I used to write contemporary fiction, writes Sara Sheridan, and in those heady days on the cusp of the internet, my research was largely telephone based. I remember calling the council’s cemetery department to ask about body decomposition in different soil types. Once they had verified that I was a novelist and not a sicko, they were extremely helpful.
My contemporary work always had strong historical backstories and after three novels I decided to switch genre. I was fascinated by the spirit of the early Empire explorers and wanted to write historical fiction based on their real-life adventures. History has been a big part of my life since I was a child. My favourite books were Heidi, Wuthering Heights and The Scarlet Pimpernel all of which kept me reading late under the covers. I loved being transported to earlier versions of the world. My father was an antiques dealer and he took me to auction sales. Other times Dad would arrive home with a box of goods he’d bid on and take my brothers and I through the treasures, telling us how each piece was made and why he’d bought it. By the age of ten I could spot a De Lamerie silver teapot or date a diamond from the way it was cut.
Objects are still a great way into historical research for me. During 2010 and 2011, I took part in two “26 Treasures” projects – one at the V&A and one at the National Museum of Scotland. The project takes 26 objects in the host institution and pairs each with a writer who then writes a 62 word display card (it can be a poem or prose – one or two writers wrote dramatic scripts). The resulting exhibition is always quirky and brings the history of each piece to life. This year I’m taking part in the same exhibition at the Museum of Childhood in London’s Bethnal Green, which this time will focus on 20th century objects and how childhood has changed since the London Olympics in 1948 to this year’s Olympics – a crucial span of over 60 years.
Many historians find themselves fascinated with only one era but for me, it’s not only the late Georgian and early Victorian adventurers that hold my interest. My latest book Brighton Belle is a whodunnit set in 1951 and is the first in a series that runs for ten years from post-war Austerity Britain into the early part of the Swinging Sixties. The 1950s has always been a focus of my interest and Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler are among my favourite writers from the period so it doesn’t surprise me that Brighton Belle has turned out to be a detective story. Researching it, however, was a different kettle of fish to the work I undertook on my earlier novels.
For the period 1820- 40 I ended up almost moving into the archive, which for me was like dipping into a huge treasure chest. We have some vital and fascinating material in our archives in the UK and in particular the John Murray Archive at the National Library of Scotland proved a font of fascinating letters and diaries. These afforded me a precious insight into the world of some of our lesser-known historical figures. The first time I went there the material was still being unpacked and new treasures were coming to light every day. Alongside archive material (some of which is available online) I read more general history books about travel, politics and social history during the period as well as scouting original architecture and objects including paintings. However, at such a distance in time a great deal is, of necessity lost, particularly the personal papers of ordinary people and material relating to women – because women had restricted legal rights and were largely illiterate there simply isn’t much there.
By comparison, the available material for the 1950s was breathtaking. I already loved 50s fashion so working out my main character, Mirabelle’s wardrobe was relatively easy – she is, of course, extremely well dressed. But alongside the regular history books and a smattering of archive material (the Imperial War Museum was particularly helpful with WWII information for Mirabelle’s wartime backstory) I also watched reams of video footage, examined photographs and advertisements, listened to contemporary radio broadcasts and (this was a joy) interviewed various people who were young during the period. My father’s knowledge once again proved incredibly helpful though this time he became my go-to person in the matter of giving change in old money. Recently working on the second book I have Mirabelle offer someone a bribe. The original figure I had in mind, my father informed me, was far too low. I wonder sometimes what Dad got up to in the 1950s! He certainly has some interesting, specialist knowledge.
Mostly, there was a huge imaginative difference, which I hadn’t anticipated in entering a period that remains recogniseable today. Walking around Brighton and London (where the story is set) really brought home the realities of the post-war Britain. I instantly recognised the huge legacy of the Blitz, for example because in 1951 people were still living among bomb sites which hadn’t been redeveloped. Rationing remained in place and food shops often had queues snaking down the street. It made me appreciate the enormous seachange my parents’ generation lived through and brought me back to the 21st century with a new perspective on how privileged we are as a society. For me that’s the value of history – it makes you look at the present and plan for the future with more understanding eyes.
Sara Sheridan is an historical novelist. She mentors fledgling writers for the Scottish Book Trust, sits on the committee of the Society of Authors in Scotland and on the Board of the UK-wide writers’ collective ‘26’. She is a member of the Historical Writers Association and the Crime Writers Association. Sara is a Twitter evangelist (@sarasheridan) and also posts regularly on Facebook. Visit Sara’s website, sarasheridan.com.
Touted as cosy crime noir, her new novel, the first book in the Mirabelle Bevan Mystery Series, is called Brighton Belle and is published this summer by Polygon. She will be talking about it at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this summer as well as running a literary bootcamp as part of the festival’s How To Write programme.