Plugging the gaps – Clare Swatman

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By Clare Swatman

When I think of an idea for a novel I let my thoughts wander free, at first. I try and come up with reasons why things might have happened, justifications for people’s behaviour, explore darker avenues than I’ve written about before without worrying about the difficulties of writing certain things. ♥

Then later, when I have ideas swimming round my head, I try to tame them a bit, and get them into some semblance of order. And then, and only then, do I decide what is going to work for me, and for my writing. In other words, what I realistically think I can do justice to, in the way I write.

And then, finally, I have my rough story outline.

This time round, for The Mother’s Secret, I knew there were several gaps in my knowledge that would require some substantial research before I could start writing – but I was excited! These included, in no particular order: early-onset Alzheimer’s; police procedure in 1970s Norfolk; maternity services and the Norwich maternity hospital in the 1970s; a visit to Norwich library, a visit to Cromer, and heartbreaking details about late miscarriages.

It felt like a lot, but none of it felt impossible. Much of it I could empathise with anyway, and then it was just a case of filling in the facts.

I chose to make Jan, the mother in question in the book, have early-onset Alzheimers for several reasons, the main one being I needed her to not be accountable for her actions, from a criminal point of view. Court scenes and police procedure is perfect for crime novels, and those authors do it brilliantly. But I knew I didn’t want to write that, so this was the perfect solution. The Alzheimer’s element also gave the story a whole extra layer. And so I read books about the subject and interviewed a couple of people who had experienced it, in different ways.

I also interviewed a friend of my parents who happened to be a police officer during the 1970s who helped with that side of things, as well as a midwife who worked in the Norwich and Norfolk maternity hospital at the same time, who had such an amazing memory of the layout of the hospital I felt as though I’d been there! The hospital no longer exists so I could use some artistic licence in my portrayal of it, but at least I had something to base it on, and a later visit to the site, where the original hospital building has now been turned into flats, helped me picture how it might have looked at the time.

My mum also helped me with some of the everyday details from the 1970s – things you assume you’ll know when you start writing, but then realise that, actually, you probably don’t if you didn’t start going to the pub until the 1990s; what would a woman drink in the 1970s? What did you do in the evenings if you lived in the back end of beyond? What sort of music did you listen to? What would you wear for a night out? It was quite an eye-opener, I can tell you!

The fact is, even if you’re writing about things you know, there is always some research to do to make sure you get the details right. Of course there’s always room for creative freedom in a novel – it’s your story, and your world! – but I’m a firm believer in being armed with the facts before you dare to change them. At least then you can justify yourself if someone points out any errors!

Clare Swatman is a journalist for a number of weekly women’s magazines. The Mother’s Secret is her second novel. Clare was Features Editor for Bella and has written for Best, Woman’s Own and Real People. When not working on her next novel, she also writes for her local magazine as well as the travel pages for Take a Break. Clare lives in Hertfordshire with her husband and two boys.

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