Tanya Landman: 'The MPs' expenses scandal breathed life into history'

In the second of a series by writers shortlisted for the 2016 Guardian children’s fiction award, Landman explains how Hell and High Water came about

“Where did you get the idea?”There’s rarely a straightforward answer to that question. An idea often begins in childhood and then snowballs very gradually until it finally hits the page.

That’s certainly true of the setting for Hell and High Water. I grew up in Gravesend, Kent beside the Thames – a moving highway carrying people and goods from all over the world - so I’ve always been fascinated by tidal rivers. For a time I lived in Liverpool and then Bristol – both port cities built on profits from the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In 2001, I moved to Bideford, Devon. It’s now a small market town, but in its heyday the port rivalled London. It was from Bideford that some of the first settlers sailed to colonise America.

When my children were small, we spent a lot of time on the beaches of North Devon. When the weather was fine and dry we could see Lundy in the distance and one day we decided to make a trip to the island.

We boarded the Oldenburg - a beautiful passenger ferry - and set off from Bideford early one morning , sailing downriver towards Appledore and the open sea. From the deck I could see an elegant house tucked in a valley that led down to the water. I got chatting to one of the deckhands about it, and that was when I heard the story of Thomas Benson for the first time.

‘Fiction tells its own kind of truth’ … Tanya Landman
‘Fiction tells its own kind of truth’ … Tanya Landman Photograph: PR Image

Knapp House is now a campsite and holiday centre, but in the 18th century it was home to Thomas Benson, wealthy landowner, merchant trader, High Sheriff of Devon, well respected Member of Parliament and, in his spare time, smuggler, fraudster and villain.

The tale was gripping, but I had no plans to write a book inspired by it until several years later when the MPs expenses scandal and the banking crisis hit the news. Those two events set me thinking that for ordinary people things hadn’t changed as much as anyone might have hoped since the 18th century. Wealth and power still corrupt, and the innocent poor still suffer at the hands of the guilty rich. Writing about the past is often a way of looking at the present and suddenly Thomas Benson’s story seemed very relevant…

I started researching life in the 18th century. Being married to one of the finest puppeteers in the world, I already had a working knowledge of the Punch and Judy show as well as the booth and puppet construction. For example, I was well aware that the collection of money after a show is called “the bottle” – dating from the time coins were gathered in a narrow-necked leather bottle to stop any assistants pocketing coins for themselves. But I needed to know all I could about the period.

Like everyone else, I began with Google and Wikipedia. With any online article references are listed at the bottom of the page and – if something caught my attention I tracked down those books - buying copies rather than ordering them from the library because (horror!) I scribble notes in the margins and underline things. I looked at 18th century maps, recipe books, histories of fashion, shipping records. I crammed my head with details until I had a really clear picture of the period in my mind. It’s important to create an authentic landscape – the details of the buildings, the clothing, the lighting inside a cottage all need to be accurate.

During my research period I stumbled over some details that were a real gift - like the fact that the Julian Calendar was replaced by the Gregorian Calendar in 1752, resulting in 11 days being cut from the month of September.

I walked the dogs on the beach every day while the characters started to form. I watched the water’s ebb and flow, the shifting light, the way the view constantly changed. I assumed that everybody loved an estuary until I had a conversation with my husband. He grew up inland, beside a river that wasn’t tidal and hated the way the Torridge could be brim full one moment and a muddy trickle the next. While I love the craggy cliffs and wind blasted trees along North Devon’s coast, he prefers the lush fields and tall trees of his childhood home. Our differing reactions to the landscape began to flesh out the two main characters in Hell and High Water.

I love doing research, but it’s easy to get bogged down by it. I’ve learned from experience that when my head is reeling and information is about to start leaking out through my ears - that’s the time to put the books away and let my imagination take over. I am writing historical fiction, not a textbook. If I need to bend one of those newly acquired facts or smudge some of the crystal-clear details to get the plot right, that’s what I do. For that reason I gave the towns and villages in Hell and High Water fictionalised names. In my head, it’s set in North Devon, but I had to play with the geography and distances to make the plot work. Telling a gripping story had to come first. But fiction – at its very best – tells its own kind of truth.

• Hell and High Water is published by Walker Books. The winner of the Guardian children’s fiction prize will be announced on 17 November.

Tanya Landman

The GuardianTramp

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