Pharos Tutor, Janet Few, is author and tutor on the course ‘Are you Sitting Comfortably: Writing and Telling your Family History’. Here she tells us about some of the research that was necessary to turn a family story into a fictionalised account for a forthcoming novel. Janet lives and works in Devon.
I always knew I would write a novel one day, just not this novel. When FindmyPast released some criminal records, I discovered the story of a local couple who were accused of the manslaughter of their adult daughter. Although this only took place in 1918, no hint of the incident had passed down to the present day and I was intrigued.
One hundred years ago, in the euphoria of the armistice, a young woman lay dying in a North Devon fishing village. Her parents were to stand trial for her manslaughter. Barefoot on the Cobbles uncovers the story of the troubled individuals involved and the traumas in their pasts that led to this tragedy. I have tried to recreate life at the dawning of the twentieth century and to root the narrative in its unique and beautiful geographical setting,
I used very similar research techniques to those that I suggest in my Pharos course. The court records do not survive, but I was able to find very detailed newspaper accounts and they were the key to unlocking the past. They also helped me with dialogue, as I had access to verbatim witness statements. Of course, my previous history and genealogy books hadn’t required me to be able to write speech. The novel is set in a fishing community, where the weather played a huge part in people’s lives and I tried very hard to reflect actual weather events of the time. Fortunately, monthly weather reports for the period I was writing about are available. Where possible, I even tried to write chapters at the right time of year, so that I knew that I was capturing correctly the twists of the seasons and the wildflowers in the hedgerows.
Being an historian, I was obsessed with getting things right. It was very difficult at first to realise that this was not family history, it was fiction and I could fill in the gaps by making things up. Actually, very little was invented in the end. You would not believe the extended debate that ensued over very minor points, such as whether Clovelly donkeys carried luggage down the hill as well as up. Despite photographic evidence, it seems they did not. It turned out that the photograph that suggested to the contrary was posed for a film!
Avoiding anachronisms is not just about making sure your sixteenth century character is not wearing a wristwatch, or your hero does not put his shopping in a plastic carrier bag in the 1930s; I have read both of these clangers. Using appropriate language was another challenge. I had to be careful not to use phrases or vocabulary that was inconsistent with the early twentieth century. Reading novels and diaries that were written in the period, or earlier, was a great help here.
I call it a ‘why done it’, it is very much about people and why they may have behaved as they did. It is essentially a book about people and what makes them behave in a particular way. The characters and their backgrounds allowed me to explore such issues as anorexia, shell-shock, mental health, alcoholism, the menopause and infant mortality. You will find evidence of my interest in the history of medicine and of my love of the Devon landscape, hidden between the covers of this book.
I spent two years immersed in a landscape that was familiar and an era that was not. The characters became as real to me as my own family and somehow I knew how they would react in certain situations. In the end, the facts and the fiction became intertwined and now I have to remind myself which are the parts of the novel that I invented.
Barefoot on the Cobbles is due out on 17 November, for more information see
Details of Janet’s course Are you Sitting Comfortably: Writing and Telling your Family History here