To mark the publication of The Midnight Peacock, the final book in the Sinclair’s Mysteries series this week, I thought it would be fun to share some of my research process for the books. I love research and it’s something that I’m often asked about when I’m out and about at events and talking to readers.
Here are seven ways that I’ve approached researching the series and imagining myself back into Edwardian London:
1) Collecting visual inspiration
Visual inspiration is really important to me: I love collecting images and using them as a spring-board for writing. From the very beginning I started gathering together images that would help me imagine what 1900s London and the world of an Edwardian department store would look like. They included: Edwardian photographs that reminded me of my characters; images of 1900s maps, newspapers, bus-tickets and advertisements; photographs of London shops and street scenes; 1900s art, design and illustration; and of course lots of pictures of Edwardian fashion – from gowns to shoes to the all-important hats. Although many of the images were from the 1900s, I also gathered more contemporary images that had an Edwardian vibe or which evoked elements of the series to me.
Pinterest was an incredibly useful tool here: I made an ‘Edwardiana’ board where I could collect images I found online, as well as a secret Pinterest board for each book, which I later shared with my editor and designer. As well as providing a useful reference point, the material I collected really helped me to develop an aesthetic and atmosphere for each book . I’ve now made all the boards public – you can see them here. It’s interesting looking back to see how different each board is – from the light, frothy brightness of Clockwork Sparrow to the darker, autumnal feel of Painted Dragon right through to the rich and sumptuous jewel tones of Midnight Peacock.
Making a digital collection of images like this is super quick and easy, but if you prefer to take a more analogue approach, I also love sticking up postcards and other relevant images around my desk, or on a pin-board. For the Sinclair’s Mysteries I also made a scrapbook where I could collect together hard-copy images that had inspired me – more on this in a future post!
2) Reading back in time
At the very beginning of the writing process, I tried to read as much as I could that I had been written during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, starting with children’s books by the likes of Frances Hodgson Burnett and E Nesbit. However I didn’t stop with children’s fiction – I read all kinds of other books as well, casting my net as widely as possible. These included: Edwardian detective and spy novels; classics by authors like E M Forster; contemporary works of non-fiction like Jack London’s The People of the Abyss (which was particularly helpful for researching the East End); memoirs (I loved Dodie Smith’s Look Back With Love, and semi-autobiographical novels like The Vicarage Family by Noel Streatfeild and The Edwardians by Vita Sackville West); and even etiquette guides and travel guides. I found this breadth of reading really helped immerse me in the world of the Edwardians and often sparked off unexpected ideas for the stories.
I’ve used the British Library a huge amount for my research: one of the things I loved best about working there is that I was able to look at original copies of Edwardian books and periodicals, which was invaluable. For the Sinclair’s Mysteries, I looked at material such as an original 1900s Baedeker’s Guide to London, as well as magazines like Boy’s Own and Boys of England (which inspired the fictional magazine Boys of Empire which Billy reads). There’s something really quite magical about being able to look at a book that’s over 100 years old!
3) Exploring contemporary books
As well as reading lots of late Victorian and Edwardian material, I also sought out contemporary books set in or around the Edwardian period. Two I read very early on were Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead (a biography of Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridges) and The Children’s Book by A S Byatt – two extremely different books that both had an important part to play in shaping the series.
Later I sought out more specific books to help me research particular elements of Edwardian society. For the artistic community of The Painted Dragon, for example, I read A Crisis of Brilliance by David Haycock, Among the Bohemians by Virginia Nicholson, and Life Class by Pat Barker. When I’m researching a specific topic, I particularly look for non-fiction titles which have lots of rich detail and personal anecdotes – though once again I do like to look at a wide variety of different reading matter. For me, illustrated children’s books, novels or books of photography or fashion history can be just as helpful as traditional history or biography. Even a sticker book – like this lovely Edwardian one from Usborne – might have a part to play in your research!
