Tag Archives: research

100 years ago this October Supermarine was born

What does the name ‘Supermarine’ mean to you? The Spitfire? Nothing? An important company in Southampton’s history and later Swindon too? If you’re a football supporter to Swindon do you know what the connection is?

It meant little to me until my parents started looking into our family history and Dad began to speak of how important Supermarine was in our family when they lived in Woolston and once my interest is stirred I have a need to go and do some research. Why?

  • to know why the company was important historically
  • to find out what impact it had on my family
  • to understand how it changed every day lives of my family, their friends and neighbours.

This satisfies the social historian in me….not an exact science of facts and figures but and exploration of real lives for real and imaginary people. So here’s the historical facts laced with my interpretation in italics:

In 1913 Pemberton Billing, often described as a maverick in political terms, approached a little known boat builders called White’s in Itchen Village on the banks of the River Itchen.

I can imagine the rumours in the village pub, The Yacht Tavern while negotiations too place with Hubert Scott Paine in his yacht moored up the river.

He wanted to use the skilled craftsmen to build flying boats and an agreement was made to begin production in October 1913.  Supermarine was not the official company name until 1916, but Billing registered the name for telegram purposes but also had the name emblazoned on the roof in November 1913. 

I believe that the people of Itchen Ferry and Woolston would have been proud of the new developments and excited to see the newly developed flying boats take off from the river near where they lived and worked.

Supermarine Works & CHANNEL on slipway

Why Supermarine? The main use of flying boats for the military at that time was to look out for submarines….sub..under the water…supermarine…over the water. 

Why did he have the name painted on the roof? To be noticed from the air of course, especially to catch the attention of the military to be taken seriously and to gain orders and build business.

(For the family in my novel ‘Ancasta Guide me Swiftly Home’ living in Woolston, split from Itchen Ferry only by the Portsmouth Road, I reasoned that this could only be good news, since two of the characters in my novel Ernest and Jack already worked at White’s. It meant better job security and job prospects.)

Flying boats were important in WWI to protect convoys, search for submarines and also to bomb strategic sites, out in Turkey for example.  In WWI they also helped in rescue missions for crews of sinking ships. It was a innovative development for the navy with the newly opened RNAS station along Southampton Water at Calshot. With the first sea plane carriers also in operation during WWI technological development was moving fast.

Why were flying boats so important to us in Britain?

Firstly there was no infrastructure of runways before WWI. Planes just landed where they could on fields and park land so it was quite reassuring, us being an island, that the aircraft could land on water. This was important, not only to impress the military but commercial projects later on. In 1913 it was only 4 years since the first ever flight across the channel.

If entrepreneurs were to persuade the wealthy public to pay for air transport, it was thought that they would be happier that the craft could land safely on land or water.

Supermarine Works c1919

Supermarine Works 1919

Supermarine’s most famous engineer RJ Mitchel was responsible for the development of more famous sea planes; the Sea Lion which won The Schneider Trophy in 1922 and the S6B  which won the Schneider Trophy outright in 1931.

Mitchel’s developmental work to such a high specification led on to the timely Spitfire. In the gallery of Solent Sky, the aviation museum in Southampton , there is an exhibit of small model aircraft right from those early sea planes to the Spitfire.

Many say that, if it hadn’t been for the development of the S6B, an amazing feat of engineering by Mitchel to develop the fastest amphibian aircraft in the world at that time, the technology would not have been in place to develop the Spitfire.

And so Supermarine was born one hundred years ago. It was a major employer in the area up until the second world war when Woolston’s Supermarine Works were bombed out, after the local people had been inspired by witnessing the first ever flights of the Spitfire right over their heads, including my father.

To me the facts are important, but it is the way in which I can weave lives of ordinary people through these facts that brings history to life. 

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Filed under Ancasta, Early Flight, Flying Boats and Sea Planes, Research, Schneider Trophy, Southampton, Supermarine, The Great War, Woolston

Location, location, location ~ How important is a sense of place in a novel?

Is a strong sense of place important for a novel’s success?

