RHYS BOWEN: I've been speaking about my new book for the past couple of weeks and one thing everyone wants to know is how I do research for a historical novel.
My aim when I write is to take my readers back to a time and not tell them about it. I want them to feel it and experience it for themselves.
A good example of achieving this was when I took my granddaughters, then about three and five, to see March of the Penguins. It was July in California. After about half an hour one of them climbed onto my lap. "Can I sit on your lap, Nana? I'm so cold," she said. "Me too," the other replied.
The power of suggestion!
That's what I want to achieve with words.
So I start off by reading all the factual stuff to make sure I get things right. I don't want hundreds of emails telling me that a particular town was bombed on a Tuesday when I said it was Thursday. Yes, people do that. If I have a train leaving at a wrong time they tell me. Never mind if it is filled with fictional people and that something fictionally bad will happen on that train. It matters to them that it is the 2:10 from Paddington and not the 2:15/
So for In Farleigh Field I read a lot of books about the workings of MI5 and Bletchley Park. I studied up on the fake news radio stations being broadcast from Germany. Then I read first person accounts of working for MI5 and at Bletchley. I read diaries kept by ordinary housewives during the war, lamenting how hard it was to feed a family on a tin of spam and potatoes. And doing the laundry when you couldn't get soap. Those are the things that matter when you're reading about a time. You immediately put yourself in the place of that housewife and ask yourself how you could have fed your family when there was no meat to be had.
The final stage was to go there. I'd been to Churchill's war rooms before. I'd been to a museum, now closed, about London in the Blitz and seen their exhibit on evacuated children. And experienced a simulated bombing in a bomb shelter. And I've been into a fabulous London bar in Soho that is in a former Tube station. You go down the actual wooden steps of the former escalator. You are given a ticket and when you present it at the ticket booth you are back in 1940 when the station was turned into an airraid shelter. There are the bunks where people slept. 1940s music is playing, the barmaids are dressed in 1940s dresses. You are spoken to as if you have come down during the air raid.
And my most important visit was to Bletchley Park. I loved the way they had recreated the cubicles in the huts to make me feel that the occupants had just stepped out for lunch. What depressing working conditions, dark, freezing in winter, cramped and under such pressure.
So I add all these experiences to my own--my memories of post-war childhood with rationing and bomb sites everywhere and my aunts' tales of what they went through when a train they were traveling on was stopped and in the silence they heard bombs being dropped nearby. Or my husband's memory, as a child, of riding his bike past a group standing at a bus stop. A few minutes later he heard a popping sound. A German plane had dived low and machine gunned those standing at that bus stop. That's how precarious life was!
So my question is: what small things have transported you to a time and place when you are reading? Does it really matter to you that the author gets everything right?