4) Visiting museums and galleries
I love pottering around museums and galleries and this element of the research process was a real joy for me. The Museum of London was a great starting point for the Sinclair’s Mysteries: their collection includes items like an Edwardian motor-taxi, the original 1920s lift doors from Selfridges, a variety of Suffragette memorabilia, and Edwardian clothing. I also love their Victorian shopping street which is a great example of what London shopping was like before the Edwardian department store came along!
Lots more inspiration was found at the V&A, the British Museum, the Museum of London Docklands (especially helpful for The Jewelled Moth), the National Gallery, Tate Britain, the National Portrait Gallery, the London Transport Museum and the Royal Academy. The Wallace Collection was the perfect setting to picture Mr Lyle in The Painted Dragon (you can even see the painting ‘The Swing’ by Fragonard that Lil recreates in the book). An impromptu visit to Two Temple Place was really helpful in bringing to life the interior of Lord Beaucastle’s mansion in The Jewelled Moth.
At The Wallace Collection
I’d hugely recommend a museum or art gallery visit as a source of inspiration, especially when you’re feeling short on ideas. There’s something very powerful about seeing artworks or objects from the past ‘in the flesh’ – their colours, textures and physical qualities. A painting, a photograph or an object can be a great starting point for writing.
I’ve also found museum and gallery shops useful places to find interesting or unusual non-fiction books, postcards and historical maps – early on in writing The Clockwork Sparrow I bought a copy of a 1900s map of London from the Museum of London shop which has been invaluable in helping me get a sense of Sophie & Lil’s London.
5) Film and TV
Film and TV can be a brilliant way to immerse yourself in a particular time period. For the Sinclair’s Mysteries I watched lots of 1900s-set films, from old favourites like The Secret Garden, The Railway Children, Howard’s End and A Room with a View to newer movies like The Illusionist, Suffragette and Testament of Youth (the latter has particularly gorgeous 1910s fashion). Handily, Downton Abbey was also on TV while I was writing the first book.
One obvious TV reference point for me was the TV series Mr Selfridge. However, I’d already started working on the series before the series came out, and so made a deliberate decision not to watch it, because I didn’t want my own Sinclair’s department store to be too strongly influenced by the TV version of Selfridges. I think it was probably the right decision – though I’ve since caught up on a couple of episodes and I loved seeing how they brought Edwardian London and a brand new department store to life.
On my wanderings I’ve spotted all kinds of fragments of old 1900s London beneath the surface of the contemporary city – from ‘ghost signs’ (faded old advertisements that can still be glimpsed on the side of buildings) to 1900s lampposts. I’ve ridden on the tops of London buses trying to imagine what the view would look like for Sophie in Edwardian London; I’ve peered out of windows and explored mysterious alley-ways; and have even gone rowing in a London park to help me get into the mood for a spot of Edwardian boating (in The Jewelled Moth).
Of course I’ve also visited lots of London’s real-life Edwardian department stores. As well as Selfridges, key points of inspiration for the books included Liberty’s, Harrods, and Fortnum & Mason. Liberty’s and Fortnum’s are particularly lovely for a spot of research: stepping through the doors feels rather like going back in time. There’s also a wonderful Edwardian vibe to old-fashioned shops like Hatchard’s, streets like the Burlington Arcade, and London hotels and restaurants like the Wolseley on Piccadilly – which leads me beautifully onto my seventh point…
One of my very favourite research methods! As in all good children’s books, the characters in the Sinclair’s Mysteries do a fair amount of eating, so I spent time finding out about what Edwardian people typically ate. (For the very wealthy it was a quite terrifying amount of food – as anyone who has watched Sue Perkins and Giles Coren’s Edwardian Supersize Me will know!)
Obviously it was only right and proper that I tested out the kind of afternoon tea that might be served up at Sinclair’s, including many cakes, buns, sandwiches and other delicacies. My agent Louise and my editor Ali have been particularly helpful in making sure we’ve done plenty of this all-important research: we even celebrated the publication of The Clockwork Sparrow with a special afternoon tea at Harrods!
