, and sent them a questionnaire.

“I also read an awful lot of travel blogs, and watched YouTube clips as well. For specific places, there is always Google Earth if you need to see the layout of the land. But I won’t lie – it was extremely difficult and I didn’t feel entirely satisfied with the result so it was a huge relief when I was able to go there myself.”

Christina Courtenay

For Christina, seeing and experiencing things first hand is key. In Ribe, Denmark, there is an outdoor museum with a dozen buildings of various types.¹ Sitting in the longhouse and chieftain’s hall helped her to imagine myself back in time and she was able to lie down on a sleeping bench covered in old furs.

Christina sitting in hall at Ribe

Near Skanör in the south of Sweden is a similar museum, the Fotevikens Museum², and in Iceland she found a reconstructed turf house at the Eiriksstadir Museum³, which was invaluable. These museums always have dedicated and knowledgeable staff who are more than happy to answer questions. There are also places like the Jorvik Viking Centre⁴ in York https://www.jorvikvikingcentre.co.uk/ where you can experience life in that city. She said the best thing about visiting living history museums and events like the Jorvik Viking Festival is seeing the re-enactors (and talking to them) and the various craftsmen.

Christina explained replica Viking clothing and jewellery are readily available for the purposes of re-enactment, as are weapons. You can see examples on the Jelldragon Viking Craft Store⁵ online. In fact, her family have become used to buying her Viking artefacts for Christmas and birthdays. Christina told me she has also learnt to weave properly on a loom and suggested a great book with instructions for band-weaving is Weaving Patterned Bands by my teacher Susan J Foulkes

“Wearing them or handling them allows me to imagine what it would feel like to live in that era. And I bought myself a fire iron and tried striking it with the flint to make fire – it worked just fine.”

Christina Courtenay

Christina told me she has also learnt to weave properly on a loom and recommended, Weaving Patterned Bands by Susan J Foulkes as it contains excellent instructions for band-weaving.

The heroine in one of her stories has to sew herself some clothes so Christina decided to try to make a so called smokkr – the apron overdress worn by some Viking women. Re-enactors recommended she purchase the woollen material needed from Bernie the Bolt Cloth Merchant⁶ on Facebook, as he stocks authentic fabric for historical garments. She found a pattern in a leaflet she’d bought some years earlier. She sewed several of the seams by hand to find out how long it would take.

The Viking dress Christina made

She revealed the main surprise was how heavy the resulting dress was – several yards of woollen fabric weighed a lot more than she’d imagined. She also realised the garment had to be fairly loose as there were no buttons/openings, and also for ease of movement.

“Paired with a linen underdress (which I had bought readymade), it felt great, although it’s still missing a decorative border. I did a weekend course to learn how to do band-weaving though, so I will soon be adding that. Apron dresses were held up by straps fastened with tortoise brooches, so of course I asked for a pair for Christmas, as well as a belt with a Viking buckle and some Viking leather half-boots. And I bought beads for a necklace to string between the brooches.”

Christina Courtenay

Her favourite piece of hands-on research so far was helping to row a Viking ship round Roskilde harbour in a reconstructed longship at the Viking Ship Museum⁷ there. She found out it was a very smooth ride. The most unusual research was when she visited an open air museum in Gudvangen, Norway, called Njardarheimr⁸ where I was allowed to try throwing a Viking axe with the aim of hitting a huge block of wood. To my intense surprise, I managed it. (Lucky throw?)

For Viking food Christina recommends cookbooks such as, Eat Like a Viking by Craig Brooks and revealed she has tried some of the recipes.

Ember cooked turnip

A lot of their food was fairly bland and monotonous and, for me, not salty enough. (I love salt!) For the purposes of preserving meat, either smoking it or keeping it in whey was more common.

While visiting the island of Birka she went to the Birka Vikingastaden⁹, just west of Stockholm, where she was shown how Vikings made flatbread – delicious. And tried mead which she found lovely and sweet.

