A sense of ‘place’: how accurate do you need to be?

I live in Cumbria, the most north-westerly county of England, and one of the most beautiful. Both sides of my family came from here, it was the place where all my childhood holidays were spent, and when I moved back here to live twelve years ago it felt like coming homeWasdale.

When I decided, just after moving here, that I would write the novel I’d been planning for years, there was no doubt where it would be set. This place is essential to the world in my head that drives my stories. But I was wary of making the immediate location of my story too identifiable: my neighbours, the community I am part of, might not take kindly to being so clearly recogniseable, and as an ‘offcomer’ I didn’t want to sour the relationships that are important in a rural environment. So I anonymised my village, changing its features slightly and giving it a new name. When the action moved further afield those worries receded and I included real places, with their real names. In fact many of the people who read my books love to follow the locations. It’s as if my mention of places they know, peopled by imaginary characters, validates where they live.

That’s fine as long as the characters are reasonably real and mostly well-intentioned. But when I turned to crime fiction for my fourth book, I had bad people doing bad things, and didn’t want to upset the current inhabitants of my locations, so I anonymised the specific locations yet again, even though the physical geography of the area remained the same, recogniseable to anyone who knows the area.Lakes national park map

Changes of name are one thing, but actually changing the landscape of this area strikes me as quite different. It breaks the authenticity that a sense of place in fiction demands. If the setting is all a figment of your imagination, you can do what you like with it. But if you say that this is, for example, a Cumbrian story, then I feel that you should respect the land that is called Cumbria and not mess with it. At least that’s my view.

One crime story I read was ostensibly set in the Lake District, the national park located within Cumbria, but the writer didn’t seem to know the area well at all. He had travel distances and times between places that bore no relation to reality. He had wildlife that didn’t belong there. The lack of authenticity annoyed me so much that I put the book down.

Recently I heard another author talking about his novels, also based in the Lake District, although he lived elsewhere. He was so keen not to locate his stories in anywhere recogniseable that he actually changed the landscape, including new valleys and hills that couldn’t be found on the map. For some reason, I found this hard to take, perhaps because he was messing with a place so important to me. This sounds petty, but the landscape is so precious and eternal that I don;t want it to be treated like that. We create fictional people, of course, but landscape that is half real and half a fabrication? No, not for me.

Is this too precious? I wasn’t even even born here and I’m being proprietorial about the place. But the fact remains that I don’t want to read books in which the setting is an invention, despite the title that claims that the setting is real.

How important is ‘the horse’s mouth’

 

straight-from-the-horses-mouth-idiom

 

‘The horse’s mouth’…where did that phrase come from? And how did it come to mean ‘authentic first-hand information’? However that happened, I’m learning yet again just how powerful such information is when writing a story set in the recent past.

The first novel I wrote was set in 1937, too far back for me to find real people to talk to about how they lived their lives, and I had to be content with first hand accounts in print. The next one, set in 1947, lent itself to listening to people who were around at the time and had stories to tell. I also found the transcript of the National Coal Board’s enquiry into the pit accident in Whitehaven in August 1947 which provided first hand testimony in the witnesses’ own words. By the time I reached the third novel, set in and around the Windscale nuclear power plant in 1957, I was able to find loads of people who remembered the reactor fire there in rich detail, as well as Youtube footage and other contemporary accounts.

The first two crime novels, ‘Cruel Tide’ and ‘Fatal Reckoning’ were set locally but dealt with the issue of institutional child abuse, of which they were no cases from my chosen area that I could draw upon. I relied instead on the report of the enquiry into events at the Kincora boys’ home in Belfast, and the news items that are painfully frequent as historic cases are uncovered.

The novel I’m working on now is set during the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak in Cumbria. There are two sets of factual details I have to get right. One is about the disease itself and its impact on the area. The other is about methods of policing at that time, so that I can ensure that the ‘crime detection’ aspects of the novel are accurate. Family dramas are as old as the hills, but the contexts in which they play out change with the times.