Good characterisation is vital for a successful novel, as is a sense of the time period. In fact the era, whether a modern setting or in the past,  needs to seep into every nook and cranny of the plot, dialogue, setting and language too, but I also believe that the best novels are rooted firmly in a clear sense of place. A good novel transports you to somewhere else, allowing you to travel without leaving your favourite  armchair. The reader should be able to picture the location in their mind and live with the characters as their lives weave through the plot.

Which places are associated with authors and which authors use a sense of place as part of their identity?

Crime and mystery novels use the setting to give atmosphere, tension and contrast; the latter being the key…. danger and safety……. dark and light……the sandy, sunlight beach and the gloomy alleyway for example, but to make a series there also needs to be consistency to draw the reader back. You associate Peter James with Brighton, Ian Rankin with Edinbugh, (whose latest novel is ranked number 12 in the Amazon top 100 today) Colin Dexter with Oxford (Inspector Morse!), Stieg Larsson with Sweden……the list goes on.

Then there’s the popular fiction of the late Maeve Binchy, rooted firmly in Ireland and more recent successful authors like Victoria Hislop, who I will always associate with the deep-blue seascapes of Greece, although her latest novel is set in Spain, I believe.

Jodi Picoult’s successful books are challenging and thought provoking. She chooses topics to be controversial and stretch the reader’s understanding of their own values and sometimes highlight their misconceptions, but ‘place’ is important in each of her novels, whether it be a prison, hospital or courtroom. I loved ‘The Tenth Circle’ as much because its descriptions of Alaska and the way of life of modern Eskimos was describes so vividly, that it took me out of my comfort zone and transported me to a world I know nothing about.

Certainly the classics, which influence many writers, reflect this view of an identity with ‘place’…. Daphne De Maurier’s Cornwall, Thomas Hardy’s Wessex and  The Bronte sisters’ Yorkshire. Mind you, although Jane Austen is associated with many places including Bath, her characters went all over England and I can’t count the number of towns where I’ve seen claims of connections with Dickens.

Should you only write about a location you know well?

The advice is to write only about a place you are truly familiar with but, if you don’t live there, certainly you need to spend a considerable amount of time on location, researching, walking and observing, noting down characteristics, descriptions of places, atmosphere and associated events. It is helpful to keep a map to hand and check details as meticulously as you can.

In the first edition of my novel Riduna, I was coloured by childhood visits to the island of Alderney. We called the town ‘St Anne’s’ and not ‘St Anne’ and pronounced Saye Bay, ‘Say’ Bay and not ‘Soy’ Bay, as the locals do, and they have since been quick to put me right. As I’ve visited regularly as an adult, the island has seeped deeper into my psyche and I am influenced more by experience than memories.

Does it matter if you don’t get the facts right? After all it’s fiction.

Yes it does actually. Having said that, it doesn’t pay to be defensive if someone tells you that you have made a minor error. Embrace it and be pleased to receive feedback. It means that the person has read your novel and has cared enough about it to contact you. Local people are understandably defensive about their own patch and you need to reach out to them and gain their trust. I’ve met some wonderful people when I’ve been out and about, who have shared all sorts of memories and personal stories over the last few years. Build bridges and not fences. When I was researching for Riduna a local historian remarked, ‘There’s so little actually written down about Alderney in Victorian times, and much that was written was destroyed during the occupation of WW2. Mind you,’ he said with a sudden thought, ‘why don’t you write about the previous century. You could virtually make the story up since records are virtually non-existent!’

If you don’t know a place well, then why not create one?

An alternative is to dream up a totally imaginative world, the most famous being Tolkein’s Middle Earth, but more recently Bernard Cornwell’s series, although set in Viking and Saxon England, contains a world so far in the past that it has a huge scope for pure imagination and creativity. This requires as much planning, and time consuming cross referencing, as visiting a real place, if the finished result is to be authentic and believable, but it does have the advantage that you have no need to travel away from your front room.

Can a place be as powerful as a character?

