Why careful research is vital
I’m writing my 12th book, but the one I’ve felt most attached to is Book 3 of my historical trilogy set in 1937-1951, A Relative Invasion. I called Book 3 “Impact” – indicating the dramatic outcome of the two main characters’ lives to date.
Whereas I had concentrated on researching war and wartime experiences for the first two books, all of which is readily available from newspapers of the time, personal letters and first-hand written accounts, far less has been compiled for the years following the war. The invaluable archives of English record offices, many of which I visited while writing this trilogy (none more helpful than Surrey record office) provided a good proportion of this.
However, I came almost to a halt in a later section of Book 3. The lower part of this book cover shows the exterior wall of an “Approved School”. This was the name of institutions for youngsters who had committed offences more serious than opportunistic shop-lifting or street brawls. Much of what went on inside the secure walls of these places – and not a lot was academic education – has been confidential. This is even more the case for the personal histories of the children who attended such institutions. Sufficient time must pass, usually 100 years, between the lifespan of anyone affected, which could include children of the person of interest, and the release of the documents safely esconced in the archives.
Published first hand accounts are likely to be few. Not many people wish to write about their darker moments, and will be tempted to embellish or diminish their behaviour if they do. There is Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan, a remarkable work, but his background and experiences were very different from my character’s, who had no political leanings and whose journey would take a very different path.
I had to use dry government documents and academic articles about the treatment of young offenders to glean any sense of these institutions. For the emotional impact of attending such a “school”, and the experience of the responses of adults, I had to draw on my professional background as a psychologist, and upon the nature of the characters I had already built up.
In 20 years’ time, or so, I can return to a records office and see the information I had wanted but for my book, I had to search inner pages of local newspapers for court cases to gain some sense of what happened to young offenders.
Murders are much easier to research! Even so, writing about the impact of the lead-up to a climax and the extensive and widespread fall-out was much more satisfying.