The historian in me loves digging around to find the the best information, and although books and online research are useful there’s really nothing as rich or satisfying as listening to people who lived through the events I’m describing. So far I’ve talked in depth to two CID people who were serving officers in Cumbria at that time, a local vet who played a significant role right through the FMD outbreak, and a man whose job it was to value the farm animals before they were killed. Incidentally, some of the animals were actually free of the disease but were victims of the need to prevent its spread. The memories of my interviewees are raw: it was both cathartic and painful to share them with me. Next I’ll be talking to another person, who liaised with the army and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (as it was in 2001), and to a forensics expert who was professionally active at that time.

The end product of all this activity will be a novel which will also hopefully be a chronicle of a particular time and place, and a community in crisis. This is the community I will live in for the rest of my life and it’s very close to my heart. I owe it to the people here to get it right, and to weave the fictional story and the factual background together in a way that does justice to both. It’s the people, – their memories, their insights and the words they use – that bring life and authenticity to the writing. It’s also one the most fascinating part of my various writing projects, and I’m really grateful to those who are willing to talk to me.

And I still don’t know how and why it came to be known as ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’.

Do you?horse-289x300

 

How important is ‘authenticity’?

Problem:

  1. I want to write a crime series based in Cumbria.
  2. I want to have a female detective, who needs to be at least at sergeant and better still at inspector level.
  3. I want to keep clear of the technical complications of the DNA, Police and Criminal Evidence Act and the introduction of computerised data.

But… there were no female detectives in Cumbria until the 1990s. So, something has to give. Does authenticity matter, or could I introduce a female detective earlier than it actually happened? Ironically, the Cumbria police force now has plenty of high-status female detectives, including one with the wonderful surname of Thundercloud, but this is now and that was then. So what to do? My reluctant conclusion is that authenticity does matter: I must stick with my physical setting of West Cumbria because it’s so important to me, and so the time setting has to move into the mid/late 1990s. All the necessary research is unavoidable, but I can do it. Should be fun to discover how life has changed over the past twenty years.

 

Fact, fiction, and genre expectations

At the Words by the Water festival in Keswick last week, we were able to witness two versions of the same real events and thereby to compare them. The events in question concerned the life and work of  Alan Turing, the mathematical genius whose work enabled the German ‘enigma’ code to be cracked during World War 2. The first presentation came from Turing’s nephew Dermot Turing who gave us five ‘myths’ about his uncle and proceeded to use his detailed knowledge of the family and the history to replace these myths with something closer to the truth. His talk was followed by a showing of ‘The Imitation Game’ a 2014 film ostensibly about Turing’s life and war work, and the events leading up to Turing’s death by suicide in 1954.

At the end of his talk, Dermot Turing urged us to enjoy the film we were about to see, but warned us that the Alan Turing we were going to see portrayed was not, perhaps, the real man, but a filmic construct. He didn’t use those words: in fact he was very polite about a film that demonstrated each of the five myths that he had previously been at pains to deconstruct. No point in railing against it, I suppose, although I doubt whether my reaction would have been so measured.

The film was much heralded when it was released. I can’t recall all the fulsome epithets used by the critics, but some of them at least thought it was very good. But did it actually tell the story accurately? No. In some crucial respects, the needs of the film, the demands of the genre and the presumed expectations of the audience clearly over-rode any semblance of historical accuracy. One example: Turing was already working on the German code before the war began and had cracked it by 1941, but in the film the breakthrough is beset by technical and political difficulties and wasn’t achieved until much later in the war, as the need for it became ever more urgent, creating a false tension that never actually happened.

The script – in my view – was dire, cliche-ridden and sentimentalised. I checked later: the scriptwriter was American and born in 1981. To what extent, I wondered, were both the script and the unfolding of the story affected by the demands of the 3 act structure so beloved of film-makers: – the ersatz crises, the bullying army officer, the cynical MI6 man, the fresh-faced young man who had by some fluke turned up in the code-breaking team. And then there was Keira Knightley as the only woman on the team. Words fail me. Why her, again? I assume I was expected to suspend my disbelief for the sake of the story, but instead I was increasingly  irritated by the whole sorry mess.

