Welcome to our new behind-the-scenes feature, in which we ask a children’s author to share their journey to find the facts behind their latest work of fiction.
This month Robin Scott Elliot talks about his research for Hide and Seek, a pulse-raising thriller about Amélie, a young member of the Resistance, set in Paris during the Second World War.
Can you tell us about the research you did for Hide and Seek?
Research is critical to Hide and Seek. If it is to convince as a story then the small details must be spot-on – much like the preparation of the agents ahead of parachuting into occupied France.
As I write historical fiction, I always do a good chunk of research ahead of writing, but for this one I did more than usual. That’s in part because there’s so much material readily available about the Second World War and in particular the occupation of France.
There’s been a spate of recent books on the SOE (Special Operations Executive), the British agency that Winston Churchill wanted to “set Europe ablaze”, as new documents have come into the public sphere. One of the fascinating things – at least to me! – about the history of the resistance and the secret agencies that swirled around it, is there’s much that’s still unknown, so many shades of grey. This is a period that fascinates me and I’m ever curious about it.
I’ve been to Paris a number of times, including in childhood. It’s a city I love – who doesn’t? – and I love France too. So I’ve a decent knowledge of the country and its capital.
Most of my research was done through history books and memoirs. Some were primary sources, like the memoirs of Maurice Buckmaster, the head of SOE’s French section, and Gardens of Stone by Stephen Grady, a schoolboy resister.
Buckmaster was a controversial figure who made some catastrophic decisions but his book is packed with details about agents, their life, the preparations and the flat in Orchard Court in London, the agents’ final stop before departing on their dangerous missions. The bathroom there was black-tiled with a large tub – that’s the sort of incidental detail I love.
Three histories of the occupation and resistance were important sources – the Unfree French by Richard Vinen, Village of Secrets by Caroline Moorhead and Fighters in the Shadows by Robert Gildea. I recommend all of them to anyone with an interest in this period.
The other main source was the brilliant Imperial War Museum. The recordings they have of participants telling their stories are such a precious resource.
How important was research to your story. Did what you discovered change the direction of your book?
Very important. I hope I’ve got all the historical and cultural references right – I checked and checked and checked again (if there are mistakes apologies, they’re my fault). I wanted the experiences Amelie has in training and as an agent to be as true to real life as possible. The same applies to her life in Paris as part of the resistance and before that as a Jewish girl when the Nazi oppression began.
Several of characters in Hide and Seek are real, such as Buckmaster and Vera Atkins, who helped Buckmaster run the French Section. Others are based on real people. Some of the real events I use I already knew of, but there is a key one towards the story’s end that I didn’t – can’t say any more because it would give it away!
What’s your research process? Do you do it all at the start – or as you go along?
When I think up a story, from the first flicker of an idea to the skeleton plot, I’m desperate to get writing – because I love writing stories – but I won’t let myself start until I’ve done the research. I make copious notes, first with pen and paper then transcribe them on to my laptop – I still subscribe to my schoolboy theory if you write something down it’s more likely to stick (no idea if it works!).
I print out my notes and stick them around my desk alongside my plot so I can work detail into the story without having to look it up as I go along. I like having my ducks in a row before I jump in because once I start I want to concentrate on the story and where it takes me.
Do you have a favourite source, or a favourite discovery from your research?
The black-tiled bathtub is up there! Another favourite was the boxes of soil from different parts of France housed in the dining room of Orchard Court. Or the use of an editor from Vogue to help agents learn to alter their appearances on the street… I’ve been boring friends and relatives senseless for the last few months!
The Imperial War Museum’s oral archive was one of my favourite discoveries. I didn’t know it was open to all and so easy to access. And hearing someone like Brian Stonehouse (a celebrated artist and agent) describe his experiences was a mesmerising two and a half hours.
Were there any gems you discovered that didn’t make it into the book?
That’s one of the juggling acts of writing historical fiction. There’s a temptation to cram in too much information and it turns into more of a history book than a novel. Reading the stories of the 40-odd female agents who were sent to France was a catalogue of the incredible. And few were as incredible as Virginia Hall, a tall American who was the first female agent into France and was never arrested despite being on the Germans’ most-wanted list.
Do look her up – it’s a remarkable story, not least because she had a wooden leg. Her left leg was amputated below the knee after she tripped and shot herself during a pre-war duck hunt.
Any tips for a writer starting to research a new project?
Follow your nose and keep an open mind. I’ve come into research with a firm idea of my story only to find a better idea or angle. For my previous book, the Acrobats of Agra, I had a plot worked out when I stumbled over a line – a single line – in a history of the Indian Rebellion, about a French travelling circus being trapped in the siege of Agra. I ripped up my original plot and stated again.
In historical fiction, of course research is an important cornerstone to the story. You have to convince the reader they’re in India in 1857 or Paris in 1942, but don’t let research stifle or swamp your imagination – a novelist’s job is to make stuff up!