I wish I could say that there is some rational or methodical way that I go about researching my novels. I wish I could stand in front of a white board with a pointer and authoritatively trace the progression through A to B and beyond. ‘Mid-point “M”, marks a good juncture for a short digression on the political climate of the day’, or ‘At “T” insert some reference to an event of cultural significance.’
That kind of advice might be helpful for those who love to have a plan, and often when I am lost in the middle of the tangled thicket that constitutes the first draft of a novel, I yearn for foolproof directions. However, there is no easy way through. Here then, is a case history of novel-by-happenstance.
My latest – Another Heartbeat in the House – started, unsurprisingly, with a house. No imaginary dwelling, this: the house I call Lissaguirra is a real construct of bricks and mortar, situated in a remote and beautiful place facing onto a lake and surrounded by forest. Happenstance drew me to it. It was built in 1840 as a hunting lodge, but by the time I made its acquaintance it was derelict and dilapidated. So of course I fell in love with it, the way one falls in love with unsuitable men or rescue dogs.
I started to delve into its history. I could simply have chosen random dates and details to suit my purpose, but just as my first historical novel Liberty Silk had been inspired by genuine letters written a century ago, I felt a compulsion to root this new story in reality. I arranged a meeting with the woman who had been custodian of the house and who, to my delight, supplied me with documentation – land registry dates, maps and valuation reports that might otherwise have been difficult to come by.
I begged, borrowed and stole access to Lissaguirra. I visited it in good weather and in bad, I took photographs, I absorbed its atmosphere and listened to my own heartbeat as I wandered through the empty rooms and along the corridors. And of course, the first words that came to me were the five that comprise the title.
In order to capture a sense of time and place, I cast around for material written in or about Ireland in the mid 19th century. William Thackeray’s Irish Sketchbook fitted the bill, being a record of his time spent travelling around the country in 1842. However, a biography told me that he had also visited two years earlier, when he made the journey in a steamship with his wife Isabella and their two small daughters. Halfway across the Irish Sea, Isabella threw herself overboard. She was suffering from what was then called ‘madness due to childbirth’, and would today be diagnosed as postpartum psychosis.
A mad wife! That was my Eureka moment. Having caught the scent of a plot, I embarked upon the chase. I read every biography of Thackeray I could lay my hands on, and any out-of-print works that were available on Project Gutenberg. I re-read Vanity Fair, and novels by other of Thackeray’s contemporaries: The Old Curiosity Shop, Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I plundered the library for books on early Victorian Dublin and books on 1840s fashion and – most distressingly – books on the Irish potato famine.
I learned that Thackeray had employed a series of governesses to educate his daughters; one of them – a Miss Drury – lived with the family at his house in Kensington during the year that Vanity Fair was published, the same year that that most famous of literary governesses – Jane Eyre – made her debut. Miss Drury is a footnote in history. I made her the heroine of my novel.
The quip goes that if you want to make God laugh, you tell him your plans; the same can be said of your novel. From small details plucked from real life, to major events, much of the plot of Another Heartbeat in the House was shaped by happenstance: arbitrary selection of books, random Radio 4 podcasts, and serendipitous nuggets thrown up by Google all contributed to the narrative in ways I had never anticipated.
My advice to anyone embarking on a historical novel is to wear your research lightly. It’s tempting to adorn it with every gem you have collected, but it’s important here to apply the rule that pertains to adjectives: use with restraint.
Coco Chanel said, ‘I always take off at least one piece of jewellery before I leave the house…to ensure that I am not “overdoing” it’. Likewise, I always, always check with my editor to make sure that my research isn’t showing. In Another Heartbeat, we cut a scene in a famine village, a visit to the Theatre Royal, and a dinner at the Pillar Room in the Rotunda because – while they were engaging set pieces, full of period detail and social observations that I had accumulated in the course of my homework – they were not essential to the action.
I’m loath to conclude this piece with a bloodsports analogy, but since the heartbeat of my novel is a hunting lodge, it’s curiously appropriate. Like a huntsman, you don’t know where the hounds are heading, but you follow them even when they’re taking you in directions you haven’t anticipated. The pleasure, for the writer as for the reader, is in the pursuit.
(c) Kate Beaufoy
About Another Heartbeat in the House
Two women living a hundred years apart. One home that binds them together.
When Edie Chadwick travels to Ireland to close up her uncle’s lakeside lodge, it’s as much to escape the burden of guilt she’s carrying as to break loose from the smart set of 1930’s London.
The old house is full of memories – not just her own, but those of a woman whose story has been left to gather dust in a chest in the attic: a handwritten memoir inscribed with an elegant signature . . . Eliza Drury
As she turns the pages of the manuscript, Edie uncovers secrets she could never have imagined: an exciting tale of ambition, hardship, love and tragedy – a story that has waited a lifetime to be told. . .
‘A delightful story, rich, engrossing and vividly told’ Rachel Hore
‘A compelling, atmospheric story brimming with period detail about two feisty, independent heroines who will steal your heart’ Cathy Kelly
For images of the house and some of the characters from the novel, click here.
Another Heartbeat in the House is in bookshops now, or pick up your copy here!