Christina’s list of useful websites on Vikings

  1. Ribe Viking Center – www.ribevikingecenter.dk/en
  2. Foteviken Museum – www.fotevikensmuseum.se
  3. Eiriksstadir Museum – www.eiriksstadir.is/en
  4. Jorvik Viking Centre – www.jorvikvikingcentre.co.uk
  5. Jelldragon Viking Craft Store – www.jelldragon.com
  6. Bernie the Bolt Cloth Merchant – www.facebook.com/Bernie-the-Bolt-Cloth-Merchant-738089226363967/
  7. Viking Ship Museum – www.vikingeskibsmuseet.dk
  8. Njardarheimr – www.vikingvalley.no
  9. Birka Vikingastaden – www.birkavikingastaden.se
  10. Christina has an extensive range of research features on her website, which includes information about the Vikings – www.christinacourtenay.com

You can follow Christina Courtenay (aka Pia Fenton) On Twitter @PiaCCourtenay and Instagram @christinacourtenayauthor

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #242 30 Mar 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… Paola Totaro

Today on my blog I am talking about an interview I did with Paola Totaro for my Research Secrets slot In this month’s issue of Writers’ Forum #248 26 Oct 2022. She explained how losing her sense of smell during Covid inspired her and her husband to co-write their non-fiction book, On the Scent.

On the afternoon of March 27, 2020, Paolo told me she went to the bathroom and after washing her hands and using her usual scented hand cream, she realised she had completely lost her sense of smell.

“I will never forget the moment because it was so sudden, so inexplicable and so utterly frightening. I’m driven by smell. I walk the park with the dog smelling flowers, the air, rain and being unable to smell anything was an existential shock. I felt as if I’d been put in a bubble and was missing a vital connection with the outside world.”

Paola Totaro

This inspired her to read more anecdotal reports of this mysterious, sudden smell loss to find out what was happening to her and what quickly also struck millions of others around the world. She found herself researching the cultural history of smell and how human perception and response to smells has changed over the centuries, from theories of miasma in which smell was said to be harbinger of disease to the use of changes in smell as diagnostic tools.

She told me she must have read hundreds of research papers that were being pre-published during Covid and also interviewed scientists from all over the world -neuroscientists in the US – to specialist ENT physicians in Germany and Switzerland – to philosophers in the UK and Spain.

“I reached out straight away to Professor Barry Smith, Director of the Institute of Philosophy at the School of Advanced Study, University of London who happened to have said something on Twitter about smell that day and he, bless him, sent me an incredibly kind email acknowledging just how awful the loss can be. Later, he would also help me onto the path to find the top global chemosensory specialists who might explain what was going on.”

Paolo Totaro

Paola revealed she even created a google alert on the word anosmia, which was enormously helpful as science and medicine were advancing at leaps and bounds in this area. She also spent a week immersed with young doctors and scientists who planned to specialise in otorhinolaryngology or olfaction research, at a summer school at the University of Dresden in 2021 run by Professor Thomas Hummel, known in this world of smell as the ‘grandfather of olfaction’.

On the Scent by Paolo Totaro and Robert Wainwright

The resulting book, On the Scent – Unlocking the mysteries of smell – and how its loss can change your world, is a mix of Paolo’s personal memoir of her journey into dealing with her loss of smell integrated with all the scientific research she uncovered. Much of the book was written in lockdown so many of her interviews were conducted over Zoom. She also interviewed people who had been born without a sense of smell, others who lost the sense to virus or brain injury. Reading the bibliographies and footnotes of other published writers/authors on the topic of olfaction was also hugely helpful and Paolo reached out to some authors who were also helpful and generous.

Paolo explained her husband, Robert Wainwright who specialises in writing the biographies of interesting and important people lost in history wrote about people throughout history who had no sense of smell, such as the great nature poet, Wordsworth who was anosmic. He also contributed the story of INXS frontman, Michael Hutchence, who plunged into depression when he lost his sense of smell. She elaborated Robert was her slash and burn guy as were the editors at Elliott and Thompson.

“Throughout the writing process, I would read aloud to Robert each evening and if his eyes glazed over in the science bits, I’d wind them back. He did the same for me with his people chapters – but he’s much less long winded than me.”

Paolo Totaro

The book was written in just six months.

To find out more about Paolo and her journalism on her website www.paolatotaro.com. You can find her on Twitter at @p_totaro and on Instagram, @aggiornalista on Twitter.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #248 26 Oct 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… 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… 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.