Guest Post: How Barbara Henderson researched Scotland’s Smuggling Story

Barbara with book 150Being a children’s author isn’t always about making up stories in your head. Sometimes, it’s about researching a subject so that you know it inside out, then sharing that knowledge in a way that excites and inspires young readers.

Barbara Henderson is a maestro when it comes to this particular skill, and we’re delighted that the author of the (brilliantly researched) novels Wilderness Wars and Punch, joins Roaring Reads for this guest post, sharing her experience finding the facts behind her new novella Black Water (out now – read our review here).

“The Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott famously observed that ‘few people take more enthusiastically to the free trade than the men of the Solway Coast’.

“I have long been fascinated with smuggling, piracy and all things sinister by the water. What’s not to love? A night-time sea is just about the most menacing backdrop you could possibly choose for a story – evocative and atmospheric, but with its own dose of eeriness too.

“I had not long ago read Michael Morpurgo’s smuggling stories set in Cornwall and the Scilly Isles and was already in that mindset when an unusual competition caught my eye: The Ballantrae Smugglers Story competition. I entered it – and miraculously won!

“I’m pretty sure that the thing that made the difference was the perspective: I had chosen a thirteen-year-old apprentice of the Excise – essentially, the story was told from the point of view of the smuggler-catchers, not the romantic lovable-rogue point of view of a smuggler.

“It was sufficiently different to have scooped the prize and gave me a boost as a much-rejected writer, which I really needed at the time. One of the comments from the judge stood out. ‘This reads like it could be the beginning of something longer’.

“Perhaps. But I was already immersed in writing another project. Four years and three novels later, however, the smuggling story caught up with me. I’d come across the most extraordinary event in our past: a counter-smuggling operation which featured none other than Robert Burns! There were so many angles of this which would work for a children’s story. All I needed was to do the research, and the hero of my winning story could meet the famous poet.

“But my first attempt at research was the mother of all disappointments: We booked a family holiday to Dumfries just so I could visit the museum. Guess what – the museum was closed for the week we were down there, for refurbishments!

“All I could do was retrace the steps of the excise party as they sought to apprehend the ship. Kindly though, the museum staff put me in touch with the expert on the Solway Smuggling coast, a lady called Frances Wilkins. Her generosity with her considerable knowledge is what really green-lit this project for me. I loved the real-life anecdotes of secret plots and clandestine plans – a world with such real risks, which we struggle to relate to in our relatively safe society.

“Frances’ book provided a blow-by-blow account of the seizure of the Rosamund in the form of a diary. Here were the words of an ordinary man in charge of apprehending the schooner. Walter Crawfurd (sic) records facts, places and names rather than the stuff of fiction, so it was up to me to fill in feelings, atmosphere and jeopardy as I saw fit. Such high-quality source material was a gift, and I have included extracts of it at the back of Black Water so that readers, too, can marvel at how much of this novella is actually true!

“I always surround myself with images of the fictional world I am writing about, and it really helps me visualise. Donkeys used to carry contraband in some of the images led to my including a donkey beside Old Finlay’s hut, for example. I had to learn about different vessels and measurements, as well as the type of goods being smuggled in and out of the country.

“Of course I still feel a bit of an imposter, because I don’t know everything there is to know about Scotland’s smuggling world. However, the beautiful thing about writing for children is this: you don’t need to. Children want their fiction driven by characters in peril, not by a never-ending list of historical facts. A sprinkling of those is enough for the all-important authenticity.

“Research matters, of course it does. But story matters more. In the case of Black Water, that was very liberating for this work-shy writer, I can tell you!”

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