Francesca has a look at all the different topics she might end up researching during one day’s writing, for her historical novels set in World War 1 Wales.
It occurred to me recently, as I was writing the fourth novel for my Valleys series, that it’s amazing what diverse topics you can find yourself researching in just one day.
For instance, if I want a character to go out on a trip outside of the village, there are a few things to find out. Although my village of Dorcalon is imaginary (albeit heavily based on Abertysswg, in the Rhymney Valley), all of the towns and villages around it that I mention, are real. My characters have visited Rhymney, Tredegar, Bargoed, Cardiff, Monmouth, Barry Island and even a couple of places in London.
Under normal circumstances, it would be easy enough to go onto Google maps and have a look around the streets to see what a town looks like, and what kind of shops it has. I could look up train journey times on Network Rail journey planner.
The times they are a-changing
But of course, none of these would give me an accurate picture of what was in the towns, or how to get to them, in, say, 1918. I’ve managed to find train line routes at this time on Wikipedia, so know, by comparing them to today’s rail maps, that many of the stations, and branch lines, no longer exist. Then it’s a case of making a rough estimation of how long the journey might have taken. Rhymney to Cardiff, for instance, had about ten fewer stations.
If I want my character to walk down Castle Street in Cardiff, there’s no point at looking at a photographic map of the street today. Luckily, with most of the towns I’ve mentioned, I’ve found lots of photographs of the time, in books and online. Cardiff, I discovered, had a tram system, and the shops had wonderful canopies, the likes of which we never see nowadays.
A bit of local colour
As for the shops themselves, not always obvious on photographs, there are the marvellous Kelly’s Directories, and also local papers of the time. I’m particularly blessed where Wales is concerned, as the Library of Wales has the most wonderful catalogue of newspapers online. In fact, the newspapers have furnished me with information on many subjects, including theatre and cinema programmes, court proceedings, café menus and jobs. There’s also the census which, apart from revealing people’s occupations, tells you what names were popular, and the size of families.
Less is More
While all the above is just touching the surface, I only ever end up using a fraction of what I learn while I’m researching. For instance, I mostly don’t need to mention how long a train journey took, but I need to know, so that I don’t have the character leaving early afternoon on what should be an hour’s journey, and arriving late evening! Much of the information used is ‘set dressing’, to give a flavour of the time and the people, not to overwhelm with it.
An example of some of the items I had to research for one scene in Cardiff:
I’ve visited the city many times (my mum was brought up there), and some things are the same, but I had to assume I knew nothing, so, among other queries, I needed to know:
What was the train route? (Direct from Rhymney, as it is today.)
Where was the station? (Queen Street station was where it is today.)
What were the major stores etc Gwen would likely visit? (Marments, David Morgan’s, and Howell’s department stores and the arcades.)
What fabrics were available to buy in 1918? (Linens, cottons, silks, organzas, chiffons, crepes and even the new artificial rayon.)
What did the market look like back then? (A lot like it does today!)
Was there a well-known café and what did it look like inside? (I could have made one up but finding The Dutch Café on Queen Street meant I could have something authentic.)
What you would have seen walking down Queen Street and Castle Street? (Old shops on Queen Street, not the modern ones of today, the castle, the tram.)
Could you visit the castle? (No. It wasn’t open to the public then.)
It’s a good job I enjoy research, isn’t it? 🙂
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