Sunday, 15 July 2018

Shocking the imagination awake (and other inspirational sources) by Rowena House

Freshly back from a holiday in France and Spain, this week I finally nailed the opening scene of the work-in-progress – another historical coming-of-age quest for teens, this time set in WW2 France – and, to my surprise, a first full draft of the synopsis emerged out of nowhere, too.

Yay for holidays, then.

But research definitely played its part in these breakthroughs as well. Not only did our travels take us into the High Pyrenees, where the WIP will end, I’d also been reading a superb if deeply disturbing history of the war, Norman Davies’ Europe at War 1939-1945 No Simple Victory.

For The Goose Road, it was taking Wilfred Owen’s WW1 poems to Étaples that unlocked the story for me. This time, it seems to have been the physical experience of the wild, wide, hot Pyrenees, coupled with the shock of discovering what the Soviet archives exposed about the horrors of the Eastern Front – archives which weren’t available in the West when I studied WW2 at the LSE in the late 1970s.

So, as a fiction writer, maybe that’s the trick: prime the imagination with preliminary reading, then give it a double whammy of emotionally-charged experiences: one research of the body, and the other research of the mind.

The third main type of research that Robert McKee identifies in Story – research of memory – has also been critical for the opening scene of the WIP.

It starts in the Place des Vosges in Paris, just around the corner from where I lived as a foreign correspondent, and plays out in a café I used to know well.

To be honest, I’m putting off returning to the city to research details for this part of the story because I’m afraid that my beautiful memories of the Marais district will be overlaid by current, less romantic realities.

That’s always sad, of course, but for the story I fear it might be fatal. So for now, I’ll just keep reading and imagining Paris.

Last month, I talked here and at the Winchester Writers’ Festival about researching place for historical fiction, but ran out of time and space to share my checklist of the varied sources I’ve used for information and inspiration.

So for anyone who, like me, finds research one of the best bits, here it is:

Written: fiction, non-fiction, newspapers, diaries, letters, biographies, academic journals (maybe behind paywalls but perhaps published in a collection or conference publication) bibliographies (great pointers to all of the above!)

Online: forums, expert blogs & websites, museum websites (many share extraordinary details about their collections). Government online archives (the French ministry of defence digitized every regimental record they hold). If it’s a period covered by the National Curriculum, BBC revision notes, but don’t take them at face value. E.g. House of Commons website was more detailed about Votes for Women than BBC. Try different search engines, too. Google is commercial. Firefox might be better. I got different results from the same search in France than I did in the UK. Go figure.

Sound archives: BBC, British Library. I’d love to hear from anyone who knows a good international sound archive.

Images: Pathe news footage (film and stills free to view online & also available to purchase). Google images. Pinterest. Art galleries. Posters in museums/online. Clothing ads. Picture books. Portraits. History magazines. Old films (if you can find them. Come on, Netflix!!!)

Historic Maps: Available in some specialist museums & online. Lydia Syson’s brilliant list of her resources for Liberty’s Fire included a link to an amazing US university which had digitized a vast collection of historic maps. Do check out her website to find it.  

Museums. Both their public and private collections. Ask the archivist if they still have one. St. Bart’s, London, forensic science collection is fabulously gothic if you can get in. A bunch of us from the MA at Bath Spa were allowed to handle Roman coins from a hidden hoard uncovered in Bath, including one struck to commemorate Octavian’s naval victory over Mark Antony & Cleopatra in the Battle of Actium in 31 BC! These days you seem to be able to take photos of exhibits, too, but I always ask just in case.

Specialist libraries: Museum of Witchcraft, IWM. Universities. Regimental libraries. Some you have to ask to visit. They can only say no!

Local history societies/re-enactment societies: check out websites for talks, collections, photos. The local church in Frevent still had a drawing of the WW1 railway station for a talk long since given. It was the proof there’d been a station there in 1916 I couldn’t find anywhere else.

Best of all…

Visiting the place itself. Battlefields, houses, ancient settlements, old towns & villages, industrial heritage sites. Steam trains. HMS Victory. Venice. Hampton Court on a January Monday at 9 am; the market in Fes, Morocco... Honestly, I don’t think there’s any substitute for breathing in for one’s self the places where history was made.

Please add your thoughts below about other – or unusual – sources you’ve found helpful. New approaches are always brilliant to hear about. @houserowena (Twitter) @rowenahouse (Instagram) Rowena House Author Page (Facebook)






Penny Dolan said...

A great insight into the complexities of research, Rowena, and the usefulness of trips and visits.

Rowena House said...

Thank you, Penny. Getting going does seem to be an iterative process between research and thinking - both consciously & subconsciously. Got another scene down today! Hurrah :0)