Where did the idea for Time’s Echo come from?
I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between the past and the present, and intrigued by the idea that it might be possible to go back in time and see what it was ‘really like’. When I was researching my PhD, I spent a lot of time working on local court records for York in the late sixteenth century and I’d wonder about the individuals I came across: What were the like? How did they live? What were the stories behind the little incidents reported in the records?
At the same time, a friend was talking about post-traumatic stress disorder and the way a sound or smell or something similar can trigger a memory so vivid that sufferers actually re-experience the trauma. So I started to think: if we can re-experience something that’s happened relatively recently, what if we could go further back in time?
Of course, as a historian I know that it will never be possible to know what life was ‘really like’ in the past. Even if we were somehow able to go back, we wouldn’t experience life in the same way. But as a writer, I’m not restricted by what is and isn’t possible, so I could let my imagination run free …
You have a PhD in Medieval Studies. How has your background informed your writing?
Although my PhD is technically in medieval studies, in fact most of my research was on Elizabethan York. I worked on the records of local courts (called wardmote courts) that dealt largely with the streets: with broken paving and blocked gutters, dung heaps and piles of timber blocking the streets, anti-social neighbours and dangerous dogs … I worked on them for so long that the individuals presented in the courts began to seem familiar, almost like friends. In fact one of the entries, about a miller’s dog biting Nicholas Ellis on the leg, became the starting point for Time’s Echo. So I felt that I had a very clear idea of what the city was like in the 16th century and I loved slipping in references to people who really existed.
However, I soon realised that knowing about paving and sewers wasn’t going to be enough and I had to do a lot of research about other aspects of daily life in the Elizabethan city that I’d never come across in my thesis: what they wore under their clothes, what they had for breakfast, how they would have coped with sickness, and so on. One of the great things about writing about the early modern period is how accessible many of the historical sources are, often published and in English (so much easier than Latin!) so you can really get a sense of how people then spoke and thought outside Shakespeare’s plays.
If you could offer aspiring writers one piece of advice, what would it be?
Be prepared for the long haul. The difficult bit is not writing that first book and getting it published. It’s writing another one and another and another … There’s masses of advice out there, but nothing beats what you learn from the process of writing itself, because that’s where you’ll discover your voice, and voice is what makes a story stand out from the crowd.