Doing historical research is a bit like falling down Alice’s rabbit hole – you have no idea where you’re going to end up. You can go round in circles on the trail of an elusive fact or, as in author Truda Thurai’s case, follow an intriguing hook and end up writing something entirely unexpected.
Truda’s first novel, The Devil Dancers, is set in Ceylon , now known as Sri Lanka, so when she discovered that the country is also referred to within Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, she was intrigued. Once on the trail of the connection, however, Truda was sent on another journey entirely and ended up writing a collection of short stories entitled Barley Bread and Cheese. She kindly dropped by the Magpies nest to explain how it happened…
Hello Truda, please push the twigs aside and make yourself comfortable. Now then, can you tell me what you were hoping to find when you visited Rochester Cathedral – the setting for Edwin Drood?
I was intrigued. What had influenced Dickens to refer to what was a relatively small outpost of the British Empire? Why not India or Africa?
My antennae started to twitch. I love history and I love mysteries.
I visited Rochester Cathedral and found some fascinating stories inscribed on contemporary memorial tablets, but nothing relevant to Ceylon. So, I did a bit more research.
I discovered that Dickens’s lifelong friend was the celebrated actor, William Macready. Macready had a son, also called William, who was a civil servant in Ceylon. That had to be the connection for Dickens and what inspired his reference to Ceylon in Edwin Drood.
By now, I had gathered a lot of information from memorial tablets about individuals working in far-flung corners of the Empire in Dickens’s day. These accounts were so vivid that I decided to weave them together in a story called The Cinnamon Peeler’s Daughter. This was to become the first story in the Barley Bread and Cheese collection.
Your short stories were also inspired by paintings, books, carvings and Saints but what made you choose those items in the first place?
While researching the Dickens angle, I made several trips to the Cathedral. I began to read about it and to chat to the guides who pointed out unusual aspects of the Cathedral that I might otherwise have missed. I became fascinated not just by the individual objects but also by their history.
For instance, there is a particular irony attached to the medieval Wheel of Fortune wall painting in the Quire. Cromwell’s soldiers scraped part of it from the wall. By luck, one half of the painting was obscured by a pulpit and survived. This was the half of the Wheel that corresponds to good fortune.
Other objects, such as the Green Man, fitted in with my own memories and experiences. The story of Jack includes a reference to a little man, dressed all in green, who used to visit my mother’s shop every spring. Interestingly, when my mother’s neighbour read this story, she also remembered this character. He used to sit on her garden wall while her sons fed him cheese sandwiches.
Did you have an idea of how many stories you wanted to write and then set out to find the objects or were you led along by your discoveries?
In every case, I was led along by my discoveries. Each of the ‘treasures’ mentioned in the collection has its own story to tell. This is especially true of Rochester’s ancient 12th century manuscript, the Textus Roffensis. This unique source of Kentish history, law and language inspired two of my stories.
The Textus has been housed in the Medway Archive for many years. However, at the launch of Barley Bread and Cheese, we were told that the Textus will be returning to the Cathedral in 2015. What fantastic news!
I’ve got two: The Broken Wing and Jack. They are both written in very different styles. The Broken Wing has a lot of dialogue. I heard the voice of the narrator right from the start. Strange, because he’s a Yorkshireman and I have a southern accent, but I could literally hear his voice. Writing that story was a bit of an out-of-body experience. Unlike anything else I have ever done.
Jack is very different. If I had to describe it, I suppose I would call it prose-poetry. It’s very descriptive and I like reading it because it has a rhythm which suits my own voice. Not everything I write is like that.
It is difficult to choose a favourite object but, I suppose, that would have to be the Textus Roffensis because of its extraordinary adventures. Over the centuries, it has travelled up to London, been illegally sold, become the subject of two custody battles and been dropped in a river.
Its survival on the last occasion was thought to be due to the brass clasps on its cover which clamped the pages together so tightly that the water only penetrated their outer margins.
William of Perth is an unlikely character to become a real-life Saint, how did you start to unearth his factual story?
I began to read whatever I could about the Cathedral’s history. It was through researching various sources on the Internet that I came across William of Perth, an obscure Scottish baker who shot to fame as Rochester’s medieval saint. His only connection with the city was that he was murdered outside it while on pilgrimage to Canterbury. It seemed a very tenuous link. In fact, very little seems to have been known about him.
