Why I Love Domestic Detail
Two reasons: because I’m short-sighted and because I’m nosy. I’ll begin with the first. I am very myopic, always have been. As a child of about six I was put into hideous free specs with wires round the ears, pink or blue or brown plastic - actually quite fashionable now if you peeled off the plastic. Of course I refused to wear them except in dire necessity and went about half-blind instead.
As a result, the outside world was very intimidating because I couldn’t see it; I couldn’t make out people’s faces, I couldn’t play ball so I preferred to be in. So there I was with a book, tucked up in the adult world, snuffling my way round the insides of houses as children do, so that each had a smell and textures indelibly printed on my mind: my grandparents’ house smelt of oil paints and pipe-smoke and baking, oh the smell of my grandfather’s tobacco pouch when I was allowed to fill his pipe. Afterwards my fingertips smelt delicious and I can still feel the rough inside of the bowl as I tamped the tobacco shreds down – he was very careful and I wasn’t allowed to drop a single speck.
There were three great aunts in a house in Wembley - an inner suburb of London (the aunts became known as the Wembles) - and I remember dark corners, cologne, big, old furniture. There’s a lot of those Wembles in The Crimson Rooms because they were maiden aunts, born at the end of the nineteenth century, bereaved during the First World War or deprived of men they would never meet; brave , witty, career women. As I wrote The Crimson Rooms I had one toe in that vivid childhood world of teas and knitting and talk.
I find in fact that the only way of writing about the really big things, is to concentrate on the really small. In The Rose of Sebastopol, when one of the heroines, Rosa, goes missing in the middle of a war, she leaves a very domestic box containing a needlebook and a few other momentoes. Her cousin, Mariella, a Victorian miss, finds that her skill with a needle is in fact a valuable commodity, given that the army was totally ill-prepared for the vicious Crimean winter. The plight of the army is encapsulated by Mariella’s attempts to sew its uniforms back together. When Stella Wheeler, in The Crimson Rooms dies in mysterious circumstances, she leaves an oilskin sponge bag with a wet toothbrush, because of course, having no upstairs water, she’d have had to carry her toiletries down to the kitchen each day. And when Evelyn Gifford, the heroine of The Crimson Rooms, falls in love, the setting of her affair is teashops and courtrooms, where she becomes entranced with the angle of her beloved’s knee or the turn of his head. Like I said... it’s the small things we notice.
And I’ve also been told that my novels are unusually full of smells. But then life is, don’t you find? But I do wonder if actually as a child I was hyper sensitive to smell because the visual world was so fuzzy. I think smell is a wonderful way of evoking the past. We can all do it, I bet, think of a childhood experience and smell it too. Imagining the past is to imagine a very different mix of smells; coal fires, bread toasted on a fork, over-cooked meat in basement kitchens.
I said at the beginning I loved detail because I was nosy. I always want to know what things mean. I first became addicted to theatre not because of what was happening on the stage but because I wanted to know where the actors went once they’d mysteriously disappeared into the wings. If we visited an old house - my mother loved to take me to see the houses once belonging to the Brontes or Florence Nightingale or Churchill – I always wanted to see into the locked rooms. And I can never understand people at parties who have no questions or curiosity but are happy to talk endlessly about themselves. What a lot you can learn by asking the right questions (or the wrong ones). Actually, this is exactly the process of building plot and character – what happened? Why? What is she wearing that for? She’s working as a lawyer. Why? How did that happen? Who is ringing her doorbell at two in the morning? Writing a novel is posing a million questions, and then finding the answers. Lucky I’ve had a lifetime’s training in looking for clues.
Katharine McMahon is the author of several historical fiction novels including The Rose of Sebastopol and The Crimson Rooms, which is being released in paperback in US on 4 January 2011.
You can find out more about Katharine and her books at her website.