Elaine Everest continues this month’s theme by taking a look at research for her current novel set in World War Two.
Mention the word ‘research’ and for me two thoughts come to mind. The first is an excuse many of my students use for not having added to their novel since the previous class. ‘I can’t write as I need to do research.’ is heard often. My second thought is, great, I can find more information to make my work shine and if I’m lucky I may just fall upon a historical event I can use to make my work sparkle.
At the moment I’m halfway through a novel set in NW Kent during World War Two. I know the area well and have been brought up hearing family stories of times gone by. Anecdotes are fine as long as they aren’t historically incorrect. I love tales like what happened to Mrs X the day she was blown from the toilet in the local cinema. Change the name and as the lady was unhurt it becomes a funny scene for my main character’s nan. However, if I require something to happen during an air raid in a certain month I have to check details more carefully. I cannot rely on anecdotes. This is where the Internet is invaluable. Local council archives have been a godsend giving me details of what happened and when. Newspapers and records of the time back up the information. I do like to have two primary sources when researching.
What about my characters? How do I find information about the people who lived in Kent at that time? How do I dig deep into their lives, thoughts and feelings? The BBC came to my aid here. Between 2003 and 2006 the BBC asked the public to contribute their memories of World War Two to a project called WW2 Peoples War. Along with my husband, Michael I helped by attending events and interviewing the older generation about their lives during the war years. It was a privilege to speak to people who served at that time as well as those who were children. Each person had a unique story to tell and gradually a social and wartime history was formed for all to read online. Now, I can go to the public site and search for information about what happened to ‘the man and woman in the street’ at that time. Whilst writing my last novel, Gracie’s War I wanted to know what the weather was like in Gracie’s village on 3rd September 1939. Not only did I find a local man’s record of that very day but also his memory of the following year when the ‘little ships’ headed to Dunkirk. Reading someone’s personal account can bring the era to life much more than delving into a hundred reference books.
Research for my current novel meant that I had to not only find out about Woolworths at the end of the 1930s but a particular store. Get this wrong and I’m sure a reader would soon let me know. A local nostalgia group on Facebook came to my aid. One member’s mother worked at the store during the war years and could confirm my research. However, my greatest joy was discovering there is a Woolworth museum curator. What a gentleman! I sent just a few simple questions as I don’t like to impose on people’s generosity too much. Within a day I received two emails that gave me information, not only about the store but also about some of the people who worked there and how they coped at the height of the war. My main character, along with her two friends, came to life as they relived the lives of those who lived and worked in Erith during the war years.
That’s the wonder of Woolworths, as the advert used to say – that’s also wonderful research!