Yes, it certainly can. A place can be compelling, drawing the characters and the reader forward to their goal, or repelling and driving them away. It can live deep within the heart of a hero or heroine, as moving as any love affair, ever pulling them back. The word ‘home’ is an extremely emotive word. Where is home? This is an important question to ask. The character may be a  lost soul, with no true roots, but even then they may have a desire to be rooted, which moves the story forward, or a desire to cover their tracks at all costs and start a new life anew, reinventing themselves.

Does your narrative paint a picture in the eyes of the reader?

If you see a photograph, what captions or stories do they evoke?

 A church ruin on an icy evening

A single traveller on a cruise of a lifetime

An exotic location; an island of mystery?

With each photograph my mind races with ideas for a novel or story, but does your novel transport the reader to an exciting destination as powerfully as a photo. I believe it should do, but does it have to?

Does there need to be a sense of place in a novel? A personal view.

I have enjoyed books where ‘place’ is not so important and the plot shines, weaving it’s way through the lives of the characters, but I don’t find them nearly as memorable, however well written, exciting, funny or compelling they seem to be at the time of reading. It doesn’t matter whether it is a place I know well, or have visited on holiday, or dream of going to one day. For me, it is the setting of the novel which tends to be the deciding factor in whether the book remains on my shelves or be taken to the nearest charity shop. If it is given a home then the book reminds me to look out for the author’s next release, otherwise it just joins the thousands of stories in the ‘library of forgotten book.’ Now that was in a great novel wasn’t it….. what was it called?


Filed under Book reading, Planning a novel, Reading a novel, Research, Writing, Writing a novel

Winchester Hampshire Regiment Museum ~ Many thanks

In Ancasta, one of Harriet’s sons worked in a bicycle shop before WW1. I knew there was a bicycle shop in Woolston having discovered a wonderful book of collected memories, of people in Woolston and the surrounding area, in Southampton Library about ten years ago. It just goes to show how a snippet of information gleaned many years before can pop into your  head when planning a new novel.

Well,Tom, that’s the name of this young man, led me a merry dance and I’ll explain why:

I had found a list of the Hampshire Regiments on the internet and was pleased to discover the  9th (Cyclist) Battalion. Perfect, I thought, and I began to scribe ideas for possible chapters. My immediate thought was that he could be a messenger on the Front, until I found to my horror that men fought on bicycles during the Great War much like charging on horseback. I was beginning to feel out of my depth here and so the best way forward was to seek an expert, so I turned to the Regiment Museum in Winchester.

Firstly I spoke to a helpful lady, the assistant curator Rachel Holmes, who kindly photocopied the most detailed account they had of the Battalion’s movements. I had already discovered a limited amount on the internet. (I quickly learnt never rely on the internet for research, unless you can find at least two sites to back up your findings, and even then it’s best to find hard evidence) I soon realised that my man never set foot in France at all, or even in Europe for that matter. It took a while before he was even posted, but in the end he went much further afield than that. I won’t spoil the story by telling you the details, but he travelled to a much more exotic part of the world, and being a timid sort of a chap, it was quite a harrowing experience.

Anyway, once I had drafted my couple of chapters I telephoned Rachel again, and thanked her for her help, asking if she would mind reading my chapters through and giving me feedback. It was at this point that she introduced me to Lt Colonel Colin Bulleid, the curator of the museum, who read the part of my manuscript, picking me up on valuable points like, ‘Tom would not have been able to carry a full pack on his back whilst cycling,’ the correct usage of the terms ‘unit’, ‘section’ and ‘battalion’, suggestions that I refer to the censored details of letters…..

There was one point though, which would have changed the whole direction of several chapters of the story, so I gave him a call and asked him what he thought. His reply was,

‘You know Diana, I had to let you know what I thought about it, but since you probably now know as much if not more about the 9th Regiment than anyone else, then I’d take a lot of my comments with a pinch of salt if I were you.’

I laughed and thanked him again, claiming poetic licence. After all, when all is said and done,

Ancasta ~ Guide me Swiftly Home is fiction.

However real the characters are to me now!

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Filed under Ancasta, Historical Fiction, Proof Reading, Research, Writing a novel