Researching her books has taken Emma Burstall down all sorts of unusual paths…
During the course of researching four books (I’m now on my fifth), I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing a wide variety of folk from all walks of life. I’m incredibly grateful and constantly amazed by how generous people are, agreeing to give up their precious time – for free – to talk to a complete stranger.
Whilst I research some subjects before I begin writing, I’ll generally do more as I go along. I’m always impatient to get started on my next novel, then I’ll reach a point where I realise I don’t know enough about something, grab the phone and cast around for help.
In this way I’ve interviewed hoteliers, potters and office cleaners (who knew how many different coloured cloths they use and what workers get up to in the loos when the lights are off?), police inspectors, event managers, psychologists, GPs, recovering alcoholics, actors, seriously ill children, classical music conductors, professional cellists, lawyers, poker players and wedding dress designers. Quite a mix!
One of my most memorable interviews was with Evie, a little girl with cerebral palsy. I spent a good few hours with her and her mum for my latest novel, Tremarnock (published by Head of Zeus), finding out what her life is really like. Things aren’t easy for her; her left side is partially paralysed and she can’t use her hand very well. She wears leg supports to help her walk, but they give her blisters and sometimes make her cry in pain.
She used to go to mainstream school, but the other children teased her, so she’s much happier now in her special school where everyone has some disability to deal with. She hates the oversized shoes that she has to wear with insoles to make her feet straight, and all she really wants is to be just like the other girls her age and blend in.
Despite these obstacles, Evie is funny, smart, sassy and upbeat. Her mum says she rarely complains or feels sorry for herself. When people stare, she stares back. She was partly the inspiration for my character, Rosie, who has so much to bear yet, like Evie, is often more concerned for the welfare of others than herself. I’ll never forget her.
On another occasion, I was privileged to attend chemotherapy with a brave little girl at London’s famous Great Ormond Street Hospital. During her treatment, she chatted to me about my books, as well as the short stories she’d written – they were very good. I remember she seemed more upset about losing her long blonde hair than about the illness itself. When I said goodbye, she gave me one of her drawings of a pretty young girl with big blue eyes, like hers, and a long yellow mane. I went away and shed a few tears and the picture is still in pride of place on my fridge door.
On a lighter note, I had a fascinating time with a woman who makes stunning wedding dresses, and she told me about the lengths to which some of her clients will go to look beautiful on their big day. One bride-to-be went on an extreme diet and ate so many carrots that her skin turned orange. Awkward. Another omitted to mention she was pregnant, hoping that no one would notice – not even her tailor. This meant letting out the bust and waistline repeatedly, without alluding to the growing bump. Only a true diplomat – and a highly skilled seamstress – could have carried it off.
Meanwhile, for my second novel, Never Close Your Eyes, I needed to find out what it’s like to work in a genitourinary clinic. I sat down with the female doctor and asked about some of the typical and more bizarre cases she’s come across, imagining that she might be rather circumspect. I couldn’t have been more wrong. She’s brilliant at her job but luckily for me, could also see the funny side and told me tales that would make your toes curl. A few of her revelations, slightly watered down for more sensitive palettes, made it into my book.
Of course I’ve had to travel, most notably to Cornwall, for Tremarnock, which was no hardship, and also Newcastle, Kent, unfamiliar parts of London and rural Cambridgeshire. So far I haven’t set any of my books abroad, though one character did spend some time in Normandy, France. Perhaps one day I’ll pick a truly exotic backdrop and tell my family that I’m off for six months. That would set the cat among the pigeons. But in a way, of course, everywhere I go, everyone I meet and virtually everything I do is a form of research, whether I call it that or not, because personal experience inevitably creeps into my books, though I’m careful to disguise it.
Writing can be lonely so for me, research is a perk, a welcome break from the desk and laptop. They say you should only write about what you know, but part of the fun is finding out about things that you had no clue about. Like making wedding dresses for anxious brides-to-be – and, of course, working in a sexual health clinic.
Tremarnock is a classic Cornish seaside village. Houses cluster around the fishing harbour. It has a pub and a sought-after little restaurant. It is here that Liz has found sanctuary for herself and her young daughter, Rosie – far away from Rosie’s cheating father. Liz works all the hours God sends. First thing in the morning she’s out, cleaning offices. At night she is waitressing in the village restaurant, while friends and neighbours rally round and mind Rosie. But trouble is waiting just round the corner.
As with all villages, there are tensions, secrets – and ambitions. Emma Burstall’s wonderfully engaging first novel about Tremarnock is the story of what happens when one shocking turn of events sweeps a small community.
Emma Burstall is a freelance journalist who has written for a wide range of national newspapers and magazines including the Guardian, Daily Mail, Sunday Express, Good Housekeeping, Woman & Home and Woman. She has written four novels – Gym and Slimline, Never Close Your Eyes, The Darling Girls and Tremarnock, published by Head of Zeus, which is the first in a Cornish trilogy set in a fictional seaside village. Emma gives talks on writing and getting published and has appeared on LBC, BBC Radio London and Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, among others. She and her husband live in South West London and they have three children.