On the way out I began thinking about my own attempts to weave real events into a fictional setting, and whether I too should be castigated for sacrificing authenticity in pursuit of a good tale. The issue is most pronounced in the third book of my West Cumbrian trilogy ‘Fallout’, which is set against the backdrop of the nuclear reactor fire at Windscale in October 1957. I had 90,000 words rather than an two hour film script to play with, but still the responsibility to portray the real events as accurately as I could weighed heavily on me, for two reasons. First, it was a point of pride that I got my facts right. And second, Windscale is just a few miles up the coast from where I live and the fire happened not that long ago, within my memory and those of many people who live around me in this area. You can’t, and shouldn’t, muck about with the known facts when many of them are known by so many. My research was careful and meticulous. Even if it made a better story I couldn’t make the fire last longer, or less long, or do more damage, or require intervention beyond the means of the local men who managed to get it under control. So why did the makers of ‘The Imitation Game’ claim to use a real story, take such liberties with it, and get away with it? I can be very critical of my own attempt to blend fact and fiction but at least I tried to respect the events rather than abuse them.

Historical fiction that purports to represent real events raises particular challenges when those events are within living memory. It’s something I’d like to think more about as a writer, and try not to imitate ‘The Imitation Game’.

 

 

 

 

Research: when, how and what?

I’m doing an online crime writing course with the Professional Writers’ Academy, and Week Three is devoted to ‘research’. This is not the first thinking I’ve done about it: you can’t write a family saga based in a specific place (West Cumbria), and a specific time  (the first half of the twentieth century), without spending a daunting amount of time digging for details, followed by even more time deciding how little of that detail is actually needed. What I’m beginning to understand are the various layers and type of research to be undertaken, and when’s the best time to do it. The first duty of a writer after all is to write, and you have to make sure that research doesn’t become a distraction from the writing rather than a necessary preparation for it.

As soon as I’ve decided on the ‘setting’, both time and place, I’ll start researching the first layer of information. It could be about the geography of the area, using maps and visits, just to get the lie of the land, literally. Or it could be combing through the newspapers for the given time, looking for the details of lives lived at the time and the background events. In 1969 the first people walked on the moon, and the provisional IRA was formed, both of which might be in the minds of my characters at that time, or have a bearing on the plot. The original germ of an idea for a story can be helped by this immersion in the times, and some details or incidents jump out at you. Many things may find their way into your notebook, but only a few really stick in the mind. I recall the court case reported during rationing in 1947, where it was explained that an illegal ham hanging in someone’s attic was discovered when a mouse ate through the string and the ham crashed through the ceiling into someone’s bedroom. That found its way into my second novel ‘Forgiven’. In the third one ‘Fallout’ I’m inside the nuclear plant at Windscale ten years later and learn that one of the essential maintenance procedures for the reactor required someone to hold down a button with their finger for long periods of time, until the finger hurt. Who knew? It showed just how troublesome the care of the old reactor had become.

You have to know when to stop ‘reading around’, or the fascination of what you discover can absorb too much of the energy that should now be devoted to the next stage, getting on with the development of the plot and the characters, and on into the first draft. When you get writing, you quickly discover the gaps in the research that will need to be filled, and the list of specific questions mount. What model of motorbike would someone buy in 1947? What were police radios like in 1969? What would be on the juke box in the cafe in 1970? When and why was the decision made to turn off the fans in the burning reactor?

A remarkable number of these questions can be answered without ever leaving the house, if you’re prepared to pick away online until the answer is found. Even better, you can sometimes discover the gold seam of authentic first hand ‘primary’ information, such as the transcription of the accident enquiry about the William pit explosion of August 1947 that was part of the backdrop of ‘Forgiven’. Or the 1985 Hughes Report on the Kincora Boys’ Home scandal in Belfast that provided much of the background of institutional child abuse that I used in ‘Cruel Tide’.

But some of the best information is uncovered when you talk to people. They give you snippets that you would never find elsewhere and add valuable authenticity to your story. I heard from an ex-policeman that he refused to drive a Panda car on his rounds when they came into use because it would have meant swapping his helmet for a flat cap, and he wouldn’t do it. The daughter of a woman who’d sorted coal in the screen shed at a local pit told me that the screen lasses had to wear gloves whenever they went out to cover their scarred hands that no amount of scrubbing could properly clean. Hard work, and hard times, before the process was mechanised and the screen lasses passed into history.

