Researching a novel can be a breath of fresh air….

Recently, I was invited to do a talk at a library. I always love these events – it is a chance to meet wonderful readers, to find out what they think about books and so much more. While I was there, a member of the audience asked me a question: ‘I suppose it must be hard writing the Elena Collins books, as you have to do research?’

I think my answer surprised him a bit. Yes, I do a lot of research for the historical timeline novels: it’s a constant quest to find out about the time period I’m using, to immerse myself in the history, the facts, to discover things like speech patterns, culture, costume, attitudes, foods, lifestyles and so much more. I love researching history, and it’s a central part of the dual timelines. He was absolutely correct – research before, during and after writing (to double check) is so important.

But what surprised him was that I do so much research for the other books too. Of course, the cosy crime means that I need to have a close liaison with the police so that I can check procedures, and I’m blessed to have neighbours who are in the force and have been in the past, who are happy to let me pick their brains. But I have to research details people don’t always consider. For example, if a particular character drives a van, I have to find out whether the door opens at the back or the side. I had to research how cider was made, how a particular type of poisoning works and even the wages of a sex worker in Amsterdam. I have to double check I’m correct when I use another language or adopt a speech pattern; I have to write about foods I’ve never eaten, from eggs to scones. Some people say a writer should write about what they know, but often I write about what other people know too. I ask so many people so many questions, and they are always kind and helpful. Google is often my friend, I read countess books and pamphlets and, when in doubt, I pack a bag and travel. A writer’s life is fascinating.

I’ve been to haunted castles in Scotland; I’ve stood in woodlands watching deer at midnight; I’ve traipsed round farms and ruins and orchards and beaches, cities and villages; I’ve put myself in characters’ places for so long it’s been hard remembering who I am.

Recently, I went to Norfolk to study the Iceni, after spending time in Colchester with the Romans. (See the picture above.) People are always so helpful when you tell them you’re writing a novel, and I came away with photographs, books, notes, and most importantly, scraps of the knowledge that experts had accumulated for years. But I wanted to find a location for my modern character which I could adapt and use as the place she lived. Once I’d discovered facts and detail, I needed to work on the book’s creative side and find inspiration, and that meant standing the right place and ‘getting the feel’ for the story.

I drove around the county in broad daylight, dusk and night time, looking for the right place for my ghost. Norfolk is a very beautiful county, with many modern buildings, pretty villages; it’s full of rural charm. In some ways, the places I visited were far too nice to find a troubled ghost. Then it came to me. I passed an old railway station, set between a village and a farm. I had it! At night time, the old railway station and the road that led to the village in moonlight had just the right atmosphere.

Travelling gives the writer so much more than information – it provides an inspiration that lasts from the first page to the final chapter. I hope you’ll see what I mean when you read the third Elena Collins.

For The Silver Ladies Do Lunch, I travelled to Oxfordshire and spent several days between Oxford and various rural villages. The novel opens in a primary school in the late 1950s and it was important to try and capture how education was before the modern system we all recognise. In many ways, the village I grew up in hasn’t changed much. I used it as the template for Middleton Ferris, where the ‘Silver Ladies’ went to school; where Cecily Hamilton was the primary teacher who changed their lives. Being in the village brought back so many memories, not least the one where I and two mischievous boys were playing on the river Cherwell, stealing a boat, sinking, bailing out. From these memories, I created the Toomey family who live on the Cherwell on a barge; Fergal Toomey’s story is an important part of the novel. But then so is Josie’s, Lin’s, Florence’s, Caecily’s and Minnie’s.

At 72, Minnie is an Oxford academic. She begins life as a bright girl from a poor family whose father doesn’t believe that she or her sister have the right to an education. Minnie defies him and, with help from Miss Hamilton, her life takes on a trajectory that dictates her future. I spent time in Oxford, a city I love. I even went as far as punting down the Thames and the Cherwell, visiting the Ashmolean Museum, Magdalen College. I really hope you’ll enjoy those sections of the book, as the research was so important to me – I had to get it right. And if there’s a grain of sentiment, or a sense of love for those old places, then I’m delighted. Oxfordshire is one of the places I’ve called home and when I left, I never went back. I’m now one of those’ wherever I lay my hat’ people in terms of where I belong, but going there stirred some old memories that I’ve tried hard to put between the pages.

I’m about to embark on some new research, which means heading south. I’ll say little more about it at the moment, but I’m exploring everything from fact to fiction and friendly faces, cliffs and rocks and sunsets, from location to inspiration. And I’ll accept what comes to me, local history, bad weather, broad beaches, the cold sea, the creaks of an old inn at night time. I’m looking forward to it all.

Research provides more than a rest from intense writing, a break from the desk. It’s not just a change from the editing of thousands of words. It’s the life blood of a book. The facts and the feelings I find on my travel are what I hope will make the novel between the pages come to life.

And I so hope you’ll enjoy reading about it.

Above: Oxford Skyline, Barge on the river Cherwell. Below, Magdalen bridge.


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