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Tuesday 16 August 2016

Tuesday Talk : My West Country Guest...

from here in Devon: Pam Vass - a talented writer with a welcoming smile ...

Writing Fiction from Fact
The West Country holds a wealth of stories waiting for an author to bring them to life. So how do we go about finding them? For me, there are three irresistible starting points.

Nine year old Paul wakes to find his mother
standing at his bedroom door.

 'I'll just be a minute,' she says.
 And disappears.
The intriguing rumour. 
Some years back I was working in Lynmouth, a small village on the Exmoor coast, when I became aware of a rumour that government experimentation with the weather might have contributed to floods that devastated the village in August 1952. Where did such an off-beat rumour come from? Is it possible to affect the weather? Why would the Government do that? Were they doing it within reach of Lynmouth? I began to delve.

The National Archive at Kew is a treasure-trove for any writer looking to uncover a fact-based story. Under the Thirty Year Rule, government records are made available at The National Archives, unless their release is likely to cause ‘damage to the country's image, national security or foreign relations’. Under the more recent Freedom of Information Act 2000, it’s not even necessary to wait for thirty years. Specific requests can be made for information about much more recent events.

Of course, it’s one thing knowing that documents are available; it’s quite another finding them. My first instinct was to search the Ministry of Agriculture for research on rainfall experiments - something I later discovered was called cloud seeding. After many long, tedious hours I had uncovered precisely … nothing. This is when it’s important to persevere, searching for clues that will lead you deeper into the real story. Eventually, one comment I might easily have missed led me to the real department behind experiments with the weather - the War Office. This was when I knew I had a mystery thriller in my sights, the story that became my first novel, Seeds of Doubt.

Amazon Kindle UK
Newspaper snippets that raise more questions than they answer.
I was a volunteer at the museum in Great Torrington, a small market town in Devon, when a local historian gave me a cutting headed ‘Wooden Computer invented in North Devon’. It was about a self-taught mathematician called Thomas Fowler. I was intrigued. Charles Babbage is known as the ‘father of computing' so who was Thomas Fowler?

Time to play detective again and follow the clues, although initially they were few and far between. Fowler died in 1843 so my only option was to scour original archives looking for documents that hadn’t seen the light of day for almost two centuries. On one occasion I arrived in Cambridge to search an archive that wasn’t indexed. My heart sank as five enormous boxes were wheeled to my desk. I only had three days, but there was no way round it, I had to search every box, document by document.

Persistence is everything in unearthing original stories. Late afternoon on day three I finally arrived at the penultimate piece of paper in the last box and recognised Thomas Fowler’s handwriting. It was pure gold. From this, and other documents, I was able to piece together the heart-breaking story of this self-taught genius for my latest book The Power of Three.

Amazon Paperback UK
Curiosity over how national events play out locally.
The film Suffragette raised the profile of the women who fought, and sometimes died, for something we now take for granted, the vote. It demonstrated the power of storytelling to bring bare facts to life. It was a fact that no woman had a right to her child once they reached seven. The film went beyond the facts, bringing us the absolute agony of a mother unable to prevent her child being given up for adoption.

Most of us are aware that Suffragettes were imprisoned and force-fed in Holloway for demonstrating outside Parliament or that Emily Wilding Davison died after stepping in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom races. But how many know the story in North Devon? Sometimes all it takes is a nagging curiosity and some dogged determination to uncover the story that is already there, waiting to be told.

This time most of my research was done closer to home, searching local papers for clues. The process is a little like Time Team; following hunches about what the story might be and where it is to be found. Some of those hunches prove pure fiction but with perseverance, voices begin to emerge, voices like those of Marie Newby and Nurse Anne Ball from Ilfracombe who had the courage not only to speak out, but to act on their beliefs. A picture emerged of Ilfracombe as a militant hot-spot, with protests spreading down the coast to Lynton where they grabbed the headlines with their biggest outrage. Why there? Who was responsible? The moment I discovered the answers to these questions was when I began to write Fire in the Belly, the Suffragette Story in North Devon, due out next year, a century after Parliament finally granted a limited franchise to women.

What better inspiration for an author, revealing stories everyone has either forgotten or even better, never knew. And there are always more snippets that add twists and turns to the story - a body on the beach; someone living under an alias - that prompt so many possible storylines. All provide suspense, mystery, character development, heightened emotions, jeopardy - the best building blocks for an author, but with writing fiction from fact, based on real lives, real events, real jeopardy.

Amazon UK link
Links to Pamela Vass
Twitter: @pamelavass

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