One of my lovely readers has sent me a whole raft of questions about how I write my books which I’m going to try to answer to the best of my ability. There are five or six of them and since she was kind enough to write, I’d like to do justice to them. I’m going to post the replies here . I hope you find them useful. And interesting, too.
The first question was about research. How extensively I do I research the events in my books and what resources do I use.
I do a lot of research. I generally have an idea of where I want to send my historians, and what will happen to them when they get there. From that starting point, I read around the subject, looking for info that will support the story. Sometimes, I find something that directly contradicts what I want to do and with a huge sigh and a quick curse, I have to abandon that particular storyline.
I use only a fraction of my notes, otherwise it’s too easy too sound like a history book, which I really don’t want to do at all. I want people to find History interesting. I know my treatment of events and people is very superficial, but I want to engage people’s interest, and if someone is keen enough to go on to read more after they’ve finished the book then that’s wonderful. From there, they may go to study further and, with luck, will find History as interesting as I do.
Unfortunately, the best resource of all, public libraries, are not available to me. No, I’ve not been banned – just to be clear. Most of my research is done online as I pursue various threads, wandering down interesting but irrelevant paths (I have no self discipline whatsoever), sometimes modifying my story as ideas occur. My sources range from published papers to Wikipedia and everything in between. I consult professional organisations where I can – the Richard III visitor centre were very helpful. I emailed a gas company about the best way to kill someone with an electric fire and once I’d reassured them I had no intention of doing any such thing, they were great. My technical advisor, Phillip Dawson, advises me on police and military procedures and the safety mechanisms of 9mm Glocks. The writer, Tom Williams was of huge assistance with The Stirrup Charge at Waterloo, in my new prequel The Very First Damned Thing. Even the House of Commons got in on the act when I contacted them to check whether women were allowed in public areas in the 19th century.
“I emailed a gas company about the best way to kill someone with an electric fire and once I’d reassured them I had no intention of doing any such thing, they were great.”
Research permeates every aspect of the St Mary’s stories. I can’t just say, ‘We ran up the staircase and opened the door at the top.’ because the century will define whether the staircase is of wood or stone. Is it a spiral? Which was does it spiral? Is the door at the top made of wood? Studded? Arched? What size? Must they duck to get through? The door latch – what style? Can it just be lifted or must they turn it as well?
The sad thing is that after all that, I hardly use any of it. You wouldn’t believe the amount of material I had on the War of Jenkins’ Ear and at the end of the day it was just a throwaway line somewhere and I never used any of it.
And it’s not just St Mary’s. When I wrote The Nothing Girl, I knew nothing of donkeys or LandRovers or how to get married in a Register Office or forensic accounting. And for A Bachelor Establishment, I spent days checking out Regency menus.
Really, when you think about it, my ignorance is boundless.
Anyway, I hope that answers the question about research and no one’s eyes are bleeding. I know I go on a bit. The next question is about the detail in my stories. Give me a day or so to put something together and thank you for sticking with me so far.
St Mary’s prequel The Very First Damned Thing is out next month on Audible.