It may sound frivolous (and let’s face it, I don’t really need much of an excuse when it comes to eating cakes) but I really do think that focusing on details like what people ate and the clothes they wore goes a long way to helping you imagine what life in another time might have been like.
So there you have it: my seven top tips for researching historical fiction!
I celebrated the grand finale to the Sinclair’s Mysteries with a lovely breakfast with my editor Ali and agent Louise on Jermyn Street, just behind Piccadilly. It couldn’t have been a more perfect place to celebrate the final book, as we were just a stone’s throw from the location of Sinclair’s in the stories – and from Piccadilly Circus, which has a very important part to play in the final book.
Ali and the Egmont team also bought me the perfect present to celebrate publication day – a bottle of Penhaligon’s bluebell bath oil. (Sharp-eyed readers might notice that a scent that smells like bluebells is one of the things you can buy at Sinclair’s in the first book, The Clockwork Sparrow!)
Publication day treats!
After breakfast I popped into classic London department store Fortnum & Mason for some more Sinclair’s vibes, and to pick up some delicious macarons as a publication day treat. Then it was time to visit Waterstones Piccadilly to see TheMidnight Peacock in the children’s section (signed copies of The Midnight Peacock and the other Sinclair’s Mysteries books are now available there for any London-based readers who would like one!)
Meanwhile it’s been lovely to have lots of tweets, messages and Instagram posts from readers about the new book. I’ve already spotted some great reviews, including this one from The Bookbag, and this one from blogger Booklover Jo. I’m so excited that the final book in the series is now out in the world: here’s a bit more information about The Midnight Peacock:
You are cordially invited to Mr Sinclair’s Midnight Peacock Ball!
The festive season has come to Sinclair’s and Sophie and Lil are spending the holidays at snowy Winter Hall. But it turns out that this is no ordinary house party . . .
As SINISTER SECRETS come to light, our INTREPID HEROINES find themselves faced with a more BAFFLING MYSTERY than ever before!
With the help of their friends, can they uncover the truth in time to foil a truly DIABOLICAL PLOT? Or will Mr Sinclair’s New Year’s Eve Midnight Peacock Ball spell DISASTER for the dauntless young detectives?
Prepare for shocks and surprises in the thrilling conclusion to the Sinclair’s Mysteries!
I went on a Most Exciting Outing this week! Together with my agent Louise and Amy from the editorial team at my publisher Egmont, I headed to Chatham to visit printer CPI and see my latest book in The Midnight Peacock come hot off the press.
It was an amazing experience to see the books being printed – rather like going into a book equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. In spite of having been involved in publishing for over 10 years (eek) I have to admit that I’d never given a great deal of thought to the process of how books are actually produced. It was fascinating to see each step of the process – from the giant rolls of paper for printing the pages, right through to the finished books shrink-wrapped and ready to go. Oh yes – and of course we got to wear some stylish hi-vis!
With Louise and Amy posing with some books in progress
Of course the most exciting thing of all was seeing the very first finished copies of Midnight Peacock come off the press. I’ve talked at length about how much I love the cover of the fourth in the Sinclair’s Mysteries series, but it looks even more beautiful in real life. The purple is so sumptuous and I love the icy blue foil – and Karl James Mountford’s stunning illustrations look absolutely incredible.
It’s always exciting when the first copy of a new book is in your hand but it was even more exciting to go home with copies fresh from the printing press! Thank you so much CPI for a very special and memorable visit.
I am so thrilled to share with you the cover of the fourth book in the Sinclair’s Mysteries series! Behold the loveliness that is The Midnight Peacock:
As with The Painted Dragon, the cover art is the work of the super-talented Karl James Mountford who has also created the fabulous interior illustrations for the book. Karl worked with Egmont’s senior fiction designer Laura Bird on the book’s artwork.
I think I’ve probably said this for each new book in the series, but I really think this is my favourite cover yet. The combination of rich purple and silver foiling is so sumptuous, and it’s lovely to see Sinclair’s itself on the cover for the final book in the series, and to peep inside its windows once again!
