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The trouble with history is it is so epic and vast, while good fiction is intimate and connected to the thoughts, feelings, and daily lives of individual characters. It’s one thing to know that the Suez Canal was opened in 1869 and quite another to write about how it felt to steam through it on a ship. When I realised that my character Agnes would have likely taken this route on her journey to find her mother, I knew I had a big research task ahead of me.
When writing a scene in a place one has never been (like, for example, the Victorian period!) it becomes very important to find those few little details that make it seem real, rather than reverse-engineered out of the “big” stories of the past. I contacted the National Maritime Museum in Sydney and they helped me find shipboard journals from the period. In a stroke of luck that seemed almost magical at the time, they found one woman’s account of a voyage through the Suez in 1880. I booked my flight to Sydney, and went to look through the journals and make notes.
The author’s handwriting was very difficult to read, but the museum provided me a typed transcript to follow alongside it. The details were all there, things I’d never have imagined. Native children diving for coins under the ships as they passed, the sounds and smells of Port Said at midnight, how the damp heat clung under the layers of Victorian dress. And this marvellous detail changed the whole way I saw the scene: “Am quite astonished at the narrowness of the canal never dreamt that the sides were so close in” (see photo). Once I could see it in my mind’s eye, I could write it.
The marvellous thing about research is it doesn’t just give you the details you need, it opens up so many other imaginative possibilities. I had never considered my character disembarking somewhere on her journey through the canal, but once I’d read the rich description of Port Said, I knew I wanted her to get off there. So I have a whole scene where she sneaks off the ship and has an adventure by gas lamp in this exotic, strange, atmospheric place. It feels now as though I have been there, even though that isn’t possible. But isn’t a book all about experiencing the impossible?