Daft as it may sound, but when I decided to write a book set in both 1966 and 1916 (with a few hops, skips and jumps back to 1906 for good measure) it didn’t occur to me that there would be more than one time period to research. What makes this even dafter is that the idea for the book had come to me from things I heard and read about both periods, and I had been actively looking for a way to tie them together.
I began the book that was to become What Becomes Of Us by reading about the suffragettes, first in London and then in Dublin. I had grown up knowing plenty about the British campaign suffrage and some of my favourite novels when I was a child were set within it, but I knew almost nothing about it here. Although the movement was smaller in Ireland, some of its cruelest aspects played out here too: forcible feeding, the ‘cat and mouse’ system of releasing women only to re-arrest them afterwards, and the ambivalent relationship many women had with the very notion of suffrage for their own gender.
My interest in creating a 1960s story began when I went to a function as a friend’s plus-one. I didn’t know anyone else there and happened to get chatting to a woman waiting next to me at the bar. She told me that she and a gang of female friends used to go to pubs in the 1960s and 70s to protest at the law banning the sale of pints of beer to women. Most of these women were housewives with children, and it was an exciting end to what might have been an otherwise perfectly normal, domestic day, she told me. The trick to it was to make sure they got all the other ‘permitted’ drinks in the round first (she was partial to a small port-and-brandy herself) and had at the very least sipped them, because then the barman couldn’t put them back in the bottles when he twigged what was going on and threw them all out. This was the first time I had ever heard of such a campaign, and I was intrigued by its practicality as well as its comradely, grassroots activism.
Then, I had to find a way to tie these two time periods together: the Easter Rising of 1916 and its golden jubilee in 1966 seemed to be to be the perfect frame. Lovely, I thought to myself. That’s just what I need. It was only then that it dawned on me that I had just committed myself to two separate researches…
Because it takes the form of a diary, I began by writing the 1906 sections first. Complete within itself, this diary section sits slightly independently of the rest of the text and even though it is important for backstory, it’s not a significant driver of the 1966 plot. Establishing the 1906 setting turned out to be the more straightforward of the two. As a diary, I could begin with a date on each page without it seeming like there was neon calligraphic arrow hanging over the text. The English of over one hundred years has differences – subtle differences in the most case, but useful nonetheless – from the language we use now. Beginning the first diary entry with a word which shifted in meaning since, signaled a time shift: “Something queer was going on, down below in the Square”.
Adapting my language register did more of the time-travelling work in the 1906 section than the use of period detail. Not that having accurate contemporary detail wasn’t important – it always is, regardless of the time period – but I felt that exploring English usage of the time was more convincing than any amount of references to products, fashions or the politics of the time; especially for a character who was servant. When I moved sixty years forward from London 1906 to Dublin 1965-66, that linguistic distance had closed up considerably, and the period detail had to work harder to establish setting and characters. I began the book with the protagonist Maria Mills and her young daughter on the ferry from England to Ireland to establish her as someone who was doing the opposite of most people of the time and moving back after a decade away. The ferry I booked them tickets on had just been launched, and was considered almost as new-fangled and aspirational as a plane. This was so different to my own memories of ferries from the 1980s that I knew it would help to establish the period.
Though the way I tried to establish time and setting for both the time periods in the book was different, my information sources were constant: newspaper archives. History books are great for establishing this happened, then this, then this. Facts, in an order. But that’s it, as far as I’m concerned. Characters don’t experience themselves as ‘history’ no more than any of us do in real life. So I went to the archives in the National Library and online. Interestingly, the newspapers of 1906 and 1916 had the news hidden in the middle and the rest of the pages were a blaze of ads, situations vacant, personal notices and court reports. It was as thought the individual lives of the people were the important information and the collective ‘news’ was contained in the middle almost as a by-the-way. By the 1960s, the newspapers had come to resemble more what we would now recognise as print media: news was to the front, personals to the back: the individual subsumed by the collective response.
Beginning the research by finding the right nuances of language, period detail and setting makes a huge difference to a reader’s enjoyment of a book. Because if our fictional characters are not set up as being authentic to their own time, how can they be true to themselves?
(c) Henrietta McKervey