Pauline Chandler Weaving the ‘Dark Threads’ of Derbyshire History.
Pauline Chandler is a local writer with considerable experience of writing historical children’s books. When Five Leaves republished Dark Thread it was a chance for me to read about an area I spent many weekends in as a child.
For those who don’t know Cromford and the mill, would you describe the area?
Cromford is a small village, on the banks of the river Derwent in Derbyshire. It’s full of history, a time capsule really, with lots of eighteenth and nineteenth century stone cottages and other original features. It was developed by Richard Arkwright, a Lancashire entrepeneur, for his workers, when he built a cotton spinning mill there at the end of the eighteenth-century. He chose Cromford, because of the water supply needed for the water wheels which drove his machinery. The water has a constant temperature of about 20°C, so it rarely freezes, which meant that the water wheels would keep turning all year round.
Arkwright built the three storey workers’ cottages all along Cromford Hill, the main street of the village. They are still there today. The top storey was used as weaver’s workshops as well as other dwellings lining North Street, a side street off the Hill. He also started to build the church (which was finished after his death), the lock-up and the hotel, as well workshops, forges and a market. Then there are all the sluices, the ponds, the culverts and the waterfalls: engineering on a huge scale to divert the water. It’s all still there.
Originally, the first Mill was six storeys tall and housed 200 workers, with rows of machines, to produce an identical product. It was the first example of mass production. There was ‘boom and bust’ in the cotton industry though, because the whole enterprise only lasted for about 50 years, from the 1770s to the 1820s. After that it fell into a slow decline.
Although the story is set in Derbyshire, why do you think the book might have a wider audience than local readers?
I don’t think about anything except the story when I’m writing, so I don’t know whether it will appeal to readers or not. I just hope it will! The main thing is to create ‘real’ characters who hook you into the story, so that you have to find out what happens to them. I also love a story that can be read on more than one level. Dark Thread is a conventional time-slip story about a modern girl thrown into a world in the past, with all its strangeness. It’s also about love and loss (universal themes) and the grief you feel when you realise that your loss is permanent. It’s Pentecost, the wise woman in the past, who shows the main character, Kate, a way to cope with her heartache.
With all the information you have packed into the book, what techniques did you use to prevent an info dump which could have been a boring read for you audience?
When I’ve finally got a reasonable draft of the story, I knock it into shape for the reader. While writing, I don’t share the story with anyone, but of course I hope to share it, eventually, with lots of people, so I work hard to take out the boring bits. In the process, you end up with nine-tenths in your head and one-tenth on the page. The nine-tenths is the ‘back story’, the ‘history’ of the characters and events that make the story and the characters stronger and totally convincing. To explore the ‘back story’, I write scenes which I then edit out of the final draft.
It’s also useful to read the story aloud. If your eyes glaze over, you know it’s not working! And you need to cut most adverbs and adjectives. It’s easy to fall in love with the sound of language, but description has to work in support of character and plot.
In historical fiction, I think writers have a responsibility to ‘get it right’, where possible, so, I do a lot of research, on clothing, food, architecture, geography, social customs and conditions, so that nothing strikes a wrong note or provides a distraction from the story. Writers do take shortcuts in fiction, though, and take ‘creative liberties’, with the timing of events, for example, so as not to hold up the story. You can’t use totally authentic dialect, either, without confusing the reader. So it’s a good idea to ‘suggest’ it, with a mixture of old and modern, rather than stick slavishly to what is truly authentic and risk that ‘glaze over.’
You have a background in teaching. Did that influence your writing, because the type of historical detail woven into the narrative would make the book a very useful resource and starting point for a school project.
I try not to think about how a book will be used while I’m writing it. The main thing is to find an interesting character and an exciting plot. It’s lovely to think that schools might find the book useful though.
Do you provide workshops for schools that tie-in with the book?
I’m offering two workshops to tie in with Dark Thread, both suitable for Years 5-7. ‘Polly’s (Tom’s) Day Out’ helps students to create a character and develop a plot. ‘Trouble on the Night Shift’ focuses on developing ‘place’ and ‘atmosphere’. Each workshop is an hour long.
How much of the book is based on your own experience of this part of Derbyshire?
I live quite near Cromford Mill, so I’ve had plenty of chances to visit the site and talk to the experts who manage it. It’s a place full of echoes of the past, especially the voices of the children who worked there. It makes me think of a prison, where life was harsh and relentless, but that’s a very modern view, I’m sure! Without schools to go to, the child workers were probably pleased to have something to do with their time, and proud to be contributing to the family income. I feel close to working people. My family have all worked in factories, mines or shops. My father’s family could not afford to send him to the grammar school, so he went into service and then into factory work. My mother’s father was a miner, as were my uncles, and I’ve worked in factories myself, so I know something about manual labour and the process of mass production, which Arkwright pioneered.
What type of research did you have to do?
In Cromford, I was able to consult local historians and members of the Arkwright Society, the experts who manage the site. The internet was useful for maps to show water courses and lead mines, and I read books about early industry, the Derwent valley, about Sir Richard Arkwright and the other mill owners and engineers.
I also visited Litton Mill, near Tideswell in Derbyshire, a notorious cotton mill. Its terrible conditions were exposed in the diary of Robert Blincoe. Life was hard at Cromford, but it was worse at Litton, and it was testimony such as Blincoe’s that led to changes in the laws governing child employment in the nineteenth century.
