‘How do you do the research?’ is one of the most common questions I get as a writer of historical fiction. I get asked it so often that I think the word ‘research’ must be in some way intimidating. And I guess if one didn’t know the truth of it, ‘research’ could indeed sound like something serious and dusty.
The reality, for me anyway, because I write novels set in the 1920s and ‘30s, is far livelier and more fun. Yes, there are history books to read – straightforward accounts of what happened, when. But that is only the most basic A-frame of background. For me, the really entertaining elements – the unexpected nuggets and insights – have always come in other guises. Through memoir, letters, biographies, and novels.
When I wrote The Glorious Guinness Girls, set in the 1920s, it was the letters of Irish novelist and playwright Molly Keane that really opened the door to my understanding of daily life for the Anglo-Irish at that time. I didn’t need to know the ‘big’ events of the era – they were well covered in history books. What I wanted were the little details: the housemaid with the willow-patterned teacup tapping at the door early in the morning, the drawing of a bath, the smell of a tallow candle.
With my new novel, An Invitation To The Kennedys, in which JFK’s sister Kathleen ‘Kick’ Kennedy, along with her parents Joe Kennedy – US ambassador to England – and his wife Rose, finds herself spending a week during the summer of 1938 with Brigid and Honor Guinness as she falls in love with Billy Cavendish, heir to the Duke of Devonshire, again it was Kick’s letters that revealed so much of what she thought and felt.
But as for the world around her and Brigid, the rhythms of life in that last real summer before the Second World War became a grim reality, I built the picture by reading novels, memoirs, poetry. Noel Streatfeild, although strictly a children’s writer, is brilliant on details of food and clothing; David Thomson’s beautiful memoir, Woodbrook, which begins in 1932, is the best account I have found of gentle pre-war society; the letters of Agatha Christie and Theodora Fitzgibbon; the poems of WH Auden, particularly ‘September 1, 1939’ – these all capture a mood, a moment.
Brigid and Kick, in my novel, are both eighteen, and at the very beginning of adult life – standing on the threshold as it were – at the exact moment that the world they grew up in is about to end. I wanted to capture that sense of starting and finishing, of new and old. In trying to do that, I read some truly wonderful books so that my ‘research’ never felt boring or stale.
- Emily Hourican.