Monday, 7 October 2013

Guest Blog - 'How Research Has Become a Valuable Part of My Writing' by author Helen Christmas

Since I embarked on writing my current series, I have discovered a part that I really enjoy - and that’s the research.

My current series is the first set of books, I have ever really felt serious about - a wonderful opportunity to do something I not only enjoy, but portray everything I’ve observed in my own life, to give a personal narrative of British culture; from my early childhood memories in the 70s, to the college days of the 80s, right through the early 90s, when I first stepped out into the big wide world as an adult. Thus, Same Face Different Place was born.

To give the stories a sense of realism, I really had to dig deep. The first book was set in London - and (confession time), although I have visited London many times, I have never actually lived there. So what must it have been like, growing up in the heart of the 1970s criminal underworld? Early inspiration came from having read numerous books by Leslie Pearce and Martina Cole, whose novels were based in a similar setting. I felt I knew enough about organised crime to pull together an exciting yarn of my own - but I still had to cast my gaze a bit further. I watched a few videos on YouTube about the Kray brothers and found even more inspiration from a film from 1971, titled ‘the Bank Job’. But what about the sort of ‘every day characters’ who would have been around? Not just gangsters, but real, grass roots city folk?

Further inspiration oozed from borrowed library books, which describe the social and political events of that era.

But it took one amazing exhibition in Whitechapel, by photographer Ian Berry, to really step into their world. He portrayed life so beautifully in his series of black and white photos, I couldn’t have found greater inspiration if I’d have travelled back in time and tumbled into the 1970s East End on my bum! And that was the most enjoyable piece of research I ever did, the one which really set me off on a trail.

Thus, visiting different places has become an integral part of my writing.

The second book took the characters away from London and into rural England, so the next part of my research involved several journeys between London and Kent - trips which took me through the Blackwell Tunnel, to Swanley, then further along the road to Orpington and Bromley, which I chose as important locations. I should stress, that ‘Rosebrook’ the town which features in book 2, Visions, is not a real place. It is a fictitious town conjured up from memories of Loughborough, (the nearest town where I grew up) mashed up with certain aspects of Bromley and Orpington.

Portraying the architectural styles of these Kentish towns has been important - and these research trips also include lots photography. This in turn, provides valuable inspiration for embellishing the descriptions of each setting - as well as visual material for book covers, Pinterest boards and even video trailers. With an arsenal of photos on my computer, I have constantly referred to all this stuff, as my second novel took shape.

For example, there is a chase on the London Underground. So, in order to familiarise myself with this scene, I spent a few hours travelling around on the train between various locations, before pursuing the ‘chosen route’ on the tube; just as well I did, really - the first time I wrote that scene, I somehow got the levels the wrong way round! Further inspiration came on discovering that nearly every tube station was different - from the colour of the tiles on the walls, to whether it required a flight of steps or an escalator, to get out. Above all else, it was fun. Every time I embarked on one of these ‘adventures’ I always came home revived and inspired.

The second book also involved researching the restoration of old buildings and this was where the internet came in really handy. There are hardly enough hours in the day to trawl through endless library books and I practically needed a degree in architecture! The library books did come in handy - but in addition, I discovered internet forums, such as the ‘Period Property’ forum which discusses all matters concerning restoration. I even started a thread of my own, in pursuit of expert advice on how to detect Death Watch Beetle in the underlying timbers of an old country house. I was delighted to receive 7 replies, some of which included some very useful links as to where might forage for even more detailed information.

Wikipedia, too has been a Godsend - articles, such as ‘The Fall of Scotland Yard,’ which furnished me with valuable nuggets of information on how the corruption between senior police officers and organised crime, was eventually exposed. I’m now looking forward to starting my 3rd book, set in the 90s, where rave culture is going to play a major role - and I’ll start by hooking up to YouTube again, to source a few nostalgic acid house parties.

To conclude, I cannot emphasis the importance of doing research. It is fun, interesting and at times, extremely inspiring. It throws up new ideas, you might never have discovered and all this has been a key ingredient, to injecting my stories with a sense of realism.

Helen J. Christmas lives on the south coast of England, with her husband. She has a passion for gripping stories with strong characters and with a love of writing since childhood, started her own series of books titled 'Same Face Different Place'. Her first book 'Beginnings' is a tense thriller combined with a love story, set in 1970s London. Helen finished her second book. 'Visions', in 2013 - a psychological thriller set in the 1980s around the counties of London and Kent.

Writing is something she juggles around her family and social life as well as running the web design company, she and her husband set up together, from home.

Her other hobbies include long country walks with her husband, friends from their walking group based in Sussex and their dog Barney. She also enjoys gardening, cooking, entertaining and reading - has a love simple pleasures, especially exploring Britain and its lovely towns, coasts and countryside.

Useful Links:

Helen Christmas's website here:  Includes useful information on both books and a free extract to read or download.

Twitter: @SFDPBeginnings


Beginnings (Same Face Different Place Book 1) here

Visions (Same Face Different Place Book 2) here


  1. Thanks for sharing your process, Helen. I use our travel as times to research lest thats what my taxes show ;-)

    I make use of Google Maps quite a bit. Recently I wrote a scene with a kidnapping where the person is able to se out the back of a panel van through the tinted windows. It happened in Paris and moved into the countryside north of there. So I "traveled" the route on Google and "looked backwards" at any passing landmarks. A slow process, but really helped me flesh out the chapter.


    1. Oh yes, I used Google maps to research a scene for my first book. It was a chase scene, which needed to happen in East London and somewhere near a park. Like your Paris scene, this was a really useful tool - and did you also, translate your search to Google Earth? That way, I was able to see the layout of the streets, exactly where they were blocked to vehicle access (handy in a chase scene, if you're being tailed by a car and happen to be on foot) and then I saw the railings of the park. It was perfect. I checked some old maps of east London to check if the park was there in the 70s and later in the year, visited it for real, from where I took photos and video. Like you say, this is very worthwhile for embellishing your descriptions.
      What's your book? We should exchange twitter links.

    2. I never even thought about using Google maps to help my research! Thanks for the great tip!

  2. Hi Kateri,
    I'm very pleased to have given you some inspiration. Glad you found the article useful and good luck with your research!


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.