Part of my research was done with the Wellcome Library, in London, which is an amazing world resource for medical history. I was trying to find out what people did in the 1770s, to save someone who had almost drowned. The experts were incredibly helpful, and sent me lots of information on eighteenth century life saving techniques, with diagrams! So, I felt confident in letting Kate try mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on Tabby.
How do you go about writing your books?
My books begin with the spark of an idea, which I then explore through a single character. At first I write in pencil in A4 notebooks, on one side of the page only, because it feels nicer (I love this bit!) and allows me space to add things later. When I run out of steam on the beginning, usually round about chapter ten, and I’m not sure where to go next, I send some time transferring what I’ve written to the computer. That process usually opens up possibilities for the middle section, and so on. When the first draft is on the screen, it’s then a long process of re-drafting and re-drafting. It’s like making a coat. First you have to weave the cloth, then cut it out, then stitch it and trim it to fit, until it’s perfect. Sometimes you have to rip it up and start again!
Where do the ideas come from and how do you develop them?
Ideas can arrive from anywhere and everywhere. It might be something you read, see on TV, hear in a shop or on the bus, or even just a snatch of conversation. It could be a place or an object, anything at all that gives you the spark.
The idea for Dark Thread came from my love of textiles and thread craft, mainly quilting and embroidery. I love woven fabrics and tapestries, and things made by hand. That love of handwork, combined with finding out more about Cromford Mill, made me wonder what happened to the artists and crafts people, when the machines took over. That’s why I had to have an artisan weaver in my book, a woman who loved colour and thread, so that the soulless machines didn’t have it all their own way! One thing I’ve learned about history is that there were always individuals who bucked the trend. I love that.
How did you come to write Dark Thread?
Dark Thread comes out of a dark time in my life. My teaching career ended badly, I felt, when I had to retire through ill health, when the anxiety and depression, the ‘dog’ I’d fought off since childhood, finally won our long battle. There was a day when I got the call at school that my mother had died suddenly and my father needed me. I went home, I dealt with the situation, or so I thought, and within a day my life had irrevocably changed. Then, after a long eighteen months, trying to stay strong, the ‘dog’ was eating me up for his dinner, until there was not a scrap of me left.
Now I see that my ‘illness’ brought me a message, to stop, to break out of my shell and change into something different, something more nourishing to my spirit. To leave school and become a writer. The book comes from that experience.
Tell me about the other books you have written.
Warrior Girl tells the story of Joan of Arc, seen through the eyes of the narrator, Joan’s fictional cousin, Mariane. I wrote the book after a visit to Rouen, where I stood next to the spot where, in 1431, Joan was burnt at the stake, for heresy and witchcraft. I still remember the feeling that ran through me, a shock of adrenalin, and I started to write her story that night in my hotel room. It’s hard to put into words, that moment of inspiration. It’s what writers pray for, when your imagination opens up like a door and you see something magical on the other side.
When Warrior Girl sold well, the publishers encouraged me to write another historical story, so I wrote Viking Girl, a tale about a Viking tribe, led by Beren, daughter of the dead king, which is forced from the Mark, present-day Denmark, into exile in ninth century England. Although Beren has been told that the native Saxons are peaceful, she soon finds that she has a fight on her hands, to survive in a hostile land and to solve the riddle of her father’s death.
I’ve a lifelong interest in Vikings and Saxons. I love Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse words, and it was a logical choice for someone born and brought up in the East Midlands, the heart of the old Danelaw, to write about my area’s history. My research took me to Lindisfarne, site of the first Viking invasion in 793, to York or Jorvik, the old Viking capital, and to a school of falconry, where I did a ‘hawk encounter’ , which was marvellous! Through the internet and my booklist, I read everything I could about the Vikings and their world. Vikings used to be famous only for destruction, rape and pillage. That view has changed in recent years. My Vikings are settlers, capable of a fierce fight to defend themselves, if necessary, but, basically, seeking peace. It was Magnus Magnusson’s book, ‘Viking!’ which inspired me to see them in that way and I think it’s closer to the history.
There’s a fox in the book, a ‘soul spirit’ who brings messages to Beren from her dead father. I love foxes. And I love to have a mystical dimension to the books, with the suggestion that there are more ‘worlds’ than we know and can see.
A strong bond with animals is a theme in The Mark of Edain, where Aoife, daughter of a chief Druid, escapes slavery in Rome, by serving as keeper of one of the Emperor’s elephants, when he sets out to invade Britannia. Aoife can read her elephant’s thoughts. Communicating with animals is close to a Druid heart, I think.
My current work-in-progress is another historical novel, set in 1415, about a foundling girl, Elinor, who goes in search of her kidnapped sister. The king’s enemies intend to use little Alys, in their mission to depose the Lancastrian king, Henry V and replace him with the Yorkist heir. They say that Alys, whom they name the ‘White Rose’, because of her albinism, has been sent by God, as a sign that their candidate has His blessing. Elinor’s quest takes her to the battlefields of France at a crucial time for King Henry. As usual, the story has had a number of titles! It was called ‘The Angel of Clemency’ for ages. Now it’s called The White Rose and the Red, which, besides referring to Alys, also refers to the long wars between the two great royal houses, York and Lancaster.
Pauline will be at the gallery, Cromford Mills this Saturday 3 November between 11.45am-2.15pm and 2.00-2.30pm, giving readings and discussing her books. The events are free but advance booking recommended. Tel 01629 536831 (office hours only).