Today I’m excited to welcome Lelita Baldock, and her book, Widow’s Lace, to the blog, with a post about her approach to research as an historical fiction writer; a process that fascinates me. Widow’s Lace is set in both Australia and England, in two different time periods, so I imagine there was a huge amount of research to complete.
First and foremost, I want to say thank you to MJ Porter for including me and Widow’s Lace on this fabulous blog. I am especially excited about this post as I rarely get to talk about my research process and the resources I used to inspire the descriptions of the historical settings in my novel.
I find my research roughly divides into two major approaches: feeling the location and learning the details.
To do this I like to visit the locations I aim to write about. Even though my story will detail the past, walking the streets of today, whilst thinking of what came before, allows me into the fabric of a time and place.
But visiting locations is only part of their history. I also need books to learn more about the time period. When you aim to write a story set in the past it is quite extraordinary how many little things you need to check up on. Details like what people wore, ate and drank; which train stations and parks existed; did they have electricity or glass windows and so on. I will confess that Google is an invaluable tool for me in exploring how people of the past lived the everyday. Traditionalists often scoff at the use of the internet, certainly when I majored in History at the University of Adelaide it would have been frowned upon, and I agree that it must be used carefully. But it is such a rich source of articles, academic papers, photos and more, that it would be a shame not to tap into this resource. It’s just important to check who wrote the article and cross-check information to ensure your facts are reliable. Google is a wonderful resource to find these smaller details, all of which help you to bring the past to life.
Widow’s Lace is set across multiple timelines and locations. We explore late 1880s South Australia and England as well as pre-WW1 London. The research required for these locations was, naturally, very different. London is a major historical city, much has been written about its history and development. My other UK based locations: Derbyshire and Gloucestershire are similarly well documented. But the remote townships of Finniss and Goolwa in South Australia are less well known.
I think the best approach to detailing my research is to divide this post by location, so I can try and do justice to the individuality of each setting and the work it took to capture it.
Goolwa and the Finniss River
The historical township of Goolwa is located around 50 miles from Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia. The town was originally established as a river port. One of the major river systems of the country, the Murray River, meets the sea just down from Goolwa. The idea was that cargo could be transported to a port at Goolwa and swapped between the river boats, called paddle steamers, that could travel up river owing to their flat bottomed hulls, and the large trade vessels that sailed up and down the coast.
As part of this commerce the first rail line in South Australia was built between Adelaide and Goolwa and eventually extended to Victor Harbor further along the Fleurieu Peninsular.
Goolwa Map. A map of the main locations in Widow’s Lace. Sketched by Lelita Baldock
Unfortunately, several factors conspired to undermine this vision and thus the town and trade route did not reach its full potential. In the late 1800s, the time of my novel, the river was tidal. This meant that the waterway that lead to the port was notoriously difficult for ships to traverse. But more importantly, and somewhat ironically, the emergence of the rail network across Australia soon replaced the paddle steamer trade, as it was faster and more reliable.
This history is well documented on plaques around the town of Goolwa. There is even a glass viewing box on the main street that houses a replica of the first train to run between Goolwa and Victor Harbor.
As a child my family holidayed in Goolwa, so much of this general history was something I grew up learning about as we walked the streets, enjoying the area. But to write a novel you need more than just an overall gist. That is where my father, Trevor Baldock, comes in. My dad is passionate about history, and makes it a priority to learn all he can about areas he loves. When I was in my early twenties he purchased a book about the history of the Murray River and paddle steamer trade called The Murray River Pilot by Ronald Baker, Margaret Baker, William Reschke. It detailed the history of the river trade out of the port of Goolwa and surrounds and helped to paint a distinct picture of life in the town in the late 1880s. This book became my research go-to as I pieced together the experiences of my main character Edward Barrington and his wife Rosalind after they moved from England to this remote part of South Australia
The Finniss River. A Photo from the banks of the Finniss River Photo Credit: Lelita Baldock
In addition to The Murray River Pilot and the general information on plaques around the town, I visited the Goolwa museum, which houses all manner of artefacts from the region, ranging from machinery used to winch boats from the river, to kettles used in the kitchens of neighbouring farmhouses. All this was invaluable as a visual resource, a glimpse into what people of the time would have seen and used as they went about their lives.
Though Goolwa has expanded in the intervening years, becoming a favoured holiday location for Adelaidians, many of the original sandstone houses and hotels still line the main street, so it’s not difficult to imagine how the town would have looked all those years ago.
Hathrone Farm on the Finniss river is based on a real property. Along the banks of the river there is an old sandstone farmhouse and sheds. I first saw this beautiful property as a child when sailing the river with my family. But in my early twenties it took on more significance for me. As we wound our way through the patches of reeds that line the river, I watched the farmhouse pass by and was engulfed by the sense of isolation and solitude. It got me wondering about who might have lived there and why? This ruminating inspired the story that would become Widow’s Lace, so it was only natural that this property should form the inspiration for Hathrone Farm.
