However, there is one thing that regularly helps me get ideas for my historical novels – the books I read for research. I’m always looking for aspects of history that haven’t been exploited by other authors, so I read all sorts of books.
Some story ideas have been done to death and I avoid them like the plague eg woman unjustly accused is transported to early Australia on a convict ship, and makes good in spite of the difficulties. I heard one Australian editor say she feels sick every time she sees yet another story with that background.
I love to read about social history, especially ordinary people’s autobiographies, and I note down ‘titbits’ ie pieces of information which may come in useful. Not big information like wars and epidemics, but small details about everyday life in the past.
I’ll illustrate this by telling you how I got the idea for FAREWELL TO LANCASHIRE, which came out last month (July 2009) in hardback, will probably be out in Australia only in a special trade paperback edition around January, but won’t be out until the middle of next year in mass market paperback everywhere.
I was reading a book called ‘The Bride Ships’ about women’s migration to Western Australia in the 19th century. A very small entry (one paragraph only) mentioned that 60 cotton lasses had been sent to Western Australia to work as maids. The cotton lasses were desperate because the American Civil War of the early 1860s cut off supplies of cotton. They were not only out of work, but starving as there was no social security in those days, only charity, which might or might not be enough.
On the employers’ side, there were about ten men to every woman in Western Australia in those days, and marriageable women got snapped up quickly, so ladies regularly lost their maidservants. And who wouldn’t want to get married and have a house of one’s own, instead of working long hours keeping another woman’s house clean for a pittance?
I duly noted this titbit of information down, but it was about 10 years before I used it. What nudged me into writing a story based on it was reading the autobiography of a clergyman’s wife, who’d travelled to Western Australia with her husband in the early 1860s. That book was a brilliant find, because she travelled out on the same ship as the cotton lasses, so I had a lot of eye-witness information about that particular voyage.
Once I’d started writing ‘Farewell to Lancashire’, I also had to revise my knowledge of the American Civil War, read up on measures taken in Lancashire for relief of those starving because of the Cotton Famine, find out more about sailing ships going to Australia in that period – it was before the Suez Canal and also before steamships became common. Oh, and I also needed to know which parts of Western Australia were settled (with only 30,000 population, not many!), how people lived and made a living, how they travelled around in a huge country without any railways – just a few tiny details like that!
Another time I’ll tell you about the research I did for the sequel ‘Beyond the Sunset’. That led me down a few interesting paths.