‘Google is not a synonym for “research”’, writes Dan Brown in his bestselling book The Lost Symbol. All the teachers and academics I have ever met will vouch for that, as they confront ever-increasing armies of students who cite Wikipedia as the source of all knowledge. Any writer worth his or her salt knows that research begins the old-fashioned way, with a book, or more viscerally, up close with people, objects and original artefacts. Nothing can replace the thrill of unearthing a forgotten letter in an archive, or talking to someone with a personal, authentic connection to your subject.
Embarking on a new project, I’ll usually head straight for a museum to seek out original documents or artefacts from the time and place I am interested in adopting as my mise en scene. A single, physical object can often be more inspiring than a thousand reproduced images, even if it is usually – being too valuable to handle – encased behind glass. But since what I really want to do is use all my senses – to see, touch, feel, hear or smell my subject and connect with it in a productive way – I have to venture further afield to experience the material aspects of my chosen period; in the past this has led me to some strange places, but sometimes, if I’m lucky, I will stumble upon inspiration by accident.
A few years ago I was commissioned to write a biography of Harriet Tubman, the nineteenth-century African-American abolitionist. Coincidentally, at around this time, my husband and I decided to go on a family holiday to the United States, and arranged a house swap in North Carolina. I will never forget our arrival, turning into the long drive and heading for the huge, white house with its big windows, tall pillars and wide, open porches. We had unwittingly swapped our modest family house in a small English market town for a twenty-bed mansion on a former slave plantation.
As soon as we walked through the imposing front door, we could see that the house was a period piece, with original antebellum furniture throughout. We knew the property had been in the exchanger’s family for generations, and they had clearly not altered it over the years. We were lugging our suitcases up the curving staircase when a shout from outside reached our ears.
‘Mum and Dad! Come and see what I’ve found!’ It was Harry, our eldest son. We ran outside to find him in the grounds behind the house. ‘What are all these old sheds for?’ Harry asked. He was pointing at two rows of wooden outhouses, about sixteen in total. The paint was peeling from rotten planks and doors were hanging from their hinges. ‘They’re not sheds,’ I said, the truth slowly dawning. ‘They’re slave cabins.’
The full force of history hit me in the gut. I knew nothing about the people who had lived in this place, but I was connected to them by just standing there, staring at those cabins. Slaves had worked on this plantation. Babies had been born here. Men and women had lived and died.
With the curious sense of detachment that comes with the business of being a writer, I couldn’t believe my luck. I had found a way to connect with my heroine, Harriet Tubman. She had been born in a slave cabin and had forged a new life for herself by escaping from slavery and helping many others to do the same. The experience of staying on that plantation brought me closer to Harriet than I might otherwise have come. The result was a more rewarding and authentic retelling of her story.
More recently, I have embarked on a historical novel, set on an Elizabethan voyage to the New World. My leading character, a young man called Kit, is a stowaway on board a privateering ship bound for the coast of Virginia. This historical period is unfamiliar to me and when I started my research, I realised I needed to set foot on a sixteenth-century ship, to experience something of Kit’s ordeal. If my time in North Carolina had taught me anything, it was to immerse myself in my subject matter before I began to write.
I did feel awkward as I followed a line of small children and their parents onto a replica, moored on the Thames, of Sir Francis Drake’s famous ship, the Golden Hinde. But after an afternoon of crawling around the ship and tripping over cannons and chests, I became the biggest pirate enthusiast of them all.
‘What’s that lady doing?’ a polite five year-old asked his dad, as I banged my head yet again on the low wooden ceiling. I had been trying to turn the capstan to wind up the anchor, as the excellent guide had just demonstrated.
It may not have been obvious to those around me, both young and old, that I was doing what I love best — making close contact with a subject I planned to write about. It was dark and cramped in the confined space of the ship’s hold; my back ached and my hands were sore from pulling ropes. I was hot, clammy and thirsty. But as I emerged blinking into the bright sunlight, my imagination began to soar. Life on board an Elizabethan ship was no longer just an idea — it had assumed a living, breathing reality. My stowaway’s story was now rooted in sensory truth, and could begin to grow.
Without a vital connection to real, lived experience, a story cannot achieve the authenticity it needs to inspire the reader. As Virginia Woolf explains so beautifully in A Room of One’s Own: ‘Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly, perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.’
As I stepped off the Golden Hinde, I was ready to begin the business of translating my personal experience into words. There would be hard graft ahead, but I had taken my first steps in the right direction.