Barbara Henderson’s Research Log

Rivet Boy is the new book from children’s writer Barbara Henderson, our favourite author of Scottish historical fiction. It is set in the 1880s during the construction of the Forth Bridge.

Barbara’s books always have the ring of truth that comes from thorough research, and Rivet Boy is an exceptional story bursting with factual gems. We’re delighted that Barbara has agreed to share some insight into how she discovered them.

Can you outline the research that you did for this book? Where did you go/what main sources did you use?

It all began with some images of Victorian Scotland. I can’t tell exactly, but in a photography book of the period, there was a whole chapter devoted to Scotland’s greatest man-made wonder, the Forth Bridge.

I already had a long-lasting relationship with the bridge: I visited it as a child (much of the rest of that holiday is a blur more than 40 years on, but I do recall the imposing bridge structure, and posing for a photograph in front of it. I returned to Edniburgh as a student, and South Queensferry became a regular haunt. However, my research in earnest really started when I speculated: what would it have been like to be employed on the building site of such a project?

I found a book that fitted the bill perfectly: The Briggers by Elspeth Wills. It turned out that the people behind the research for the book also called themselves The Briggers Partnership. When I found a reference to a 12-year old boy, John Nicol, who fell from the bridge but was fished out, sustaining ‘no more than a wetting’ I was in – he was to be the protagonist in my book.

I contacted the researchers, and one of them, Frank Hay, became a proper accomplice – if at all possible, he was even more excited about my book idea than me! It was he who unearthed many of the documents which formed the base of my story: addresses, birth and marriage certificates, census entries and newspaper articles. I find that often, people are a writer’s best resource: if you can find an expert who already has much of the information you need, you save yourself a heap of self-doubt and agonising. Best of all, he was willing to read early drafts of the story, and if there was something he hadn’t come across, he would usually know where to find it!

This is no substitute for understanding the big picture: I had to spend some time getting my non-engineering head around some of the key concepts, and reading about the period in a wider sense in crucial. Perhaps it helped that I had already written a book about Victorian Scotland (Punch) and was able to tap into some of what I remembered. 

How important was research to your story. Did what you discovered change the direction of your book?

I set out to discover the STEM/ engineering angle of the book, while not letting it get in the way of the story.

However, a couple of discoveries massively altered the book I ended up writing. For a start, I discovered that the very first Carnegie library had just opened a stone’s throw from my character’s real life address in Dunfermline. Would a boy who had to leave school as a breadwinner avail himself of this new, free resource? I decided he would. It opened another new research avenue for me: libraries, and particularly the first Carnegie library in Dunfermline. Isn’t the internet wonderful? I found a blog post about its beginnings at – and now I had not only another setting my a fantastic new character: the Edinburgh bookbinder Alexander Peebles who forms an unlikely friendship with my boy hero.

When my publishers suggested finding a way of weaving in eminent Victorians, I asked myself if autographs were a thing back then. Cue more research, and BINGO! The craze had just come to the UK from America, and I had a perfect vehicle for John Nicol to approach the many famous people who are recorded to have visited the bridge site.

How does research fit with your writing process. Do you do all the research at the start?

It is definitely a mix for me! I start out not knowing everything, but truthfully, I need to have a pretty good idea of the broad story I may tell before I go in – Before that, I do like reading around the period and the subject matter. If it’s memorable enough to lodge itself into my mind, it often makes it in.

Once I am underway, I have a better idea of what I actually do have to know and I will research and ask more focused questions of my expert ally. But I am categorically not a plotter – I need to be surprised by my own story to remain interested. It is usually at the two-thirds stage that I have my big wobble about how good the book is, and I write a synopsis at that point to bring all the strands together. 

Do you have a favourite source, or a favourite discovery from your research?

There was a newspaper article about a squirrel falling into the water, and being rescued by a passing patrol boat captained by a Mr Ramage. I wrote both him and the squirrel into the story. I find that you can’t go far wrong with an animal sidekick in a children’s story – and my research suggests that it probably was a red squirrel, which created a lovely echo with the characteristic Forth-Bridge-red of the landmark!

Not strictly research, but one of my very favourite things I have included is a little hidden reference to the plot of Punch – John Nicol mentions seeing a troupe of travelling entertainers with a dancing bear. It was when I discovered that both books cover the summer and autumn of 1889 – it was just too great a temptation to resist!

Were there any gems you discovered that didn’t make it into the book? Can you share one if so?

Barbara and bridge expert Frank Hay

I discovered that Lady Margaret Moir, wife of one of the engineers on site, was a founder of the Women’s Engineering Society years later. I do hint at her interest in construction in the book, but even before my plot begins she was instrumental in creating safer conditions for the men who worked in the underwater chambers laying the foundations. She is definitely a very impressive lady, but only gets a couple of cameos in Rivet Boy!

Do you have any tips for a writer at the start of researching a new project? 

I am not by nature particularly meticulous – I am much more of a broad-brushstroke-big-picture person. For years, I thought I probably shouldn’t write about history as a result, and it shackled me. I was bound to get it all wrong! However, it turns out that all you need is an expert in your corner who does bring all of these skills to the table, and ideally someone who has already done the work.  So: find the expert, buy them coffee and listen. All their friends and family will already be sick of hearing about their pet subject, so your expert will love you for indulging them. 

Then do your bit and get on with the story!  

That’s my top tip!

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