Today, I’m delighted to welcome Liz Harris to the blog with a fascinating post about her new book, Darjeeling Inheritance.
Your book, the Darjeeling Inheritance, which sounds fantastic, is set during the 1930s in India. As a historian first and foremost, and then a writer, I’m always interested in how people research their historical stories.
Can you explain your research process to me, and give an idea of the resources that you rely on the most (other than your imagination, of course) to bring the historical landscape to life?
I’ve always believed that if a novel is set in the past, and in a foreign location, the events in the past, and the nature of that location, should be organic in the novel. To ignore the history and nature of an area would result in the setting being no more than a mere backdrop to a story that could have been located anywhere and at any time.
So before I start writing, and before I’ve determined all of the characters who’ll be in my novel, I find out everything I can about my chosen area – its past and its present, every aspect of its geography, the lives of those who live there, their mores and how they’d view the world, and also any difficulties with which they’d have to contend.
My focus in Darjeeling Inheritance was on tea production, and on the plantation owners who lived in India during the British Raj, the period between 1858 and 1947, and also on the people who worked for them, and on those whose job it was to go out on the terraces between March and November and pluck two leaves and a terminal bud.
Books are always my first port of call – bookshops and libraries are an invaluable source of information and help – and as always, the local library was an excellent source of material when writing Darjeeling Inheritance. I’m very lucky in that I live in Oxfordshire, where the libraries are excellent, and also that I can get easily to the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
The resource to which I go after books is the internet. And I also try to make contact with people in the area, such as librarians or curators, if there’s anything I need to know but am struggling to find out.
There’s no greater inspiration, or resource, than going to the location in which one is setting a novel, and if I can go there, I do. Just over two years ago, I booked to go to Darjeeling in October, after the monsoon. Unfortunately, that trip was to prove impossible. Two months before I was due to leave for Darjeeling, the Foreign Office advised against travelling there owing to trouble between the Nepali and Bengali. The issues are now resolved, but at that time, all the tea gardens and most of the hotels were closed.
Forced to rethink my plans, I decided to go instead to the famous tea plantations in Munnar, Kerala, and to the tea factory there, and I booked a flight for the following February. October would have been a good month for a trip to Darjeeling, but it would have been too rainy a month for Kerala. My visit was wonderful, and it gave me the first-hand experience I wanted.
Do you have a ‘go’ to book/resource that you couldn’t write without having to hand, and if so, what is it?
The following are my ‘go’ to books/resources. I’m making them plural as I have three staples without which I wouldn’t be comfortable writing, and I have these on the piano behind me, no matter the period or location of the work in progress.
Firstly, The Chambers Dictionary. I’m a keen Scrabble player and this is the Scrabble dictionary, so it’s the one I’ve used for years. I infinitely prefer looking up a word in a dictionary than seeking it on the internet.
The second is Roget’s Thesaurus. Repetition is the enemy of writers, and with Roget’s Thesaurus to hand, in which just about every word has a synonym for each of its meanings, an author always has a range of alternative words and phrases from which to choose.
Finally, I have Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, compiled by Jonathon Green. I’d hate my characters to speak in anachronistic terms, and I don’t want to jar my readers out of the text by using an idiom in my narrative that’s more appropriate for the twenty-first century than the nineteenth or twentieth. By checking the origin and first use of the vocabulary I choose, I do my best to avoid that happening.
Those are my staples, but then there are the books for each specific novel. I was lucky with Darjeeling Inheritance in that much has been written by those who lived in India in the 1920s and 1930s, and especially by those who grew up there, and I was spoilt for choice. I drew on information from a very large number of books, including several novels by M.M. Kaye and her biography, and Women of the Raj, by Margaret MacMillan.
There is one other book that I must mention that’s specific to Darjeeling Inheritance. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Darjeeling: A History of the World’s Greatest Tea, by Jeff Koehler. This was the first of the books that I bought, and it was at my side throughout my writing of the novel.
Finally, and it’s not exactly a resource, I don’t think I could write if I didn’t have a cup of coffee beside me. Yes, coffee, not tea! I’m saying this very quietly, but I don’t actually like tea!!
Many thanks, MJ, for inviting me to talk to you about my research process. I’ve very much enjoyed doing so.
Thank you for such a fascinating post. Good luck with the new book, and enjoy your cup of coffee!
Here’s the blurb:
After eleven years in school in England, Charlotte Lawrence returns to Sundar, the tea plantation owned by her family, and finds an empty house. She learns that her beloved father died a couple of days earlier and that he left her his estate. She learns also that it was his wish that she marry Andrew McAllister, the good-looking younger son from a neighbouring plantation.
Unwilling to commit to a wedding for which she doesn’t feel ready, Charlotte pleads with Dan Fitzgerald, the assistant manager of Sundar, to teach her how to run the plantation while she gets to know Andrew. Although reluctant as he knew that a woman would never be accepted as manager by the local merchants and workers, Dan agrees.
Charlotte’s chaperone on the journey from England, Ada Eastman, who during the long voyage, has become a friend, has journeyed to Darjeeling to marry Harry Banning, the owner of a neighbouring tea garden.
When Ada marries Harry, she’s determined to be a loyal and faithful wife. And to be a good friend to Charlotte. And nothing, but nothing, was going to stand in the way of that.
Meet the Author
Born in London, Liz Harris graduated from university with a Law degree, and then moved to California, where she led a varied life, from waitressing on Sunset Strip to working as secretary to the CEO of a large Japanese trading company.
Six years later, she returned to London and completed a degree in English, after which she taught secondary school pupils, first in Berkshire, and then in Cheshire.
In addition to the ten novels she’s had published, she’s had several short stories in anthologies and magazines.
Liz now lives in Oxfordshire. An active member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and the Historical Novel Society, her interests are travel, the theatre, reading and cryptic crosswords. To find out more about Liz, visit her website at: www.lizharrisauthor.com
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