Sandstone Buildings. Sandstone buildings along the Finniss River. Photo Credit: Trevor Baldock
Of course, there is also the very rich and important history of Australia’s First People in the area. It would not have been right to publish a story of Goolwa and not acknowledge the Ngarrindjeri people who called the Lower Lakes home. The name Goolwa is in fact a Ngarrindjeri word, meaning River’s Elbow, owing to the natural curve of the river in which the town nestles. The local library in Goolwa has a wealth of information on the history of the Ngarrindjeri, which I tapped into to make these aspects of my novel as true and respectful as I could. Additionally, there remains a strong Ngarrindjeri presence in Goolwa and many tradition ceremonies, such as the ‘Welcome to Country’ ceremony are still held, offering an invaluable experience of these living traditions.
London, Derbyshire and Gloucestershire
My research for the English locations of Widow’s Lace was similar in many ways. I always visit the locations I intend to use for my novels and have been fortunate enough to be able to move to the United Kingdom and travel widely here, which has exposed me to many beautiful locations that are perfect for historical novels.
In 2010 my husband and I explored the Cotswolds and Bath, and I found the setting for the early 1900s parts of my story. The tranquil beauty I experienced as we explored the windy, cobbled streets was the perfect juxtaposition to the tension and bustle of wartime London.
Cotswolds. Photo of Kingsbridge. Photo credit: Lelita Baldock
Journeying the Cheshire Ring on a narrow boat in 2016 allowed me to dive into the history of the industrial north which formed the backstory for Edward Barrington. Again, the research came naturally, visiting factories and reading about the experiences of workers.
It was also on this trip that I visited Lyme Hall. I loved the feel of this old manor. It felt at once big and formal, but also intimate and homely, mirroring the twin experiences of Edward Barrington. It was the perfect location on which to model the manor house of Hathrone.
Lyme Hall. Lyme Hall, England, Pemberly in the BBC series of Pride and Prejudice. Photo Credit: Lelita Baldock
As these locations are widely visited tourist sites, it was easy to find information about everyday life in the past by reading the provided tourist information. Google was my main go to as a quick reference for important dates.
My research for Widow’s Lace was both active and subconscious. Growing up exploring the Goolwa region and travelling parts of the UK, I learnt much of the history I used passively. This formed a strong backdrop for my story, actively inspiring the storyline, and giving me a platform from which to launch into the more detailed research required to truly bring history to life.
Overall I think I prepare to write a novel through reading widely and by spending time in a location. Walking the streets and talking to the locals adds an authenticity and enables me to get a feel for the place. When combined with research on little details I believe this gives rise to the most effective and realistic portrayals of a different time and place and thus a richer reading experience. At least, that is my hope!
Thank you so much for sharing your research processes. It’s fascinating to discover what inspires people to write their stories. And I agree, the internet is an amazing resource for finding out those weird, and strange little obscure facts that you just can’t write a book without.
Here’s the blurb for Widow’s Lace.
A hundred year old mystery, the widow left behind, a fallen soldier, the abandoned fiancée, an unnamed body and the young student determined to find the truth.
In 1886 famous English poet Edward Barrington moves from Derbyshire, England to a farm on the Finniss River, in South Australia. Two years later he disappears.
25 years later Archie Hargraves abandons his fiancée Clara and travels from England to meet with Edward’s widow, Rosalind. He plans to write a biography and make a name for himself, independent from his wealthy father. Returning to England in 1914 he abandons his work to join the war in Europe. His journal of notes from Australia is never released.
Ellie Cannon, a young PhD candidate at Sydney University, is writing a thesis on one of Barrington’s last known poems, The Fall. It’s not going well. Struggling with her relationship with her mother and loss of her father, Ellie is on the brink of failure.
Then a body is found by the Finniss River, 130 years after Edward’s disappearance. Could it be the famous poet?
The discovery draws Ellie into the worlds of Edward, Archie and Clara, taking her across Australia and England in her search for the truth.
Covering life in remote South Australia, the social pressures of 1900s Britain and the historical role of women, Widow’s Lace is an historical fiction, mystery cross-over dealing with themes of obsession, fear, love, inner-secrets and regret. But also the hope that can come from despair.
Widow’s Lace is also available on Kindle Unlimited.
Meet the Author
Lelita has a passion for stories, especially those with a dark undercurrent, or a twist to be revealed.
She hopes to tell interesting stories that people will find themselves drawn into. Stories that are for entertainment and escape, and hopefully a little thrill of the unexpected. She truly enjoys the experience of writing, exploring human traits and reactions as well as the darkness that can lurk unexpectedly inside anyone.
Born and raised in Adelaide, Australia, Lelita holds a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English and History from the University of Adelaide and a Bachelor of Education from The University of South Australia. During her twenties she worked as an English teacher in both Australia and the United Kingdom, working with the International Baccalaureate curriculum.
Now Lelita and her husband run a web development business, and she makes time for writing after hours and on weekends. It can mean long days and late nights, but she doesn’t mind, stories are her passion.
Lelita’s long term goal as a writer is to be able to publish her stories regularly and hopefully appeal to a wide range of readers.
Lelita currently resides in the United Kingdom with her husband Ryan and beloved rescue-cat, Jasmine.
Connect with Lelita