Every so often, a book comes along that I have no hesitation in recommending unread – the story behind, and between the pages of, The Sewing Machine by Natalie Fergie, published in association with Unbound, had me adding it to my reading list and enthusiastically signing up to the blog tour as soon as I heard about it. It’s been an absolute joy sharing Natalie’s excitement as she turned her publishing dream into reality. Here’s the lovely story:
It is 1911, and Jean is about to join the mass strike at the Singer factory. For her, nothing will be the same again.
Decades later, in Edinburgh, Connie sews coded moments of her life into a notebook, as her mother did before her.
More than 100 years after his grandmother’s sewing machine was made, Fred discovers a treasure trove of documents. His family history is laid out before him in a patchwork of unfamiliar handwriting and colourful seams.
He starts to unpick the secrets of four generations, one stitch at a time.
I’m delighted to welcome author Natalie Fergie to Being Anne, to tell us more about her research…
At the launch of my novel last week, I was asked if I enjoyed doing all the research associated with writing a novel, and I confessed that I do, very much, with bells on.
The thing about research is that it expands to fill the time available. I can make use of ten minutes waiting for a friend in cafe, or sit in a library for two hours, or lose track of time completely at home on the internet following link after link and getting ever more inventive with my search parameters.
There is no doubt at all that the internet makes research a lot easier. I can find homes for my characters by visiting estate agent websites, I can find them jobs, teach them how to make Yorkshire Pudding, and allow them to go on trains which rush through villages and towns, only stopping in Doncaster or Bristol. It’s a fabulous starting point for the broad brush decisions, and it’s great for technical fact checking, but it really doesn’t replace actually going out and visiting places or talking to real people.
Let me give you an example.
One of the characters in my novel has an allotment, and I wanted him to have a mug of tea, sitting outside on bench with the sun on his back and the bees pollinating his strawberry plants. When I started writing about him, I didn’t know that he had an allotment, or that he would want to have a mug of tea there. That didn’t happen until I was in Ocean Terminal, a large shopping centre on the shorefront in Edinburgh, meeting a friend for coffee!
After she left I wandered along to Waterstones (as you do) and walked up the stairs to the next floor to get back to the car. It was there that I discovered the gem which is The Living Memory Museum. The Museum started off as small shop-space in Ocean Terminal, offering Reminiscence Therapy to residents in nursing homes, on outreach visits. But because they had a shopfront, people from the local area, in Leith and Granton, started to give them things; badges, old magazines, lipsticks in brass cases, ration books, furniture, records (the long-playing vinyl sort), and wartime gardening advice leaflets. They outgrew their small shop and moved to a bigger one.
The Museum is unlike any other I have been in. You can pick things up, examine the lipstick, smell the old tin of baby powder, listen to music as you walk about, or open a metal box of well used watercolour paints.
Did you know that Marmite used to come in cubes, like Oxo? And that the cubes were sold in a long metal tin? I didn’t. I also didn’t know that vacuum flasks used to be sealed with a cork, not a screw top. When I looked at the flask in the museum (there were several of them) I knew immediately that it had to be in the book, and I knew who would use it, and that he needed an allotment.
The allotment introduced another new character who ended up with a pivotal role in the story, and I had to do research about James Bond to make that part of the book make sense. I also contacted the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh for some fact checking, and after speaking to the archivist there, I knew I had to rewrite several chapters because one TINY assumption I had made was incorrect.
I walked all over Edinburgh for research purposes. The map app on my phone worked out how long it took to get from the canal at Gilmore Place to the foot of Leith Walk on foot, for example, but there is no substitute for walking the route, climbing the hills, watching where the shadows fall and feeling which direction the wind comes from.
I visited Fountainbridge Library in Edinburgh, which used to be my old local library, many years ago. The staff were fabulous, and found old photos and information boards for me. I discovered all sorts of things which didn’t go into this book but which may feature in another one. It won’t spoil the story when I tell you that in chapter three, the letter from a Stockbridge resident to the press about the chess-men is genuine, I have seen a copy of it in the library.
The most thrilling thing about the research for The Sewing Machine, has been how much people want to help. I’m not particularly phone-phobic so I simply rang people to ask questions. If you look at the Acknowledgements in the back of the book (after you’ve read it), you will get some idea of the range of organisations I contacted. Without exception, everyone was generous with their time and their knowledge, and it is SO much better to speak to someone, than to email; the back and forth of a conversation allows you to bounce ideas around and ask for clarifications in a way which just wouldn’t happen on a screen.
For the book launch, I invited some of the people who had helped with the research. I contacted one person quite early on after seeing a wall plaque on a row of cottages near my home. When I spoke to her on the phone one particular day, she made a comment in passing, and I chased it… asked what she meant, where the phrase came from. It produced another plot twist I hadn’t planned for, and three more chapters. WhenI finally met her last week, it was like seeing a friend. Wonderful.
Natalie, your enthusiasm is really infectious – I’m so looking forward to reading this book!
The ebook of The Sewing Machine is available through Amazon, but they may not have the paperback as it has sold out at the wholesalers. Blackwell’s bookshop in Edinburgh will send postage free if you ring the shop and order on the phone 0131 622 8222. The Big Green Bookshop also have copies (and send with free postage) if you ring 0208 881 6767 – but please be quick, as the book is selling faster than they can obtain supplies.
Do check out the other stops on the blog tour for reviews, guest posts and features on The Sewing Machine.
About the author
Natalie Fergie is a textile enthusiast, and has spent the last ten years running a one-woman dyeing business, sending parcels of unique yarn and thread all over the world. Before this she had a career in nursing. She lives near Edinburgh.
The Singer 99K, which was the inspiration for this novel, has had at least four previous owners. It was bought for GBP20 from someone who lived in Clydebank, just a stone’s throw from the site of the factory where it was made a hundred years earlier. It’s quite possible that there are another eight sewing machines in her house. She blogs at www.nataliefergie.com and can be found on Twitter as @theyarnyard.
Other than Natalie’s own photos, images are all credited to photographer Alison Gibson.