Known Knowns and Unknown Unknowns
“Write about what you know” is useful advice. I thought it would be very easy to follow, when writing my latest book, The Unravelling, which will be published in July. First of all, I would be looking at the world as seen through the eyes of a 10-year-old, in the mid-1960s. She would be living in a town quite similar to Luton, on a council estate that was just beginning to replace the prefabs, which had been thrown up to provide quick emergency housing, after the war.
I was a ten-year-old in the mid-1960s, living on the edge of a council estate in Luton, and, walking to school, I witnessed the demolition of the prefabs, including the one my grandparents had lived in. Simple.
Post war prefabs
It is remarkably easy to remember every little detail of my world, 50 years ago, from the cotton frocks our mothers made for us, to the pink custard served up at our seriously stodgy school meals. I remember the posters on the classroom walls, the smell of the corridors (a mixture, I suspect, of polish, vomit, urine and very strong disinfectant). I remember the streets, dark lanes and open parks I would walk through on my way, to and from school – a serious walk, but no one would have dreamed of being taken to school by car. I remember the shops, and the sweets they sold – sherbet flying saucers, fruit gums, penny chocolate bars. I remember the kitchen wallpaper my parents put up, as horizons began to expand, covered with exotic vegetables like aubergines (eggplants), courgettes (zucchini), chard and red peppers – vegetables we never saw in the shops, but rumour had it that foreign people ate them and may even had liked them.
The estate where I grew up. I watched the tower blocks go up as I walked to school.
So much for the 1960s. I then had to look at the turn of this century. The Millennium. Equally easy, I thought. Everyone knows some of the events that happened then, and others are easy to check. It was only 15 years ago, and I lived through it as a mature adult. Surely I can remember just how it was. Wrong. It is next to impossible for the memory to keep pace with the technological changes that are sweeping past us, establishing themselves so quickly and firmly that we can’t believe they haven’t been around for at least 30 years.
How did you search for someone, in 2000, as my heroine has to do? You use the internet, of course. Except that, in Britain, broadband connections only began in 2000, and nearly everyone was reliant on impossibly slow dial-up modems, with rocketing phone bills and shouts of fury from other people in the house who wanted to use the phone. Have I really only had proper access to the World Wide Web for 12 years? Then, finding someone today, you might try Facebook. But there was no Facebook. Or you could Google them. But back then, Google was a new boy on the block and everyone used Yahoo, or Alta Vista, and the chances were, you wouldn’t find anyone anyway. People didn’t have an on-line presence. You want to trace a marriage that happened 30 years ago? Today you do it with the click of a mouse. In 2000, you got on a train.
I used my own early researches into family history in my first book, A Time For Silence, in which my heroine tries to track down details of her grandfather and aunt. Now I know that today, you simply go to Ancestry.com or FreeBMD, and have it all at your fingertips in minutes. When I first started researching my family history, there was no internet, and searching meant getting on a train to London, to trawl through huge tomes of indexes. Not so bad, when I only lived 30 minutes from London. When I moved to Wales, I found that the National Library of Wales, in Aberystwyth, had similar records, and I spent many happy hours going blind, trying to decipher blurred microfiche and microfilm records. I gave my heroine the same pleasure.
My eyes hurt, just thinking about it
However much I use my own experiences to write, some research is nearly always needed. In A Time For Silence, I had to write about life in rural Wales in in the 1930s and 40s. Before my time, but there were plenty of people around me who could remember it well enough, and I was able to trawl through local newspapers of the time. That was so absorbing, I couldn’t resist letting my heroine do the same.
But the trick, with research, is to know how much of it not to use. It’s so tempting, when you become immersed in a fascinating topic, to want to filter it all into your story. A Time For Silence features a German prisoner of war, and I wanted to know more about the POW camp, which was set up a few miles from where I now live. I knew, as everyone round here knows, that it began as a camp for Italian prisoners, who decorated one of the Nissan huts as a Catholic Chapel, which had been preserved.
But after the surrender of Italy, the camp was used for German prisoners, many of whom worked on the local farms. I needed some basic facts for my story, such as when exactly the camp closed, and who was kept there, so I finished up appealing for any information about Henllan Camp from the National Archives. What I received was a huge collection of official inspection reports for the War Office, which give a riveting insight into army and bureaucratic behaviour.
The site remained open until the spring of 1947, and many of the German prisoners were rounded up and taken there after the war. The function of the camp was to assess how Nazified they were. They were allowed to apply for repatriation and then they were classified as white, grey and black Nazis. The white were simply Germans caught up in the war, with no ideological commitment, and could be allowed home. The grey were believers who were open to persuasion that they had been deceived, and could go home as soon as they were sufficiently re-educated. The black were committed Nazis, who would never be swayed in their beliefs. They were to be kept.
At regular intervals, the government sent inspectors to report on conditions in the camp, number of prisoners, state of discipline etc. This was obviously a box-ticking exercise. Each inspector reported that the camp was well run by its commander, accounts were properly kept, and order was smoothly maintained by a splendidly efficient sergeant major. Then, just before the camp closed, a new inspector arrived – one who was less of a box-ticking pen-pusher and more of a perceptive psychologist. His report explained that while the commander loftily fulfilled his duties, blithely unaware of any trouble, the sergeant major, who dealt personally with the prisoners, was a rabid German-hater, looking for revenge for his brother, who had been killed in North Africa, and he had been systematically destroying the prisoners’ written requests for repatriation.
The Italian chapel at Henllan
This was a great story, that I just had to use – but I didn’t, because it wouldn’t have been relevant to my story. The key to using research is to know which bits of it matter to my characters and to get details right, when they are needed, but to let the bulk of it lie beneath the surface, just out sight. And there’s always the possibility of another book that might put my research to deeper use.
Author Thorne Moore
Thorne Moore was born in Luton, near London and the sludge of the Thames estuary, and now lives in Pembrokeshire on the Atlantic coast, with a lot of hills (small, but we call them mountains), woods (we call them forests) and villages (other people would call them road junctions with a house or two). No cities anywhere near.
She was advised to study law, so she studied history instead, in order to avoid a future career as a lawyer, as she was obviously going to be a writer. Since it took her forty years to get published, she filled in the time working in a library, running a restaurant, teaching family history and making miniature furniture (Pear Tree Miniatures). Her first book, A Time For Silence, was published in 2012. Motherlove followed in 2015, and her third, The Unravelling, will be published July 2016. She lives in a Victorian farmhouse, which occupies the site of a Medieval mansion. Several cats share the house and several woodpeckers share the garden.