I learned the hard way that much of this wonderful detail can slow your story down and has to be sacrificed to ‘pace’. In the first novel ‘A Good Liar’ great swathes of background detail about a minor character’s clothes and shoes was cut out, and some of looping ‘side-stories’ needed to go as well: however interesting, they were a distraction and inessential to the main thrust of the action. They had to go, however much it grieved me.

Maybe I’ve made this rod for my own back. It might be less onerous, and authentic detail more straight-forward, if I chose contemporary settings. Historical settings make the writing life harder, with more hours necessarily devoted to gathering and checking the detail. But I still think that such a setting lengthens the shelf-life of the book, which matters a great deal to a self-published author whose promotion and sales have to be spread over a longer time frame than the commercial publishers. So long as I keep writing and publishing, my previous books will keep selling as they are already set in the past and cannot therefore age.

 

Where do plots come from?

I’m sure anyone who writes a novel is asked the question: ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I can’t speak for anyone else, but thinking back on the books I’ve written so far, there seem to be a few places where plot ideas come from.

  • My own experience, things that have happened to me personally, together with all the emotions that surrounded them. Some of these are from decades ago, others more recent. I’m not providing any examples of these, to preserve my own privacy and the trust of those around me.
  • Stories or snippets of stories I’ve heard from other people. One of these, told to me many years ago, concerned growing up in Belfast in the 1960s with a Catholic father and protestant mother. Another, just a memorable snippet, was about a young man whose wife left him and then returned to their house a few days later while he was at work and removed every stick of furniture, every carpet, curtain and light fitting. He was too shocked and humiliated to track her down.
  • Details gleaned from contemporary newspapers and accounts. I use the Whitehaven News for some of this background colour, peering at the microfilm reader to find authentic details that could later become small valuable nuggets in the story. It’s a useful source as it’s weekly and contains all the court cases, petty theft, accidents, and features that add depth to the picture I’m painting. The post-war period I researched for ‘Forgiven’ was rich in detail that evoked that particular time: the parish council resolution that refused to celebrate the anniversary of VE Day in 1946 as they had ‘nothing to celebrate and nothing to celebrate with’; the couple who were caught handling blackmarket pork when a mouse ate through the string supporting a heavy illegal ham hanging upstairs, with damaging consequences. In ‘Sellafield Stories’ an oral history of the Cumbrian nuclear plant I found some rich detail about the reactor fire of October 1957 from people who were there at the time. Transcripts of hearings and enquiries are also great ‘primary sources’, raw, unfiltered by anything except the capacity of the note-taker to capture everything that was said. One of the survivors of the William Pit disaster of August 1947 gave evidence to the official enquiry about his experience of the explosion and his escape from the mine, and I took some of his words directly into my text for ‘Forgiven’. Maybe it’s the historian in me that get so excited about the authenticity of evidence like that.
  • Places, and what might have happened, or could happen in this setting. When I did the walk across Morecambe Bay from Arnside a year or two ago I was very struck by the care we had to use when approaching the shore at Kents Bank to avoid a shiny grey patch of mud that wobbled visibly as we came close. This was quicksand, and a false step into it could have been life-threatening. My latest novel ‘Cruel Tide’ drew its opening scene from this experience.

None of these nuggets, of themselves, provide you with a plot, but some of them will provoke the essential ‘what if?’ questions from which great stories can be created. They also remind you of features of earlier times that could provide a starting point. For the novel I’m researching at present, a casual meander around some websites has already provided a striking image that will anchor the plot at the start and leave an after-taste of menace and threat. I had to decide who would witness this image, where, when and how, and what impact it might have, and the story began to take shape. It’s very early days yet, but I’m pretty sure that I already have the first chapter. Once I get to that stage, the story ideas begin to bubble up, adding more strands and twists. The trick is to know when to stop adding layer after layer of complexity and characters, how to shape the story into the necessary peaks and troughs, and then take a deep breath and start….’Chapter One’.