What’s more, the cover perfectly captures the atmosphere of The Midnight Peacock, which is set at Christmas and is a wintery mystery – I love the silvery icicles, the swirling frost, and the hints of festive decorations we can glimpse in the windows. It also conveys all the opulent splendour of Mr Sinclair’s magnficent New Year’s Eve Ball, which has such an important part to play in this story.
You can find out a bit more about the book (as well as enjoying some more of Karl’s wonderful illustrations) on the back cover:
With this in mind, I asked Karl if I could interview him about his work, and about illustrating Midnight Peacock in particular. He was kind enough to agree and also to share some of his work-in-progress. Here’s what we talked about…
KW: Can you tell me a bit about your creative process when illustrating a book? Where do you start? How do you go about creating a book cover, and what are the key things to think about?
KJM: It starts with the brief from the art director/designer from the publishing house. I tend to get a proof of the manuscript with chapters or text highlighted for reference and study. But the first thing I do is make my own list of all the illustrations needed for the project and make really rough tiny sketches before even researching. Book covers are my favourite type of illustration work, so I automatically want to do best by the author’s imagination. With the Sinclair’s Mysteries, I get sent a template of the design and I doodle on that to get the ball rolling. The key thing is to read, whether it’s the full story or character description and the brief. ‘The more you know’ as they say!
Can you talk about what tools you use – do you work digitally, or with paints etc?
I draw/sketch everything in my sketch books or loose paper to figure things out; once the design/illustrations have been given the ok, I then scan them into the computer and use photoshop to colour them up and fine-tune. I use a lot of textures like paint marks or scrap paper to make digital brushes.
What’s your workspace like?
At the minute, it’s a bit of a mess (I’m moving studios).
Who are your favourite children’s book illustrators?
Shaun Tan is without a doubt the best in my opinion. Maurice Sendak also, not just for his artwork but because he was honest in his storytelling for kids – it all gets a bit safe these days. And there is a huge number of current illustrators who are also incredible of course, but those two are my personal heroes.
Is there a children’s book you’d especially love to illustrate?
I’d love to illustrate His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman, like a special edition type of deal, they are some of my favourite books. I’ve thought about this before – I’d make screen print covers with limited colour palettes.
What advice would you give someone interested in getting into book illustration?
Erm… it’s tough getting into book illustration, not an overnight thing for sure, so don’t worry about rejection – it’s just something that happens. I’d suggest you make work you love because you love it so. Start with your favourite books, redesign the cover, illustrate chapters etc, but do it because it interests you. And be a little tough on yourself, ask yourself ‘Does this look like something I want to pick up off the shelf?’ and above all – stick at it.
Let’s talk a bit about TheMidnight Peacock! The book is set in winter: how did you get the wintry effects on the cover? I’ve heard that snow is particularly tricky in illustration – did you find this?
Yeah, snow can be tricky, especially when the colour palette is singular. I used light purples against darker ones with a textured ‘speckled’ brush, I went for a frosty look/feel on The Midnight Peacock because the typical trick for snow is to add it on the sills of windows but with this series the windows are key to front of the book and I didn’t want to lose the details of the action in the windows, covered by snow.
Final character designs for The Midnight Peacock
I love the way each window has its own cast of characters, and tells a story of its own – which window would you most like to eavesdrop beside?
I think the top left, the one with Lil on the moon. I’d have a few drinks and enjoy the party.
What was the most difficult aspect of this cover to get right? How do you test the effects of foiling?
The most difficult aspect of this cover was the design of the Sinclair’s building, since book one already featured the front of the department store (by illustrator extraordinaire Júlia Sardà). I didn’t want to just copy the existing design, so I used it as a template and changed a few details so it feels respectful to the original but it’s got my own stamp on it. I don’t actually test the foiling, the good folks at Egmont and Art Director/Designer Laura Bird are in charge of that. I do have to keep all the ‘foiled’ aspects on separate layers when illustrating the covers though.
Roughs of The Midnight Peacock cover plus colour test
How much did the design change from your roughs to the final artwork?