To try and make sense of what few facts I could find, I drew up a timeline – both for Rochester Cathedral and for Canterbury. I discovered that Rochester Cathedral had suffered two disastrous fires and was then subjected to a heavy papal tax. It was facing real financial hardship at exactly the time that Canterbury was making a fortune from the shrine of Thomas Becket. This seemed to me to offer an explanation for William’s otherwise inexplicable celebrity.
Which was the hardest story to write and why?
I was coming to the end of my ideas for stories for this collection. I had written a short piece for The Wheel of Fortune, but it needed something else. I was really stumped.
Then, one day, I was hunting through my files when I discovered some notes, quickly scribbled down after a visit to a supermarket. One of the other shoppers there had fascinated me and, I remembered, she had looked remarkably similar to Lady Fortune in Rochester’s wall painting.
I had completely forgotten about this episode but once I started writing it up as a story it came quite naturally.
I love the story of ‘Jack’ and his journey along the pilgrims way – is this a path you have walked yourself?
Unfortunately not. I suffer from M.E. and recently have had some additional problems with my walking. I’ve always loved walking and I deal with the frustration of not being able to do it by picturing scenes in my head. You can travel wherever you want if you write.
What I did was to research as much as I could about the Pilgrims’ Way and some of the places along the route, such as Kit’s Coty.
I also included references to other places close to Rochester which had interesting bits of history such as Burham where the Romans met resistance from British tribes. Another place of interest is Wouldham where sailor Walter Burke is buried in the churchyard of All Saints. He served on The Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar and cradled Nelson in his arms as the Admiral lay dying from his wounds.
How easily did each story come to you?
The Broken Wing was unlike any other story. I literally woke up with the plot – and the voice of the narrator – in my head. It was complete before I even started writing. That has never happened before.
I usually have to find my way through a story as I am writing. It is usually a bit of an adventure because I’m never sure where I will end up. All the other stories fall into this category and, because of that, they were much harder to write.
What did you enjoy most about putting the collection together?
I’ve never written short stories before. It was real fun because I could experiment with different themes and styles. If you are writing a novel, you have to aim for consistency from beginning to end. You do not have the luxury of switching the plot or using a different voice.
Editing. It’s horrible and it’s hard grind but so necessary. I don’t think you can really call yourself a writer unless you are able to edit your own writing. It’s 50% of the work and is rarely just a little bit of fine-tuning. Stories often get re-written at the editing stage. Other people’s input is always useful and necessary, but you have to take the final editing decisions yourself. If you hand it over to someone else, you’ve lost control of your work.
What advice would you give to someone researching the history of an object or turning fact into fiction?
When researching, be as thorough as possible. Write lots of notes and always include a reference in them to the source. At some point in the future (usually when editing) you will need to return to the original text, mainly to check the facts but also to ensure that you have not quoted someone else’s work verbatim. It’s very easy to do that when lifting details from your notes to incorporate into your story. Always make sure you have used your own words, not someone else’s.
When turning fact into fiction, the story must come first. Resist the urge to include too many facts or you will end up with a textbook. Avoid unwieldy chunks of information, however fascinating, because it will slow the pace of the plot. Restrict yourself to a few key facts, but make sure you get them right.
And lastly, what are you working on now?
I’m half way through a novel set in Britain in World War II. I like neglected corners of history and I think I have found an unusual one. Unfortunately, I had to put this book on hold while I promoted The Devil Dancers. I am returning to it after an absence of two years. Not an easy task. But I’m currently re-visiting my research and notes and planning to begin again in the next few weeks.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me Truda I really appreciate it and please do let us know when you have some more talks arranged.
Personally, I absolutely loved reading Barley Bread and Cheese, and would definitely recommend it. I would just like to warn readers that you will probably need a bunch of tissues though as one story had me sobbing all the way through. It remains my favourite short story ever and you can discover it for yourself on the following links – Amazon: Kindle and paperback and Kobo
You can also find out more about Truda – who is, in her own words, ‘a true ‘Kentish Maid’, and her writing by visiting her website and reading her blog. She also likes to chat on twitter and you can find her at – @T_Thurai
Angela Buckley will be the next author ruffling my feathers so please drop back soon to discover who was ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes’?