What do readers want to know?

It’s been a busy week for meeting readers, and I’m always interested to discover what they want from me and from the books. Here are a few of the questions that crop up most frequently:

 

Q. Do you base your characters on people that you know? Do you people-watch and use it in your books? (The sub-text here is ‘Are you watching me now?’)

I never really know how to respond to this. The details of characters for the story don’t just appear from nowhere: from a few decades of people- watching there are hundreds of people in my head, but memory retains only bits and pieces – the metaphors someone uses, or the voice or style of clothes, or something they did. I remember, for example, a boy I was at school with who had wide shoulders and a short body, and how his jackets always looked too long. He and I were walking near my house one afternoon and were overtaken by a sudden violent thunderstorm. We’d never shown much interest in each other before, but in the middle of this violent weather we kissed passionately, just once, galvanised by the energy around us. That was a moment of intensity that has lingered in my memory: I haven’t used it in a story yet, but I will.

There are countless fragments like that, some visual, some emotional, that surface suddenly while I’m writing. It’s not really an intentional process. It just happens, and I think my characters and the stories are the richer for them. When I’m writing I do so for hours at a time, reaching a level of concentration which is sometimes called called ‘Flow’, (defined by Wikipedia as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.” That’s it. In that state, fragments of memory appear and find their way on to the page: the outline of a character might have been created earlier, but many of the details emerge during the writing.

Q. Do you always know how your story will end?

I’ve certainly improved my planning since the random chaos of the first attempt at writing a novel, but I can’t say that I know exactly how my story will end when I start it. It’s trite to claim that the characters take over, but to some extent it’s true. If the story is character-driven, that’s bound to happen. Crime fiction, with its requirement for structure and ‘clues’ sprinkled around makes that more difficult, as I found when writing ‘Cruel Tide’. I knew quite early on how the penultimate climatic scene would work, but the final scene of reaction and resolution was written several times before I found a way of closing the story that was true to both the characters and the authenticity of the events and the setting.

Q. When is the next book coming out?

It’s a  welcome question in as much it indicates an willingness to read on, but my hear sinks whenever I hear it. ‘This time next year,’ I’ve been replying as cheerfully as I can muster, thinking as I do so of the months of work that are entailed, the planning, the problems, the research, and then the days of purdah, sitting at the laptop for hours at a time, reading, re-reading, worrying, dreaming, talking to my editor, worrying some more. Sometimes I wonder if I really want to go through it all again at such speed, but my commercial sense tells me that a year is about as long as my readers are prepared to wait for the next one before they lose interest.

Authenticity – finding the balance

For the first time in a long time I settled in front of the TV last night with a pen and notebook in hand, using the programme for learning not just entertainment. It was the first of the new Inspector George Gently series, set in 1969, and it was the date and the northern police setting that were important for me. My first crime novel is currently in progress, set in the Furness district of Lancashire in 1969, and the hardest thing about it so far – apart from the plotting, the 3 act structure, characterisation and dialogue! – has been to find those authentic touches that are so critical to the proper depiction of setting and time.

I’ve already sought out and corresponded with people who experienced the relevant settings first hand, which I didn’t personally although I was a young adult at the time. That was really helpful. I made copious notes and as I’m writing some of those details are bubbling up, still leaving 90% of the research behind. I recall talking to a community policeman from that era who told me he was offered a panda car but refused it as it would mean changing his beloved helmet for a cap. Priceless, and it’s in. And I have an ex-copper writer friend who has generously offered to check my draft when it’s complete looking for things that just don’t sound right. 

As I watched George Gently last night two things struck me very strongly about life in 1969. One was the huge impact on our lives at that time of smoking. Most of the characters smoked unceasingly. Every desk and table had an ashtray, usually overflowing, every room was blue with smoke. What you can’t get from the TV is the smell, but it came back to me. The smell of the ashtray, of smoke on your clothes after a night out, of a newly opened packet of cigarettes. And the other non-visual sensation, for me at least, was the stinging of my eyes after even a few minutes exposure to a smoky room, which kept me out of pubs for years until the smoking ban was introduced, even though for much of my early adulthood I was a smoker myself. 