Not much really, a few details and positioning of characters. I think the biggest change was on the back, as I’d drawn chimneys and windows in the bottom left-hand corner, but with the barcode added on, it would have looked a little off. So we replaced it with a brick wall to frame the existing covers.
How do you choose which scene to depict on a cover (front and back)?
With the Sinclair’s books, the team at Egmont send me a really detailed brief of what they think will work best for the overall cover.
Final book designs for The Midnight Peacock
I love the incidental details – the poster for water on the wall of the building the gang are scaling, the lamppost, the trays of tiny canapés, the brooches and hatpins. How did you research the visual look of 1909 – are there any period sources you found particularly helpful for those details?
I used the brief’s details to research items of the time. I went to the library and got a few books out on ladies’ fashions of the 1900s; and some of the stuff I just googled, particularly the invitations and newspapers of the era.
At the end of The Painted Dragon, we see an illustration of Sophie and Lil for the first time, and in this book we see the whole gang – is it challenging depicting the main characters in a book? I love how the physical stance of each figure in that final image is so true to their character!
It can be difficult, as you want to do justice to the author’s imagination. But you can’t really pick the brain of the author in this type of work, which is a shame. I do get sent the manuscript of the books so I can research and read the story – it helps massively to read the book as you can really build an idea of the characters. Although I avoided the manuscript as much as possible this time, because I’m invested in the story and want to find out how it all ends as its reader rather than illustrator!
Development of characters
It was a thrill to spot ‘KW’ on the spine of the books in the library – are there any other hidden details you could tell us about – or at least give us a clue as to what we might look for?
Yeah, in that one particular illustration, some of the books have spines with titles of the previous books’ creatures on them: a bird, moth and dragon. There is also an open sketch book with a drawing of the main character Sophie in it. I leave sentimental rubbish in all my work sometimes – for instance, the date on one of the newspapers is my Dad’s birthday. Just daft things like that.
Details on small illustrations
I also love the Indian pattern at the bottom of Miss Pennyfeather’s letter – it feels like just the kind of stationery a colonial lady would use. Was it based on a real-life artefact?
It was a last-minute decision on my part – the decorative part of the letter was already in place, but we had to rejig the lettering so it read in a certain way. I was flicking through the text-heavy illustrations and just thought it would be nice to add the elephant motif so it keeps your eyes interested. I researched ‘decorative writing paper’ – a lot of it back then was heavily decorated, especially if you were ‘well to do’.
These books involve lots of letters in different hand-writing, flyers and business cards – do you enjoy working out different typographical effects? Again, I love how each is done so exactly in the character of the letter’s author.
It’s one of my favourite things about this job, I’m not just illustrating it but designing things too. I actually hand-wrote a lot of the letters with a fountain pen/ calligraphy set…it took forever but I think/hope it adds an authencity to it. It’s pretty hard to write out of your regular handwriting style continuously, so for some of the letters I used a font.
Lettering and design
What have you enjoyed most about illustrating the Sinclair’s Mysteries? Do you have a favourite character to illustrate or a favourite illustration?
I’ve enjoyed reading the stories a lot, it makes it really special to illustrate once you’ve read it. I think I enjoyed the mix of illustrating and designing. My favourite character…I think it might be Billy…or Lil.
Finally, thank you for your illustration of quite the most lavish teatime spread – which cake is your favourite, and shall we split one?
Oh, I think we should! It’s gonna sound lame but I really like carrot cake at the minute.
Say hello to Kaufhaus der Träume (Department Store of Dreams)! Das Rätsel um den verschwundenen Spatz (aka The Clockwork Sparrow) will be published in Germany by Ravensburger on 27 August.
It’s been translated into German by Katharina Orgaß, and the illustrator is Alessandra Fusi. I love how different the cover is from the UK and US edition of The Clockwork Sparrow, whilst being just as gorgeous with its luscious Edwardian fashions and delicate Art Nouveau-inspired detail. How lucky am I to have another incredibly lovely cover?!