Monday 5 December 2022

 Guest Post with Judith Barrow

Today I'm delighted to welcome author friend, Judith Barrow, back to the blog. We first met at a library event back in 2014 when I was just starting out as a writer. I admire her writing greatly and was thrilled when she agreed to write a blog post about the research she does for her novels. 

Judith, welcome! Over to you.

Research is formalised curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose. Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)

When Jan asked me to write about research, I started with one purpose, to research the subject of research, and then to explain how I use it. Two hours later, being easily led by that 'one other interesting... by the way did you know...' fact, and also being insatiably nosy, I was reading about the earliest wigs that were worn. See below * if you're interested!)

Eventually dragging myself back to reality, I thought about the research I carried out for my trilogy - the Haworth series and the prequel A Hundred Tiny Threads.

At the time of Patterns of Shadows (the first book), I made a list of the familiar and the unfamiliar things I needed to know to make my characters come alive, and to give a real sense of place to the world where they exist.

I now have files bulging with the information I found for each book: Patterns of Shadows, in 1944/45, the sequel, Changing Patterns in 1950/51. And, last in the series, Living in the Shadows. 1969/70

And this is the format I've followed ever since. Put simply...

With characters, it's the hairstyles, the clothes, the shoes, the cosmetics and toiletries on the market that they use, the food and drink. There's the work they do, the newspapers and books they read (or don't), the hobbies, the pastimes. Then there are the types of houses they live in according to their social status, the furniture, kitchens, plumbing, gardens.

But here I'll let you into a secret. For the Northern town the Haworth family lives in, I traced an old 1940s map of the streets that surrounded the building that the trilogy is based on - the first German POW camo in the UK in WW2. This was an old disused cotton mill in Oldham, Lancashire. Simply put, it was chosen because it was far from the coast, was surrounded by two mill reservoirs, roads, and later a railway line. And had concrete floors and high fences. At the time all military installations were commandeered by the MOD for the army so other buildings had to be utilised. I traced the town, altered the direction of a few streets, added a park, allotments, ginnels, and alleyways - and renamed the lot. Ashford of the North of England existed.

For the village that some of the family moved to in Wales, I researched and adapted their lifestyles in that era.

 After that, and something vital to any historical novel, I researched the outside world; what was happening as a background that affects the characters, in the same way that what is happening in our world affects us now. For this, I relied on websites, British and international newspapers, radio, and television recordings.

The research for my more contemporary book, The Memory, (Shortlisted
for the Wales Book of the Year Award 2021 - The Rhys DaviesTrust Fiction Award),
was somewhat different. Here, research was more for the conditions of Alzheimer's, which, as a former carer, was more general, and for features of Downs Syndrome, I relied on the expertise of a friend who worked in that field.

Although my next book, Sisters, to be published by Honno on 26th January 2023, is set in a more contemporary time (1970s/1980s), there was still some of the usual research needed: the fashion, hairstyles, the interiors of the houses, the way people lived. But this is a story that is all about the relationships within the family, more confined within a domestic situation, and less about the outside world. For me, this has been one of the greatest differences in my research between my historical family sagas and my more contemporary family stories. 

As a last note, I should add that finding someone who is personally involved in a profession you are researching and can give first-hand knowledge and expertise is invaluable. And, usually, they are only too happy to help.

If we knew what we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?
- Albert Einstein, (1879-1955), German physicist who came up with the theory of relativity, winnwer of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921.

*Footnote: The first documented use of wigs is around 3400 BC, in Ancient Egypt. Egyptians are also credited with inventing wigs, usually;ly worn for ceremonial purposes. They were created using human hair, vegetable fibres, and sheep's wool, and were often attached using beeswax.

Thank you, Judith. I'm in awe of all the research that you do and can see in my mind's eye the bulging files for each book! Your hard work certainly pays off; when I was reading the Haworth family stories, I felt I was actually there in Ashford with each one of them.

Twitter - @judithbarrow77

Thank you for reading. I'm sure you will have found Judith's post as interesting as I did. If you did, we'd love to hear your thoughts. Thank you.

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