At the start of the programme, there was a warning – or was it just an observation – that the attitudes in the story were a reflection of their time. The underlying theme of the story was the treatment  of women in general, and the investigation of allegations of rape in particular. I knew, but I’d forgotten. Somebody had done their homework. Out of 120 allegations of rape over a 5 year period in this one small force, the majority were withdrawn by the victims before any charges were laid and only 6 resulted in custodial sentences. Interview rooms were crowded with men asking the complainants personal questions and laughing at their responses, or shouting that they were lying, or had been ‘asking for it.’ I’m prepared to believe that things have changed, but it was a shock to see and hear just how bad it was not very long ago. For all the scoffing and resentment at ‘PC’ attitudes, many many women’s lives have been changed for the better by more recent condemnation of this kind of behaviour. 

My own story picks up some of this, but I’ll go back through again and pick up words, smells, attitudes, and expressions reminiscent of the times, to sprinkle the dust of authenticity lightly across the page. But it has to be done lightly. Some fiction lays the researched authentic detail on with a trowel, clogging up sentences and slowing down the action. You can be impressed once or twice by the quality and depth of the research, but only once or twice before it gets tedious. It doesn’t take much to achieve the effect you want: use of a word that was of its time and has since faded, a smell, an item of clothing, something being eaten. Much of the 60s detail is now regarded as retro and back in fashion, but fondue sets and lava lamps and beehive hairstyles, and the ever-present cigarettes, are still for me evocative of a very particular period.

What I won’t be doing is adding the style and model number of the electric iron that the heroine uses on her full skirt, or the packaging of the Vesta chinese curry she assembles for her supper. Do you remember dehydrated mashed potato? What were we thinking! ‘For mash get smash’. Happy days.

Clues, red herrings and ‘reveals’

The current novel is my first attempt at crime fiction, after reading tons of it over the past decades. Reading other authors’ crime fiction is easy: you can be self-righteously critical of too much information, too little information, too many clues, none at all, plot twists you can see coming a mile off and others so arbitrary you feel cheated. Oh yes, I can take other people’s work to pieces, but writing your own is a different story, literally.

To some extent, crime fiction can feel a bit formulaic. You go on the course and buy the book – the Arvon book on crime writing, for example – and see what protocols characterise the genre. But a perverse refusal to obey rules that I have always struggled with is getting in my way. If someone says, you need a 3 act structure I say ‘Really? Why?’. I’m working hard to overcome this unhelpful trait. So for now, as an novice in the field, I am following the structural conventions, but am still struggling with whether and how to hide clues, and pop in just enough false leads and red herrings (where on earth did that phrase come from?) to keep the reader on her/his toes.

Only got the outline so far, although it’s pretty detailed in parts and up to 18,000 words. The clues etc are in the outline, but because they’re in this truncated form they’re obviously standing out more than they should and hopefully more than they will when the full ms in in place. Those trusted few who are reading and providing feedback on the outline are counselling a lighter touch, and they’re probably right. I’m pleased with one false trail that serves to undermine the protagonist’s self-confidence, which always adds to the tension.

The new book is set in the recent past, and so has necessitated some research about details of the period, but I think I may be learning how to handle it as the obsession for authenticity isn’t looming as large in my mind as it did previously. Some details are essential of course, but I’m also trying to detach the action a little from its setting to avoid local readers feeling that their home turf is being traduced by bad people doing bad things. No-one minds recognising the local setting when the characters and their actions are benign, but I don’t think that will hold true when some of the people are pretty nasty.

The overall problem is how to balance the inferences with the need for twists and a ‘reveal’ towards the end. Classic examples of the genre require the main characters to be summoned finally by the hero detective who then rehearses the clues etc before finally revealing the baddy. I definitely can’t be bothered with that, but some final shocks are necessary. Too many clues may herald and reduce the impact of the shock, but if there are none, is the writer cheating? Maybe I read too fast and without sufficient thought, but sometimes I’m not prepared for the final reveal at all and don’t like that. Thinking about it, what really matters, even in crime fiction, is that we have to care about the characters, even if we don’t like them. What happens to them should matter to us: it’s not just a plot device. And we’re back to character driving the story as much as plot.

