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Digging For Gold

First-hand historical research

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Writing historical fiction is always a challenge. I’ve just finished writing my tenth historical novel and believe I can assert this with conviction! Every new project, even if set in a familiar period, creates a plethora of new research problems to be solved. I’ve written five novels set in the nineteenth century, so you’d imagine that I know the demands of those years well by now. And yes, I think I’ve got a reasonable grasp of the conventions of Victorian England. But each novel also has its own milieu, the special world of that particular novel.

Throughout my writing career, I’ve discovered that the best research comes from a mixture of approaches: reading nonfiction books is always where I start, yet just as useful are novels written during the period; internet searches; podcasts, television, radio and film explorations of the period; visits to key locations; and training in or experience of key skills — for example, I learned brickmaking for The Secrets of Ironbridge and went flying in light aircraft to understand the highs and lows of early aviation for The Wild Air. I’ll never forget coming back from those flights and rewriting all my flying scenes, because they were all wrong. Until I’d done it myself, I had no idea how it felt. And that was the key missing ingredient.

It’s worth pointing out that experiential research isn’t always possible, of course. For my recent novel, A Mother’s War, I went to great lengths to visit the secret listening station where my characters would have worked during World War Two. Despite liaising with GCHQ, in the end I couldn’t manage it. It would have been great to be on the actual spot where they worked, yet I was able to read plenty of accounts of the inside of the station and was fully aware that the interior now would likely be very different from that of 1940. Similarly, I wished I could have visited Warsaw for my novel set during the Holocaust, The Seamstress of Warsaw, but my budget didn’t stretch to overseas travel. My consolation was that the Warsaw Ghetto has been completely destroyed, and much of the city bombed, so the location I was writing about in some senses simply does not exist. If it’s not possible to visit a place or experience a skill, then I’d say the next best thing is interviewing people who’ve been there and done that themselves.

This research technique is one of the most illuminating. Obviously, if one is writing anything set before around 1930, it’s going to be extremely difficult to find candidates with first-hand experience to interview. However, one can sometimes find the children of those people, who carry memories of stories, as well as experts in the era. These interviews can be fascinating, and it’s a real privilege to get first-hand insights into an age I’m writing about in retrospect, yet the participants can also give me that time-traveller’s sensation of seeing something with fresh eyes.

This brings me to a recent experience I had during the writing of my latest series of books, The Raven Hall Saga. The series is set during World War Two in North Yorkshire. So, my challenge was to understand how the Home Front was experienced in that area, yet also to research the particular war work my characters were to undertake. The saga details the war experiences of a widow and her five daughters. In the first book of the series, A Mother’s War, we follow the eldest daughter as she joins the Wrens (The Women’s Royal Naval Service) and becomes a wireless telegraphist. These were the Wrens who spent hours listening intently, scouring the radio frequencies for communications between vessels of the German navy. I decided upon this profession for my character, Grace, as there was a listening station – also known as a Y station – at Scarborough, not far from Ravenscar where my fictional family were based at Raven Hall (nowadays a wonderful hotel, which I visited several times — research is not always difficult and is often delightful!). Many by now have heard of the work of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park; what is lesser known is the work of those who listened to the messages from the Germans in the first place, encoded messages which were transcribed and then transferred to Bletchley to be decoded. It was engrossing to discover the vital role played by these people — many of them women working as Wrens.

Then, one of those lucky moments of serendipity in research popped up: my editor knew of a real-life Wren who had done the same job as Grace. Thus, I was introduced to Pat Owtram, co-author of Codebreaking Sisters. In reading that book, I’d found that Pat was doing the exact same job as I wanted Grace to be doing, so I’d found it very useful indeed. We set up a phone call for me to interview Pat.

Pat Owtram is in her nineties, and I had a lot of questions about things that had happened eighty years ago. I was incredibly impressed to discover that Pat’s recall of those times was razor-sharp. What I really wanted to get to the heart of was how it felt. What was it like to sit in those stuffy, cigarette-smoke-filled rooms with heavy earphones on for hours and hours on end, listening out for radio signals from surface vessels or U-boats, scribbling down the Morse code that would be taken by couriers down to Station X to be decoded? We talked about how the Wrens and the Naval staff flirted with each other, what kinds of relationships they had, how their bosses treated them, what they ate and drank, how it felt to sign the Official Secrets Act and keep the knowledge of their extraordinary contribution to the war quiet for decades. Pat told me a few things one doesn’t necessarily read about in historical accounts, such as how it felt to say goodbye to a chap who was going off to fight and you’d never see again; that 4am was by far the hardest shift to get through; how difficult it was to do boring work that simultaneously required 100% concentration; what the uniform felt like to wear and how the more relaxed conditions of the night shift meant you could swap items out for casual trousers or a pullover; the extraordinarily tense atmosphere when a U-boat surfaced because everyone knew how lethal they were…and so on. All these things were crucial for me to get inside the mind and heart of my character Grace, and imagine living through it as a real person, not just as a list of facts in a nonfiction book.

Interviewing Pat Owtram was a rare honour and a delight. I felt very lucky to have had the opportunity to speak directly with a woman who was one of the last of her kind: a real-life veteran of World War Two, who engaged in activities that had a direct effect on the outcome of the Allies’ fight against the Nazi regime. Her memories enriched my portrayal of my character Grace, as thanks to Pat, I felt I knew Grace so much more deeply after our conversation.

These are the joys of interviewing the real people who did the real jobs you’re writing about. It’s the wealth of detail, the everyday niggles and the emotions: this stuff is gold to a novelist. Interviewing Pat was a wonderful experience for me, as a person. And as a writer? Absolutely invaluable.

Rebecca Mascull is an author of historical novels. She also writes saga fiction under the pen name of Mollie Walton. She has worked in education, has a Masters in Writing and lives in the east of England.

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