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  • Writer's pictureDonna Moore

Poignant Trivia

One of my favourite authors is Sarah Waters. She once said that many of her readers have suggested to her that her historical fiction is “full of lavatories” - all the ordinary and ostensibly trivial details that give life to her writing. She refers to such details as “poignant trivia”. As a result, in her research process, she embeds herself in the period she’s writing about, reading fiction, diaries, newspapers and letters and researching in great detail details such as coins, locks and shoes. Although I'd written historical fiction before, it was primarily short stories. When doing my research for The Unpicking, my first historical crime fiction, novel it was this poignant trivia that I wanted to get right.

Thinking back, it's always those little details I want to get right, whether for historical or contemporary fiction. I once spent hours researching the French Foreign Legion because I was writing about a character who had left the Legion and I wanted to know if, and how, he might have left (Dear Reader, as an additional bonus, if you ever join the French Foreign Legion, they recommend not taking anything valuable). So historical fiction simply adds another layer of "things that need to be researched".

I know what I eat for breakfast every morning, what my clothes are made of, or what Glasgow city centre smells like. I can get those across to a reader by using my own experience. I can’t do that with historical fiction, as the experience of my characters is not my experience. As a result, I don’t just need to know historical facts and figures; I also need to know the poignant trivia and telling detail.

I want my writing to be a sensory experience, and one where seemingly unimportant, intimate objects speak to character. Clothing, for example, might seem a trivial concern that is nothing to do with the story – and, in fact, has led to critics of historical fiction referring to it as “chick lit in petticoats”. However, if I have no knowledge of the clothes a woman might have worn, then I can’t understand how she moves through the space she inhabits, whether she is constrained by what she wears and the levels of discomfort she may have experienced – discomfort and constraint which may reflect and symbolise all aspects of her life.

When researching The Unpicking I lost myself for hours, quite happily meandering through a fascinating warren of research rabbit holes, googling, “Victorian cakes and how to make them”, “when were pockets invented?” and “what songs were popular in the 1870s?”. I now have hundreds of recipes for Victorian cakes and biscuits, with lovely names such as Rose Biscottine, Lemon Feather Cake and Tronchines. I even had a go at making Apricot Pithivier, the favourite sweetmeat treat of one of my characters. All of this research was to eventually make it on the pages as: “Clemmie walked past a cake shop.”

In fact, most of my research never made it onto the page, but I hope that finding out about things my characters might have eaten, scents they might have smelled, the paint colours on the walls, songs they might have heard and fabrics they might have touched, means that some of the colour and resonance of the period seeps into the words and hopefully, brings my stories to life. Over the next few weeks and months, I will be posting in more detail about the research that went into The Unpicking and I hope the research nuggets bring you some of the joy they brought me, and also some of the moments of reflection.

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