What I seem to be doing as the outline expands slowly into a first draft is putting in clues etc and then paring them back to the merest sliver of a passing detail that could be missed or noticed and remembered, so that the assiduous reader feels rewarded later for their concentration. Will it work? Hard to tell. The acid test is giving it to someone to read who’s never read any previous version or had any conversation about the plot. They have to come to it raw, as it were, and then tell me how satisfied or otherwise they feel. It’s going to be a while before I get to that stage.

Delectable authenticity

In the great scheme of things, few people really care about absolute authenticity, but I’m one of them. We notice the glaring anomalies, like the plastic water bottle on a recent photo of the Downton Abbey set, but to appreciate much of we see or read in historical fiction we would need to be extraordinarily expert in the details of the period. If hardly anyone will notice or appreciate the details, why do I spend so much time and effort trying to get it right? I do it because I love it; it gives me a smug satisfaction that I can defend the things I’ve portrayed and the words I’ve used. Earlier this week I was reading from ‘A Good Liar’ a conversation between my heroine and her mother about the respectability of the father of Jessie’s unborn child. ‘They live in Mikasa Street,’ Jessie pleaded, ‘They’ve got a bathroom!’. I couldn’t help myself, breaking off from the reading to assure my listeners that the houses in Mikasa Street (built by Vickers  in Vickerstown on Walney Island, named after a battleship in the Japanese navy) did indeed have bathrooms befitting the status of the workers to whom they were allocated. I beamed at them, they stared back. I’m sure none of them cared, but I did.

For more distant historical settings, the problem may be less acute, but many readers will have lived through my twentieth century settings themselves and will spot anachronism immediately. I was talking recently about the setting of my third book ‘Fallout’, in Seascale in 1957 at the time of the Windscale nuclear reactor fire. A lady in the audience told me cheerfully ‘Oh, yes, I was there that day’ and told me about watching the smoke streaming from the stack above the reactor building as she walked across the compound towards her office. ‘Which way was the wind blowing?’ I asked, but she couldn’t remember.

The setting for my next book will be around 1970 in the Furness area of what was then Lancashire and is now Cumbria. I’ve already spoken to people who worked in the newsroom of the Barrow-in-Furness newspaper at the time and next week I have a date with an ex-policeman from the same era. He laughed when I told him I was interested in the details of how it was to work in the force at that time: when the details are part of your own life you never think of them as important. But the details in my contact’s memory are gold-dust to me, and I shall listen hard, noting and remembering everything I can. How did the average copper think, talk and act at that time, before all the technological changes we have seen in the past 40 years? How did they relate to each other and to other ranks and parts of the service? Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh detectives call the men in uniform ‘woolly suits’: what were they called by their Barrow counterparts in 1970?

I know already that a large proportion of this authentic detail will never end up in the book. I’m writing a story, not a social history of the police force, and the pace can’t be bogged down by too much unnecessary information. I also know that the little nuggets of truth that emerge fresh and glinting into the text may delight only me and the few others who recognise their veracity. For most readers a few authentic details just add flavour to the image that springs from the words on the page. It could be the smell of something, a phrase or dialect word, a joke, a reference; anything can enhance the picture, like salt in food, taking it from the bland to the memorable. That’s what I’m after when I interview my bemused ex-policeman next week. By the way, all I did was send an exploratory email to Barrow police station: somehow, my request ended up on the desk of a Superintendent whose request for someone to respond carried sufficient authority that I heard back within days.

A year or two back, investigating the disaster in one of the Whitehaven pits in 1947 I came across the actual verbatim record of the enquiry into the disaster held by the National Coal Board at the time. It was tucked away in the archive of the Durham Mining Museum. Reading it was like there being there, and I managed to use just a word or two in the voice of one of the survivors. When the underground explosion happened, he said, they were some way from it but ‘the air fluttered’. What a wonderful phrase. Into the text it went and I love it still. Listening to my ex-policeman on Wednesday will give me the same delight, and hopefully the same treasure trove of authentic detail to mix into the story.