We are pleased to welcome Susan Brownrigg to the blog. Susan grew up in Wigan and lives in Skelmersdale. She works as a museum learning and community manager Susan is a SCBWI British Isles 2016 Undiscovered Voices competition winner. Susan discusses the research that she undertook when working on her debut novel Gracie Fairshaw and the Mysterious Guest.
When I decided to write a book set in the North, there was only ever one option! Blackpool! I love Blackpool – and I’m not alone! 18 million people visit every year, making it Britain’s favourite seaside resort. If you grew up in the North West, as I did, then chances are – like me - you have many happy memories of this magical town. It is a place of wonder, full of colour and light. A place for fun and family.
When I was a child (back in the 1980s) I loved visiting the iconic Blackpool Tower – especially the aquarium and circus, building sandcastles on the beach, riding on the heritage tram through the Illuminations and going on the rides at the Pleasure Beach – especially the Noah’s Ark, Ghost Train, River Caves and Hiram Maxim Flying Machines.
What I didn’t know then, was that those experiences were the same ones experienced by children in 1935 (when Gracie is set). While the rest of the country was struggling through the Great Depression, people were still flocking to Blackpool, just as they had for the traditional Wakes Weeks.
It was only when I came to write Gracie Fairshaw and the Mysterious Guest that I realised how fortunate and unusual it is that Blackpool’s seaside heritage has survived. So many other resorts have lost their pier (Blackpool has three!), their Winter Gardens and their vintage funfairs.
I love research, it helps me connect better to the setting of my books, prompts unexpected turns in my plots and influences my characters. Before Gracie, my books were all set overseas and trips to Madagascar, Peru and Cambodia were unaffordable, so I used books, National Geographic, TV documentaries, Youtube, Flickr, Pinterest, Google Earth and blogs to explore their histories and environments.
My new setting, Blackpool, is only an hour’s drive away. Now I could physically follow in my character’s footsteps. I could experience what she experiences.
My senses went into overdrive!
I stepped into the Blackpool Tower Ballroom and felt the thrill of hearing the Wurlitzer organ. I bravely gritted my teeth and screamed my way along the undulating rollercoaster track of the Grand National. I ate delicious freshly fried chips with salt and vinegar in the drizzle and sweet, sticky pink rock.
I learned all about trams from experts on a guided tour of the heritage tram depot, with the smell of hot oil all around. Then rode a beautiful cream and green 1930s balloon tram that gently rattled along the prom.
I had so much fun!
Of course, reading still played an important part in my research. My book is centred around the weekend of the 1935 Illuminations Switch-On. That year, Audrey Mosson, a 15-year-old Blackpool girl, who had recently been crowned Railway Queen was invited to perform the ceremony, but my many Blackpool books barely made mention of the event.
Fortunately, Blackpool’s Heritage Centre (based in Central Library) has a fantastic archive. After guidance from the helpful, friendly staff, I was able to view original Blackpool Gazette newspapers on a microfiche reader. This proved to be a treasure trove, with not only full news coverage of the Switch-On but also lots of advertisements and more general features that gave me a real feel for the period. I was also able to fact-check, find out what the weather was like (rainy) and quote Audrey’s speech at the Switch-On which I hope has given my book verisimilitude. And an unexpected discovery was finding that the Gazette used to have a children’s page – which prompted the creation of the League of the Shining Star club in my book.
I was also chuffed to discover that a temporary exhibition From Loom to Limelight was taking place at Leeds Industrial Museum. The focus was on Queens of Industry – cotton, railways and coal – and Audrey Mosson’s gown, chain of office and tiara were to be displayed. The photographs I had seen of Audrey were in black and white but now I could see that her outfit was a rich blue with gold tassels. It was a very emotional moment, seeing the clothing she had worn that special day. A vivid link to the past.
Having got to know Blackpool so much more during my research, I was keen to team up with the town’s art, heritage and literacy community. So I was thrilled when my publishers (Uclan Publishing) suggested I team up with Get Blackpool Reading for my book’s launch.
Get Blackpool Reading is a community-driven campaign led by the Literacy Trust in partnership with Blackpool Council and Blackpool Opportunity Area. The project works with local partners, schools and businesses to promote reading for pleasure among children and families.
I was invited to create a Detective Trail for families using the GBR facebook page. This was a series of three videos, each focusing on a different part of Blackpool.
I filmed the challenges early one morning near to the Tower, the Town Hall (where the 1935 Switch-On took place) and the North Shore Cliffs where the climax of Gracie takes place. Each briefly explored the history of the location, its connection to my book and I invited children watching to complete an activity.
For publication day I took part in a Q&A interview hosted by Jill Connolly (Project Manager, Blackpool Family Literacy). The questions were all sent in by Blackpool school children and I loved answering them.
You can find out more about Get Blackpool Reading at https://literacytrust.org.uk/communities/blackpool/ and on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/getblackpoolreading/
Gracie Fairshaw and the Mysterious Guest is published by Uclan Publishing.
Susan Brownrigg in the Blackpool Tower Ballroom
Susan Brownrigg in the Heritage Tram depot, Blackpool
Susan Brownrigg with Audrey Mosson’s gown, Leeds Industrial Museum
Susan Brownrigg as a child in Blackpool
Susan Brownrigg with her debut book Gracie Fairshaw and the Mysterious Guest.
Book in bucket