In our latest guest blog post, Undiscovered Voices finalist Susan Brownrigg (UV2016) reveals the joy of using historical settings and research, as well as offering advice on how to use both effectively.
Being inspired by the past
A question I’m frequently asked by schoolchildren is “why do you write books set in the past?“.
There is, of course, the joy of not having the dual plot/drama spoilers of google and mobile phones. However, the main reason is that I enjoy immersing myself in another time and place and sharing my passion for what I’ve learned through story.
Settings that come with questions
I always begin with a real place. With my debut book – Gracie Fairshaw and the Mysterious Guest – I knew I wanted to reflect my working-class northern upbringing by writing about Blackpool.
The spark for the plot came when I discovered that a fifteen-year-old girl switched on the ‘Blackpool Lights’ in 1935.
I knew I wanted it to be an adventure and a mystery and the plot around Ma’s disappearance is made up. As a writer, you have control over what you choose to include and how much you veer from actual events.
In the sequel, Gracie Fairshaw and Trouble at the Tower I wrote a scene set in the Blackpool Tower ballroom. I chose to have the Wurlitzer come up through the floor, although this wouldn’t be possible for another twenty years. It is only a small detail and only cinema organ enthusiasts are likely to notice!
Licence to thrill (and make changes)
It is fine to alter things for the sake of drama. You can always write a historical note if you feel you need to spell out where you have used artistic licence.
I also enjoy writing historical magical fantasy adventures. My UV winning entry, Girl Churns up Trouble, was set in a real time and place, Angkor Thom, Cambodia. It was inspired by reading an account by Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat who travelled to the Khmer Empire in 1296. I wondered what would happen if a child had gone in his place.
My new children’s book Kintana and the Captain’s Curse set in 1733, Madagascar is a treasure hunt with lemurs inspired by the real-life Pirate Island.
How to bring the past to life
Sadly, time machines don’t exist, so we can’t journey back to see what life was like centuries ago. Instead, I have developed different research techniques to help me create verisimilitude.
For Gracie Fairshaw, I was fortunate to be able to visit Blackpool on several occasions. I was able to visit lots of the attractions that were around in 1935 as fortunately Blackpool still has a lot of its seaside heritage.
I went on the same fairground rides, took a trip on the heritage tram, listened to the Wurlitzer in the Tower ballroom and went to the Switch-On.
Think about how you could follow in your character’s footsteps
Look out for heritage open days (September) talks and tours. I’ve been on behind the scenes tours of the heritage tram depot, the Illuminations Lightworks depot and Blackpool Town Hall.
Are there specialist museums or enthusiast groups? I joined the Blackpool Civic Trust and the Winter Gardens Trust.
When you go on research trips, if allowed, take lots of photographs and video for reference. (They are often useful for publicity too).
Use a notebook to quickly capture your emotional and sensory reaction to new locations. I try to capture the tactile experience as well as sights, sounds and smells.
And don’t forget taste…
I like to eat the food I write about. For Gracie, I scoffed fish and chips, munched delicious warm Eccles cakes and nibbled minty sticks of rock.
Food and drink are a great way to give a flavour of the past. The scene in Gracie Fairshaw and the Mysterious Guest where Gracie and her pals eat chips has really resonated with readers, especially those who remember them being wrapped in newspaper!
Going small for your sources
As a historical writer, I rely on a range of sources, both primary and secondary. The most useful research resource for Gracie Fairshaw has been back issues of the Lancashire Gazette kept on microfilm at Blackpool’s local history centre.
The microfilm readers were a little tricky to use at first – but they have been invaluable. I was able to read contemporary accounts of the 1935 Blackpool Illuminations Switch-on. This not only gave me a reliable source for the event but helped me get a feel for the language of the period. I try to avoid obviously incongruous words but prefer a more accessible, modern language style.
Getting the scoop from the local press
Newspapers can provide a lot more than just news. I uncovered detailed information about Blackpool’s weather, tide times and traffic which I used. The advertisements were gold for social history too, including fashion, entertainment, typical household products and attitudes of the time. While the children’s page prompted me to create my own League of the Shining Star club.
If you are a library member it is worth seeing if your membership includes access to online newspaper collections.
On the case with factual books
My shelves are full of factual books about Blackpool, animals, magic, the circus, the seaside, film, journalism, pirates, the Incas, the Amazon, Peru, Cambodia and the Khmer Empire, the Congo and Paris used for researching my books. There are travel guides, atlases, biographies, travelogues/diaries and cookbooks.
Don’t forget you can borrow books (and E-books) from your library too.
Old cookbooks and old magazine recipes can shine a light on what people ate in the past. TV series, such as the excellent ‘Back in Time for Dinner’ and the history segments on Bake Off, are also brilliant for establishing what foods were easily available, affordable as well as changes in fashion.
Mapping out other avenues of research
I also have a collection of maps – modern, old and replica, as they are a great way to describe a place accurately. A Vision of Britain Through Time is great for digitalised old maps. Google Earth is another brilliant resource tool.
As well as books, I have a collection of DVDs including films and documentaries and music (ranging from 78s to CDs) which have enabled me to get a fuller sense of the world I’m writing about. Youtube is fantastic for old documentaries, old home video footage, 1930s films, music and dance clips.
Shopping for inspiration
Ebay, junk shops and charity shops are worth investigating for out-of-print books. I’ve also bought old postcards, photographs, song sheets, newspapers, magazines and other publicity and advertising ephemera.
Beware though, you can lose hours down research rabbit holes! And often a lot of what you learn doesn’t need to be in your story! Always ask yourself if the interesting fact is vital to character, plot or setting.
One final tip…
Lastly, remember you can ask the experts! Look out for public talks, zoom events, ask questions. Be polite and acknowledge if they have been kind enough to assist you with your research or have fed back on your stories.
Good luck to all those entering Undiscovered Voices this year – just remember whether you’re creating a contemporary, historical or purely imaginary setting to make your setting as real as possible for you, your characters and your readers!
Susan Brownrigg is a Lancashire lass. She loves bringing the past to life for children. A former journalist, Susan has worked in heritage education roles at a Tudor hall, a Georgian mansion, a cotton mill apprentice house, a zoo and a museum. Her MG debut is Gracie Fairshaw and the Mysterious Guest. Her second book, Kintana and the Captain’s Curse will be published in June 2021. A sequel to Gracie Fairshaw is scheduled for October 2021. You can find out more at susanbrownrigg.com