I am delighted to welcome H D Coulter to the blog, with a guest post about the research undertaken when writing Ropewalk (isn’t the cover beautiful?) Here we go;
I would like to thank M. J. Porter for allowing to guest post on her blog as I discuss the research process of creating Ropewalk: Rebellion. Love. Survival.
Ropewalk has been the exception. Most of the time I have an idea of characters and then a location would come to mind, which would have a knock-on effect on the character’s background, social situation, living conditions and so on. It would be a domino effect until 70-80% of the plot has formed in my head. For Ropewalk, however, I lived in Ulverston at time and to be honest; I don’t know what came first, the characters or the plot, but I knew the location was an ideal setting.
Once I knew the characters and their basic background, then I start researching where they could live, their finance and the social impact that was happening in the town or country. I would normally end up heading down the research rabbit hole for a while before focusing on the fine details that relate directly to the plot. However, I have found details which have changed the plot entirely or shifting the narrative.
For Ropewalk, I wanted the start of book 1 in the series to be under a spotlight. Then, as the thread of the story knit together, the bigger picture reveals itself. Leading the reader on an adventure with the principal characters, not knowing where they might take them.
Another aspect of researching for a historical novel is discovering all the tiny details. Some historical writers like to give a broad sense of the period but not go into details when I would rather go into the atmosphere and give the reader a sense of walking down Market Street alongside Beatrice Lightfoot, so describe the smell, sights, sound making sure that it all stays true to the time.
“After twenty minutes of walking along the bleak, muddy track with the biting wind on her back, Bea arrived at The Ellers, a narrow street off the primary hub of town. The clean air had turned thick with soot and grime, spilling out of the tall chimneys. She placed her scarf over her mouth and stepped further up the road. It consisted of a row of cottages and two mills. It was also home to another, smaller rope-making business, which had popped up after they built the canal.
Passing the raucous sound issuing from the Corn Mill at the bottom of the street, Bea ambled upwards. The thin street seemed to be vacant of life; the tenants either in the mills or working down at the canal. The only sounds came from the washing billowing on the lines behind the houses and the monotonous ticking from the cotton mill ahead. Bea paused for a moment, staring at the large overbearing building with its foreboding wooden gate. The one thing she was always grateful for was the fact she had never needed to work in the mills. She had heard stories around town of the conditions there, how they employed the forgotten children from the workhouse to run the looms and trapped destitute families into service.” Chapter 2, Ropewalk.
That is one aspect I love about writing historical fiction is the research element. When I researched the process of rope making, it drew me towards the canal which still dominates the area of Ulverston today. How it came about and the difference it made. Bit by bit, characters emerged in my mind. A young woman who lived in a small hamlet on the outskirts of Ulverston, who knew of hardship, family, money issues but who was also naïve to the social conflict happening around her. Stories of adventure and discovering unknown lands issuing from novels and town gossip from a local explorer, Sir John Barrow; created a yearning to change her fate. But when secrets and rebellion are exposed, it causes a dangerous chain of events.
Ulverston Canal entrance. Wikimedia. Author Jolmartyn. https://www.panoramio.com/photo/50320159
Living in the area, I heard stories passed down through the generation, local historians sharing their knowledge and a treasure quest in discovering the historical plaques on the buildings. Ulverston itself is a character in Ropewalk with cobbles still lining the roads of the town centre. Georgian town houses and narrow alleyways create the maze you become lost in. The small, pokey bookshop crammed with local knowledge or the smell of the freshly brewed coffee coming from the teashop that had been there since the 1800s. It wasn’t hard to imagine the characters I had formed walk the streets beside me. To study the old maps and emerge myself in their world. With researching Ropewalk, it wasn’t one area to look at, rather a blend of elements. Weaver cottage industry overtaken by the Industrial revolution and social conflict during the early reign of William IV with the Reform crisis, all taking place in this once quiet town.
Each of the principal characters represents an element that was happening in the country. Bob Lightfoot, the ropemaker, which was seen as a cottage industry; fought for his rights, like so many of his childhood friends working the mills, shipyards, canal. Beatrice Lightfoot, having her father’s spirit, dreamt of change but is oppressed by the conformity of the time and societal class division. Joshua Mason, the son of a local merchant who became gentry and part of the family who built the canal, sees the plight of the workers thanks to Beatrice. Captain Hanley is a complex character, a sailor like so many men passing through Ulverston and effected from past trading routes including the slave trade, becomes obsessed with Beatrice. Whilst Ulverston itself, the nucleus for change but unable to cope with the demand. All of these threads come together during a volatile period and form the complex tapestry of Ropewalk.
Some of the book resources that might be of interest.
“Ulverston (Images of England)” by Carol Bennett, Peter Lowe. The History Press Ltd 2008.
A local Ulverston Historian, Jennifer Snell, who has recently written a book on the Ulverston Canal. “Ulverston Canal. Its ships, shipbuilders and seamen.” 2020
“The story of rope: The history and the modern development of ropemaking.” Plymouth Cordage Company 2011
“Electoral Reform at work: Local politics and National Parties, 1832 – 1841.” Philip Salmon. 2002.
J.M.W Turner (1825) shows the coach and foot passengers arriving at Hest Bank. Humphrey Head in the background. N.b. the bunches of twigs with which the guide marks the route. The dogs would have had to swim for some of the way.
Thank you so much for sharing your research with me. It’s so fascinating to discover the inspiration behind the books and characters that author’s conjure from their imagination and the historical record.
Here’s the blurb;
The North of England, 1831.
The working class are gathering. Rebellion is stirring, and the people are divided.
Beatrice Lightfoot, a young woman fighting her own personal rebellion, is looking for an opportunity to change her luck. When she gains the attention of the enigmatic Captain Hanley, he offers her a tantalising deal to attend the May Day dance. She accepts, unaware of the true price of her own free will.
Her subsequent entanglement with Joshua Mason, the son of a local merchant, draws all three into a destructive and dangerous relationship, which threatens to drag Beatrice, and all she knows into darkness.
Now, Beatrice must choose between rebellion, love and survival before all is lost, and the Northern uprising changes her world forever.
Ropewalk is just 99p/99c at the moment. Take advantage of this fantastic offer.
Signed copies of the paperback can be ordered directly from the author.
Universal Link to other bookshops
Book 2, Saving Grace; Deception. Obsession. Redemption. is now available for preorder.
Universal Link to other bookshops
Meet the Author
Hayley was born and raised in the Lake District and across Cumbria. From a young age, Hayley loved learning about history, visiting castles and discovering local stories from the past. Hayley and her partner lived in Ulverston for three years and spent her weekends walking along the Ropewalk and down by the old harbour. She became inspired by the spirit of the area and stories that had taken place along the historic streets.
As a teacher, Hayley had loved the art of storytelling by studying drama and theatre. The power of the written word, how it can transport the reader to another world or even another time in history. But it wasn’t until living in Ulverston did she discover a story worth telling. From that point, the characters became alive and she fell in love with the story.