The story behind the story – researching The Heiresses by Allison Rushby
When I received the initial email from my agent saying St Martin’s Press was looking for original New Adult fiction, I was visiting Jane Austen’s house in Hampshire. Maybe it was the atmosphere, but an historical idea I’d kept floating around in the back of my mind instantly sprang forth. I pitched that idea, and within a month it was contracted and I was away and writing what would become The Heiresses.
I’d never written an historical novel before, but, being a huge fan of 1920s London, I felt comfortable with the time period I’d chosen. My favourite writer is P.G. Wodehouse and other favourites include Stella Gibbons and anything at all Mitford. At the time, Downton Abbey was gaining in popularity and although the first two seasons were set slightly earlier than the 1920s, it was amazingly helpful to listen to the dialogue, take in the interiors and drink in the costuming.
Whilst I knew that writing an historical novel would involve research, I’m not sure I understood quite how much! At first, I made the mistake of stopping after every second sentence to run off and check some historical detail or another. I quickly learnt that I’d need to put large Xs in place of that detail and schedule research in for specific times, or I’d never get anything written at all!
Thankfully, this research was made a whole lot easier by the fact that, with the most spectacularly perfect timing, I happened to be living in Cambridgeshire, England, for an entire year (home is normally in Australia – quite a different setting!). Cambridge is less than an hour from London by train, which meant that I could make the journey down on the weekends and potter about researching. I liked to stay in Bloomsbury (a well-known writers’ haunt). I’d walk and walk and walk, get lost and then walk and walk and walk some more, getting to know the areas my three heroines frequented in London.
On my trips to London, I was able to walk around Belgrave Square and choose the exact townhouse I wanted the girls to live in with their aunt. I made my way to Russell Square, and selected evil brother Charles’s townhouse as well. I shopped at Liberty, just like the girls did, and marvelled at the wooden beams. Technical historical details were far more easily fielded than they would have been if I was living elsewhere. When I wasn’t sure about a certain room at the Savoy hotel, I was actually able to get in touch with the hotel’s archivist (yes, I know, what an amazing job!). For a bit of fun, I even booked a retro Mini tour one day and toured the sites in the book to make a little book trailer.
I think my research highlight, however, came on the day my family and I were driving home to Cambridgeshire from a weekend spent in Oxfordshire. I’d heard that Downton Abbey was currently filming exterior shots in the tiny village of Bampton and so we decided to make a quick detour, despite the fact that it was an absolutely foul day – cold and wet and miserable. I’m so glad we decided to stop, because the freezing half hour I spent running around the village taking photos was just magical. It was a Sunday and filming would resume the next day, so the cameras were all out in the churchyard, wrapped in red plastic, there were trailers everywhere, bunting strung up for what would be Matthew and Mary’s wedding and even all the signage was in place for Downton Cottage Hospital, the Grantham Arms pub and so on. It was surreal and wonderful – just like stepping into their world.
I adored writing The Heiresses and know it will always remain a special project for me as an author. Being able to research on the ground was an amazing experience and one I hope I’ll have the opportunity to pursue again in the future.
Having failed at becoming a ballerina with pierced ears (her childhood dream), Allison Rushby tried writing instead. Over the past ten years, she has published five books for young adult readers and five for adult readers in the women’s fiction genre. She is originally from Brisbane, Australia, but spent 2011 and most of 2012 living in Cambridge, UK, where she mainly spent her days whingeing constantly about the weather. She is currently working on a New Adult contemporary, a Middle Grade book about aliens and her sanity. Oh, and she got the pierced ears in the end, thanks for asking…
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