The act of researching – time, place and memory

Chateau Chalon

Image – artwork by Maureen Boyle

About two years ago I bought a photographic print by Maureen Boyle. She had quite a lot of prints on display – small and large of photographs she had taken in France and I was taking my time choosing. After all, I was aware that I might be selecting an image for a scene or scenes of a manuscript not yet written. I asked her endless questions. Some scenes were of Paris, from memory, others were taken in the Jura region and several of a chateau were what particularly drew me.

But let me step back a little. In November 2013 an idea came to me about writing the earlier history of a character that appears in my novel Tomaree. She would be nineteen or twenty in the year 1924 and we would find out what happened to her in those early years to shape the character she would become in 1942. In 2015 I realised that I was actually writing a trilogy and that in the second book Sarah would travel to Paris and research the movements of her grandmother in the 1870s. I knew that a chateau would feature in the second novel but where would the chateau be and what would it look like?

A chateau not far from Paris fascinated me but then I discovered Maureen’s photos of Chateau Chalon in the Jura district of Eastern France. I looked at several, well I think I did, of the chateau and finally selected a white framed print 8 x 5. I think it is a marvellous photo, put it in my spare room and promptly forgot about it.

Life intervened, as it always does and I didn’t finish the first full draft of Paris Next Week until a week before Christmas last year. I am now embarking on a second draft – tidying up the prose and checking some 281 points of research that need to be verified, expanded on or simply deleted because they are not relevant to the 1920s. I.e. “comes a cropper”; I hash tagged this remark made by my character Christopher Hyatt as I wasn’t sure how old it was. Turns out it’s pretty old and safe for my character to say. Hastag deleted. Current count is 247.

Back to the photograph. On the evening of Bastille Day, at the French Friday markets in Newcastle I met Maureen again and went through her photographs. I picked up one of the chateau and I told her that I had bought possibly the same chateau, but from another angle. She said she had taken a lot of photos that day. As I studied the photograph she showed me the same photo but much larger. Excited I bought the larger photo. The details were so much clearer of course. Not only was there a little Juliet balcony but a small enclosed tower next to it. I took the photo home that night and yes, you guessed it, I had bought the same photo.

No, I don’t have a bad memory. I have a particularly good visual memory. It just seemed to me as I contemplated the photograph for the second time that it was a different photograph. I was of course seeing it with new eyes. I like to think that this is a nudge to look much closer at something that has become an everyday part of my life. After this, it will be very hard now to chose another chateau.

PS I’ve just discovered that this is a photo of a house near the Chateau. More digging is now obviously required.

The Cats Will Come, my grandmother and her diary

Mum Court with cats

Timing really is everything. Not just in what we read – the right book at the right time – but also when we discover or rediscover something. At the age of twelve or thirteen I inherited my grandmother’s beautiful carved chest. I can’t remember what was it in. Papers I think that my family removed but somehow I also inherited some books of hers, a teddy and what I thought was a very small gardening journal. I put the tiny notebook in the carved chest which now contains, photos, children’s schoolwork, music sheets, treasured newspaper clippings and at one stage my first completed manuscript.

Just recently my online friend Eva Lomski was enquiring about a WH Davies quote that I used in my first unpublished manuscript. I promised I would hunt it down expecting to find the two light purple manilla folders containing “A Strange Peace” in the chest. The folders weren’t there but I dislodged the tiny beige notebook and put it aside. I finally found the manuscript the other day and I’m glad that I now have stored it safely where I can find it.

Back to the notebook. I read through it last week and discovered that it is actually a diary not a gardening journal and that my grandmother was very clearly not well during much of 1968. What I wasn’t expecting was to find myself there – a young granddaughter Debby (spelt incorrectly) who frequently visited on a Sunday with her parents Nan and Jimmy.

I might have even seen my name there years ago when I first came across the notebook but probably didn’t think much of it. This time things were different. In the notebook I can imagine myself as I was, a little girl whose place as an only child was secure. Visits to her grandmother were seen in the light of her parents’ behaviour and reactions – her mother’s lack of interest in the garden; her father’s love of cats. But on Friday 27th December the diary entry reads: “Debby came home for 2 nights and day.”

I only remember staying with my grandmother once and I have never been able to remember if it was only for one night but here it is in my grandmother’s spidery writing. I was eleven years old and alone with her in the old house and garden. I remember waking up and she wasn’t there. She was out in the garden. She was old but she was up before me, digging and stooping over flowers.

I look back now and realise that it was up to me to decide what to think about my grandmother. It was my opinion of who she was and mine alone. Mad gardener and lover of cats. I was finally seeing her, really seeing her for the first time. Years later, not surprisingly, the poem came very quickly.

*THE CATS WILL COME

The cats come to her alone
except for grandmother
stooped, whispering their names
and when they come they form
an avalanche of fur
against the wire screen door
collapsing in a tangle of tails
a swish of slick coats
then slink to bowls of milk
lapping the evening away.

A lace curtain flutters
in the chequered sun
while grandmother cossets
roses, chrysanthemums
and hydrangeas heavy
with dew in the early light
orange in the old kitchen
that greets her grandchild
just roused from sleep
waking to a world slipping away.

*First published in Westerly Magazine