Talking Location With author Daniella Bernett – MALTA
Local History as Inspiration for Story Writing by A. M. Howell
18th July 2021
We’re thrilled to welcome award-winning author A.M.Howell to Tiny TripFiction to celebrate the release of her third middle grade adventure, Mystery of the Night Watcher! In this gripping historical mystery, Ann-Marie takes us back to the Edwardian era in an utterly absorbing tale filled with buried secrets, dark lies and a blazing comet.
Here Ann-Marie tells us about the local histories that have sparked her imagination and inspired her story writing.
Even though I absolutely love writing historical fiction for children, many people are surprised to learn I didn’t enjoy history very much when I was young. I found it quite dry and hard to relate to and for a long time protested when my parents dragged me around historic houses at the weekend, much preferring to stay at home with my nose buried in a book.
I moved to the centre of Cambridge after graduating from university and I was surprised to find that being surrounded by the city’s rich history was something I relished. I spent my weekends exploring The Backs along the River Cam and the many colleges and museums. While I wasn’t writing at this time, the surroundings rubbed off on me and I became an avid reader of historical fiction, spending hours in the local bookshops browsing the shelves.
It was only after moving to Suffolk and having a family that I started to think seriously about writing a book. One winter’s day I was walking in the gardens of Ickworth Park near Bury St Edmunds, now run by the National Trust, when I learned about the discovery of a 100-year-old gardener’s notebook that had been found lodged down the back of a cabinet. How could anyone not be inspired by this piece of local history! I googled the story and found a few articles about the notebook as well as interesting facts about how the Ickworth estate was run during WW1 – pineapples were grown in the hothouses and fruit and vegetables were donated to local military hospitals. All of this research helped me write my debut historical mystery, The Garden of Lost Secrets, set in 1916 in the walled gardens of the Ickworth estate.
I found that I loved researching and writing historical fiction and my second book, The House of One Hundred Clocks, took me back to Cambridge in 1905. In a second-hand bookshop at Anglesey Abbey, I found books of old photographs from that time that I spent hours poring over, gleaning some fascinating facts I later used in the story. I learned that in 1838 thousands of the poorest people in the city, even those in the workhouses, were invited to a party on Parker’s Piece (a beautiful green space in the city) to celebrate Queen Victoria’s coronation.
My latest book, Mystery of the Night Watchers, is again set in Edwardian times but towards the end of the era in 1910. I’ve wanted to set a story in my adopted hometown of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk for a long time but needed to find the right inspiration first. It’s a very historic market town with a cathedral, ruined abbey and inside St Mary’s church you can even see Henry VIII’s sister’s tomb. One day I was walking past a building called Cupola House and felt the tug of a new idea. The building dates from the 17th century and was built for a prosperous apothecary. What makes it so interesting is that on the roof of the building is a small roof top observatory, known as a cupola.
I had recently read an article about the passing of the earth through the tail of Halley’s Comet in 1910 which caused quite a stir in some parts of society. Some scientists thought that the gas in the comet’s tail could prove deadly to humankind, while others thought the comet would pass by without any adverse effects. As I stood looking up at the roof top observatory on Cupola House, I realised this could be the perfect place for characters in a story to watch the approaching comet. The house is now occupied by a restaurant, but the owners were kind enough to give me a tour of the cupola and that’s when the story idea started to come alive. The cupola is tiny, only large enough for three people to stand shoulder to shoulder, but the view is incredible across the rooftops and to the countryside beyond. As I stood there imagining my characters creeping up there at night to watch the night sky through a telescope, I thought maybe they wouldn’t be watching the comet at all, but something just as secretive and mysterious!
As part of my research, I read many books about the history of Bury St Edmunds and spent hours browsing a fantastic local photographic resource that immersed me in the period I was writing about. I sometimes think that if I hadn’t stumbled across the article about Halley’s comet, hadn’t walked past Cupola House that day when I was musing on ideas, hadn’t cheekily asked for a tour of its observatory, then Mystery of the Night Watchers might not have been written. But that is the miraculous thing about writing. You never quite know when your local area will throw up a spark of an idea and where it will lead and I really wouldn’t want it any other way.
A.M. Howell, author of Mystery of the Night Watchers (2021), The House of One Hundred Clocks (2020) and The Garden of the Lost Secrets (2019)
After hearing about the discovery of a 100-year-old gardener’s notebook at the National Trust’s Ickworth House in Suffolk, A.M. Howell found herself wondering who it could have belonged to, and so The Garden of Lost Secrets was born, while The House of One Hundred Clocks was inspired by Moyse’s Hall Museum, also in Suffolk, and the astonishing collection of clocks it houses. Mystery of the Night Watchers is set in her hometown Bury St. Edmunds and was inspired by newspaper articles highlighting the mass hysteria surrounding Halley’s comet in 1910 and a 17th century town centre building, Cupola House. After completing a BA and MA at the University of Manchester, A.M. Howell now writes policy documents for local government. In 2015 she completed the Curtis Brown Creative Writing for Children Course.
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