Sometimes, carrying out research for a novel seems the best part of writing!
My third novel which is set in London concerns three main characters who all move into flats in a converted Edwardian house. One of these three protagonists is a woman called Catherine Wells who works in a small museum in Clerkenwell. The museum is entirely fictitious and it has been so interesting ‘inventing’ and ‘creating’ a place that I would, if it actually existed, really like to visit! Called the Harriet Howe House Museum, it focuses principally on the life and times of the eponymous Harriet, who was a philanthropist, suffragist, social reformer and female rights activist as the reader learns in chapter 2.
Whilst I am so enjoying imagining Catherine’s place of work and the nature of her role within the museum, I have at the same time been anxious to get detail right and want to create as authentic picture as I can so that anyone who reads the novel and is familiar with working in small museums does not find anything too incongruous.
The internet can only tell you so much. Personal visits to places such as the Dickens Museum, 18 Stafford Terrace, Emery Walker’s 7 Hammersmith Terrace, have been helpful in creating some visual images, but I still felt I knew the experience only as a visitor, from the outside, as it were, and I needed to know more about my character Catherine’s every day routine in a small museum.
Yesterday, my friend, Deborah Sampson, came to the rescue. Deborah is a volunteer – both as a guide and as Front of House personnel – at 78 Derngate in Northampton, also known as the Charles Rennie Mackintosh House. Commissioned in 1916 by the owner, Wenman Joseph Basett-Lowke, the great Glasgow designer and architect dramatically remodelled the interiors in his iconic Modernist style. It is a fascinating place to visit, to learn both about owner and designer and to see the unique, creative genius of Rennie Mackintosh reflected in every surface and detail. 78 Derngate still has the charm of a domestic house and it is so easy to imagine it as a family home.
But admiring the house was only part of my reason for visiting and I spent much of my time there learning what goes on behind the scenes. I had never really thought about the complexities of running a museum so dependent on volunteers, for example. I was interested to see how the gift shop remained stocked and where sales were recorded. I was able to watch a hand-over from one volunteer shift to another and to learn about preparations for group visits and the diplomacy sometimes needed with visitors. One of the areas I needed to clarify was who actually is employed at a small museum like the one in my third novel and I was fortunate enough to meet the House Manager at 78, Derngate – Liz Jansson. Liz is doing the job in real life that my character, Catherine, is carrying out and it was invaluable to hear from Liz how she manages virtually every aspect of the place – indeed, in my close on four hours there, I saw her turn her hand to so many different tasks and responsibilities that it would be hard to think of a more diverse and demanding role.
78 Derngate is a wonderful place to visit and I thoroughly recommend it. In addition to the main house, there is also a gallery that displays various exhibitions and a café/restaurant (The Dining Room, run as a separate business.) For me, it was a transformative day – providing me with accurate knowledge, insight as well as an appreciation of the practical and crucial financial demands of running a small house museum. My creation of the Harriet Howe House museum will now be far more authentic, grounded in real experience and with some idiosyncratic detail that, I hope, will make the place leap off the page with a sense of reality.
It struck me afterwards that 78 Derngate exudes such a warm and welcoming atmosphere – and I wonder if that is partly because it is staffed by volunteers who clearly have a passion and an enthusiasm for the delightful place. A huge thank you to Deborah, to Liz and to all the volunteers I met who so freely and generously shared their experiences with me.
I can’t wait to re-draft the relevant sections in my novel!