Every writer is blessed with an over-active imagination. For Helen J Christmas [below], author of the ‘Same Face Different Place’ series, this led her to researching Britain and its social history. Here, she explains how her research was transformed into fiction. “I have a passion for writing. I have indulged it for most of my life but it wasn’t until 2011, my career as an author really took off. My current series (a combination of romantic suspense and noir fiction) was inspired while walking along the beach with our dog. I was just daydreaming about my life, when a set of characters and stories began to flood through my head. I was born in 1964 and remember the eras of the ‘70s and ‘80s – I thought ‘how great it would be to write an epic story that took the reader on a journey through the decades of Britain!’
My debut novel Beginnings (published in 2012) is the first book of my series ‘Same Face Different Place.’ It is a love story set in the criminal underworld of the 70s and the start of a mystery which rolls across four decades.
I am lucky to be gifted with a powerful visual memory. I decided to set my story 1972 and once I got started, found myself absorbed in the era. Yet there came a point when I needed more than my own memories. I wanted to shape my story around real events to add authenticity. This was where my research began. It was in April 2011 when I ventured up to London by train and it took one very special exhibition in Whitechapel, (by photographer Ian Berry), to immerse myself the world of the 70s. These pictures depicted the architecture, the culture and most important of all, the people [below]. It allowed me to portray a little history; issues such as housing where demolition of Victorian terraces took place on a massive scale to make way for high rise blocks. I also learned about Toynbee Hall (described as a catalyst for social change) since it was the nearest institution to a community centre for my characters to seek help. By the time I returned from this trip I felt more inspired than ever; so much so, that research has become an important part of the writing process.Moving onto the second book, Visions, which is set in the ‘80s, I cast my net a little wider. The first book was set in London but in the second, the characters migrate further South to a beautiful rural setting in Kent [above]. Now I have chosen this setting, I often return. It is the location of not only the second book but the third and fourth (which I am currently writing). For me, it helps to put myself in the setting of my story occasionally – not only for photos but to recapture the atmosphere. There was a recent trip in February, this year, where I wanted to view the landscape in winter [below] – and in one of the last scenes I wrote, I could still picture those twisting country roads and trees – describe the low shadows, the winter light and the smell of damp earth… Such journeys can be very uplifting! I use Google Maps and Google Earth to good effect too, especially if I am planning a route in one of my stories. Yet I still maintain that no amount of research can compare to visiting a place for real. For example, there is a chilling scene in the third book, Pleasures, where the heroine of my series is forced to meet her worst enemy in the Grosvenor Hotel. I had to check the location of Victoria Station Car Park in order to describe the scene and just as well I did, otherwise said enemy would have driven in the wrong direction. It is these little details that are important when depicting an actual place. It was on the same day, I visited the Old Bailey [above]. Not only is this a most stunning piece of architecture but has concealed some famous criminal cases. I had done some research on the British legal system anyway (which was where various internet forums came in handy) but once again, you needed to be there. It goes back to what I was explaining about atmosphere – I asked if I could look in on a couple of trials and it was quite unnerving at times; the hostility in the place so tangible you could feel it! When I finally wrote my court scene, I was able to relate to that feeling.
There is of course, lots you can research on the internet which has become an essential tool. You can find material on virtually any topic now. YouTube is an excellent resource for researching older news items and this is where I discovered details of the 1987 hurricane and the Black Monday stock market crash (both featured in book three, Pleasures). In addition, it enabled me to relive the rave scene of the early ’90s (also in Pleasures) with documentaries as well as live video footage, depicting the music and the fashion. I do actually have a few of my own memories of this era and it was the inspiration behind some very exciting scenes in the book.
So what am up to now?Writing ‘Same Face Different Place’ has drawn me to some interesting places in London, to Nijmegan, Holland and through the rolling countryside of Kent [above]. It has allowed me to recapture memories: the industrial strikes and power cuts of the ‘70s, the changing political mood of the ‘80s (from age travellers to a rising yuppie culture) and the emerging rave scene of the ’90s. Much of this has been substantiated by the TV series Back in Time for the Weekend which is a wonderful depiction of British life through the decades.
Right now, I am writing the fourth and final book Retribution where the story is heading towards the Millennium. For the first time since starting the series, I have taken a new approach by interviewing real people: for example, there is a character who joins the army, at the start of the Bosnia conflict in 1992. Much of this research was done on the internet but it was depicting of army life where I struggled – a situation where I wrote to the Army Recruitment Office asking for help and they put me in touch with a retired officer who was in the Royal Engineers in the ‘90s (my character’s regiment). After an extremely enlightening conversation, I managed to write an entire storyline involving my character’s Army career. So I hope I have done him justice!”
Helen J. Christmas lives on the south coast of England with her husband. She has a passion for gripping stories with strong characters and, with a love of writing since childhood, started her own series of books titled ‘Same Face Different Place’. Her first book Beginnings is a mystery suspense thriller combined with a love story, set in 1970s London. Helen finished her second book Visions in 2013 (a psychological thriller set in the 1980s around the counties of London and Kent) and Pleasures in 2015 (where the mystery extends into the ‘90s).