Kerry Barrett on historical research

Kerry Barrett’s latest historical timeslip novel, The Secrets of Thistle Cottage, is out in eBook now. To celebrate, we asked her to share her inspiration and research process for writing her novels.

Kerry Barrett on Historical Research

I love writing historical stories. I like that the history gives me a hook to hang my story on, and I love uncovering all the interesting tales from long ago. It’s sometimes tricky to put fact and fiction together, but it’s always a fun challenge and something I really enjoy.

History has mostly been written by men, so I often stumble upon ideas for my stories when I am wondering what the women were doing while all this history was happening around them. The two world wars are a brilliant source of women’s stories, obviously, but there are so many tales to tell. I got the idea for Violet in The Girl in the Picture when I went to the National Gallery with a friend. We were looking at some Pre-Raphaelite paintings by Elizabeth Siddal, who’s more known for being the wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti than as an artist herself. My friend Becky commented that it must have been really hard to be a female artist back then and I thought… hmm!

The facts are usually a springboard for my stories. I tend to do a bit of research at the beginning of a book, reading around the subject. At the moment I’m reading about nursing during the Blitz because my next book is about these amazingly brave women, who put on tin hats and kept caring for their patients as the bombs were falling. Once I’ve done some initial research, and I’ve got a sense of place and time and normally more ideas for plot twists or interesting events, I put my research aside and start writing. There’s a really fine balance, but I find if I do too much research before I start writing, I end up trying to squish it all into the manuscript and it slows me down. I get along better if I research as I need it, while I’m writing.

When it comes to research, I feel a responsibility to get things right. Writing about more recent history such as the Second World War or the 1960s, is easier in some ways because there are photographs and films and all sorts of resources to draw on. But in other ways, the responsibility hangs heavily on me because people remember those times and I don’t want to get anything wrong. I once spent a whole day trying to find out if a particular uniform skirt would have had buttons or a zip. Although that was easier than finding out what they would have put on a bruise in 1855, long before the days of ice cubes or bags of frozen peas.

Sometimes the dates get in the way, too, especially if a character is pregnant like Lil in The Hidden Women. Trying to match her pregnancy with real-life events from the war gave me a big headache. Since writing her story, I’ve learned to print out a calendar from the relevant year and write the timeline of the novel on it.

Another thing that is sometimes tricky is the language. It’s quite easy to fall into the trap of writing dialogue from the past in a very affected way, so I make a conscious effort not to do that. I’ve learned that fiddling with sentence structure, or throwing in a few of the right words can do wonders in fixing a character in time. I do often look up idioms or words to make sure they were in use at a certain time.

Of course, I also have to find a story that works in the present day, and that’s sometimes difficult and sometimes a little simpler. It also often involves research. For The Secret Letter, I spent a day with a local head teacher who told me all about what being in charge of a primary school involves. Some of the children’s chatter in the book comes direct from the brilliant kids I met that day. My obsession with Line of Duty came in handy when I was writing about organised crime in the present-day part of The Smuggler’s Daughter!

My latest story, The Secrets of Thistle Cottage is about the witch hunts in the 17th century. The gossip, rumours and ‘fake news’ of the time have such strong parallels with today’s social media that the present-day story came very easily. And the research into the Scottish witch trials was a real eye opener. In fact, there are so many stories to tell about those dark days that I’m already wondering if I can write another novel based on the witch hunts. Watch this space!

Read Kerry Barrett’s latest historical timeslip novel The Secrets of Thistle Cottage now in eBook.

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