Jennifer Wilson has written an intriguing series of unique historical novels with loads of atmosphere, and her first, based on the Tower of London, held me in its thrall. She researches the best way: by physically visiting her settings, and this is what she has to say…
Setting is absolutely vital for me. I’ve heard many writers say that it can be another character in a novel, and I believe that. I was particularly aware of this when I was writing Kindred Spirits: Tower of London, set in the Tower, a place which still resonates in the imagination for its terrifying reputation as a prison and site of executions. When somewhere is so well-known, I think you have to get it right if you’re going to start writing about it, so I spent two full days wandering about, doing the official tours, then just getting a bit lost, nosying into all the various nooks, crannies and half-forgotten rooms that not all tourists bother with.
At the other end of the scale, my latest book, Kindred Spirits: Westminster Abbey explores another famous location for British history; a site which has seen the hatching, matching and dispatching of our great and good for centuries, and of course, so many coronations. Given its importance to the nation, I was keen to get it right, so again, another trip to London, and a whole day of wandering and experiencing.
I love this bit of the research, physically walking in your characters’ footsteps, especially in historical sites and buildings, where often so little has changed since their day, and in some cases, you’re seeing their own designs and plans, like Westminster Abbey’s Lady Chapel, built at the command of Henry VII. It’s important geographically and logistically too, making sure that when a character walks from A to B (or in my place, passes through walls from A to B), that B is actually where you say it is, and shouldn’t instead be C. That can be jarring to readers who know a place, and even when you’re writing about ghosts and time-travel, things still need to be realistic enough not to pull people out of the moment.
Visiting also gives you a real ‘sense’ of a place, again, so important when you’re setting your story in a real location. For Westminster Abbey, I thought my biggest challenge was going to be the ban on photography inside; how was I possibly going to record everything to use when I got home? Instead though, I found it almost liberating, forcing myself into making reams of notes on architecture, the wording on tombs, and the beautiful features. I filled half a notebook with scribbles, filling up most of the rest over the remainder of the weekend, with scenes popping into my head, or notes on existing scenes, making it come to life in a way I could never have achieved without having spent the day there. It also meant I got to attend Evensong in the Abbey, sat in the stunning wooden stalls which we’ve all seen filled with politicians and religious leaders during services such as the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, or more sombre occasions like Remembrance Sunday. Sitting there, imagining what the likes of Anne Neville, Elizabeth Woodville or King Charles II would have felt during their visits, or how their ghosts might view things now, was an incredible experience, and one I would love to relive when I visit again in the future.
I think visiting a place as a writer can also bring about a different experience for people. For years, my parents and I used to pop down to York on a weekend, and meander about, visiting the shops we didn’t have in Darlington, enjoying a cup of tea and a cake in a nice café, and generally enjoying the day. This year, I’ve visited three times on research trips, and it’s like seeing the place with new eyes. I’ve discovered historical sites we simply never knew existed, such as St Margaret’s Chapel, right in the heart of the Shambles, and the Bar Convent, just beyond the city wall, but a beautiful chapel, totally hidden from view. Without having decided to set the next Kindred Spirits book in York, I doubt I would ever have found these hidden treasures. But I’m so glad I did. Again, wandering about, notebook in hand, taking down those little details which will hopefully bring the book to life, gave me a new perspective on somewhere I thought I knew.
And I think that’s the heart of it for me. Selfishly, I’m starting to work on projects starting with a location, rather than a person, these days. Either somewhere I know really well, so can enjoy spending time there in my head, or somewhere I want to know really well, so I have the perfect reason to jump on a train and get exploring, notebook in hand!
Jennifer is a marine biologist by training, who developed an equal passion for history whilst stalking Mary, Queen of Scots of childhood holidays (she has since moved on to Richard III). She completed her BSc and MSc at the University of Hull, and has worked as a marine environmental consultant since graduating.
Enrolling on an adult education workshop on her return to the north-east reignited Jennifer’s pastime of creative writing, and she has been filling notebooks ever since. In 2014, Jennifer won the Story Tyne short story competition, and also continues to work on developing her poetic voice, reading at a number of events, and with several pieces available online. Her Kindred Spirits novels are published by Crooked Cat Books and available via Amazon, along with her self-published timeslip novella, The Last Plantagenet? She can be found online at her blog, and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.