ALWAYS WITH US – the value of research!
I’d had the characters of Harrison Calderwood and Daniel Harper, in what became ALWAYS WITH US, in mind for a long time. I wanted to explore the way a relationship between two men of different social backgrounds would work, what the problems would be and how they would solve them. I considered various occupations before I made Harrison a solicitor; this made Daniel’s employment background easier to design, and it also meant that Harrison’s social position was good but not exalted.
Next was a location. At first I wanted a country setting and considered the market town of Nantwich, but it did not work for various reasons; neither did Manchester when I considered a city location. Looking at the problem I realised Liverpool would be perfect, and since I live nearby it should have been the first place I thought of.
Liverpool is a place I love and know well, and it had all the ingredients I needed i.e. culture and industry, great wealth contrasting with great poverty – and often literally side by side, as with the slum courts behind one of the most fashionable shopping streets in the city. There was also great philanthropy in practical and political action.
Social history has always interested me far more than battles and monarchs, and it was social history I studied at the Open University. I already had some background knowledge gained from reading about Father Nugent, a Roman Catholic priest who worked with his Anglican counterpart to help the poor of their city, its population swollen by the influx of Irish immigrants driven from their homes by the failure of the potato crop and their misery compounded by an outbreak of cholera in the city a year later.
As well as all this I also have family history interests in Liverpool and so had a good base of research material to draw on, supplemented by the internet.
I like to do on-the-spot research if possible and discover how long it takes to walk from one place to another and what you can see when you get there, so now it was time to venture out.
I have a wonderful ‘Writing Partner’ who doesn’t write herself but has inspired ideas, and is always willing to go on a field trip with me to find out whatever I need to know for a story. ALWAYS WITH US required several such field trips, and all of them somehow managed to include meals out. The first was to Nantwich, which has the most fantastic fish and chip restaurant and an Oxfam book shop in the same street – more than enough reason to visit in themselves – plus it is pretty and full of history, including many original black-and-white buildings, one of which was rebuilt in 1584.
A visit to the local museum provided the factual basis for the clothing factory in the story and information about shops existing in the 1890s, and the factory owner’s house was one I have always admired when passing it on the bus into town.
Southport, where part of the story takes place, required a trip to look at the local history exhibit and a walk out to the sand dunes to confirm what I remembered about the distances involved and the ‘feel’ of the place.
The visit of Harrison, Daniel and his son Joseph to Southport and the sand dunes leads directly to them making a visit to the Liverpool Museum, now a World Museum, to identify the colourful beetle Joseph found in the dunes; fortunately the public no longer have to climb the vertigo inducing steps to what was the main entrance!
I had researched the origin of the museum but hadn’t found out what it looked like on the inside, so I was amazed when Writing Partner and I arrived there to find a photograph in the entrance hall showing what it had looked like in the 1890s. To identify Joseph’s beetle I had spent some time with my book of insects looking for one with the right terrain and appearance to interest a boy of 11, and thus the Green Tiger Beetle took his place on the page.
Liverpool needed several visits, plus a consultation with my friend Rhiannon about where the Calderwood family was likely to live. On the basis of her advice I went, together with Writing Partner and Cimorene Ross (who was over on a visit) in search of houses for Harrison and Daniel. We conquered the local bus service and explored the area above the present Anglican Cathedral, finding a home for Harrison’s future sister-in-law and the church they would have attended. We discovered Daniel’s more modest lodgings further down the hill, and I based his landlady on my paternal grandmother.
Lunch this day was as the Anglican Cathedral; Writing Partner took exception to having her meal served on a plank and asked for a plate, which was reluctantly provided! I wanted chips with my cauliflower cheese (Fiona will agree with me here) not salad and they were reluctant about this as well, but I got my chips in the end and the food turned out to be very good indeed.
I knew what I wanted for the Calderwood home and hadn’t found it, so Writing Partner and I went to Sudley House – a lovely place that should be better known; a few (mental) alterations to that and Harrison had a home. The cakes were good there, too.
Having read this far, you will have realised that food plays a very important part in any research trip – not, I hasten to add, the most important part, but definitely one of the perks! More recently, Writing Partner has already accompanied me on several field trips for ROSES AND CASTLES – which will hopefully be my next book for Manifold Press, later in the year -and we’ve found another excellent fish and chip restaurant, this time in Middlewich. There really is a lot to be said for the value of research!