Ian Douglas discusses Nottingham's grim past. Words: Megan TaylorLocal freelancer Ian Douglas began his writing career in newspapers and magazines. He’s still busy reviewing and interviewing, but since graduating from Nottingham Trent’s Creative Writing MA, he’s also been steadily honing his reputation as a fine children’s writer. He’s had many short stories published, including the award-winning, ‘Making Grampie’, but here, he reveals his passion for Nottingham, and the squeamish secrets he uncovered during the creation of his first non-fiction book, A Children’s History of Nottinghamshire.
Your book is crammed with fascinating Nottinghamshire facts – how do you go about researching a book like this?
It took a lot of work. But it was enjoyable work. Hours in the local studies library browsing old Evening Post reports from the 1930’s for example. Trips to the Castle Museum and Southwell Minster. Tons of academic reading. Thankfully so much info is online these days. Medieval tax receipts, Norman death certificates, Tudor wills. These all helped me get my head around the story. There are also some excellent local history web sites that pointed me in the right direction. I even became a fully paid up member of the Thoroton Society. This is Nottinghamshire’s very own history and archaeology society named after a local physician from the Stuart era. They have a warehouse of research data.
But make no mistake, condensing 2000 years of history into 15 pages of language suitable for children was no easy task. At times my head was swimming with Viking warriors, Victorian capitalists, Luftwaffe bombers! One thing that I quickly realised is that there’s a reason we call it the Midlands. It’s because we’re right there, in the middle of everything that’s ever happened in this country.
My nine-year-old daughter particularly enjoyed the more gruesome information (the plague years, the child labour...) Which facts are your favourites? And did you find out anything that truly surprised you?
All kinds of things surprised me. That there was a bustling Roman town called Margidunum that thrived for 4 centuries before vanishing into the county turf. That Nottingham was a Danish colony for nearly 50 years. That Prince Edward was still 17 when he led his daring sneak attack through the Castle Caves to capture his treacherous mother and her lover. But that’s just it, history is full of amazing surprises. Both on a grand epic level but also in the day-to-day minutiae of ordinary Nottingham people. I also found out a lot of poo-related facts! The Theatre Royal had no loos when it first opened and theatregoers would just do their business anywhere in the auditorium. Every new season they had to burn all the poo to get rid of the smell.
You have children of your own. Did that help when it came to making your book so thoroughly accessible?
A little. I ran some excerpts past them to make sure the sentence structure and vocabulary was age appropriate.
What do your kids think of their published Dad?
The eleven-year- old is mildly embarrassed I think. ‘Why can’t you be normal like other dads’. And the eight-year-old doesn’t really understand it. Maybe he thinks I'm pulling his leg when I show him the book and say ‘that’s the book what I wrote’.
You’ve travelled extensively, but there is such involvement and appreciation for Nottingham in your Children’s History. Is Nottingham home now?
I do suffer from chronic wanderlust. But I’ve been a resident of Nottingham for over 30 years on and off. I even like mushy peas now, (joke, joke!). Most of those 3 decades have revolved around my beloved Sneinton, so yes I am a Midlander now. I adore the East Midlands, it has so much culture, landscape, history and above all, fantastic folk. There again I will always be footloose with one eye on the prevailing breeze. My grandmother was a Romany gypsy so I guess it’s in my blood. One day, like Bilbo Baggins, I’ll be off on one last adventure.
I know you also create your own (fabulous) fiction. Working on a project like this, where you have a certain format to follow and you’re negotiating with editors and illustrators, must be very different to the solitary act of writing your own stories. How did you find the collaborative process?
I’m a born collaborator, so it’s no problem. Feedback from seasoned editors is a vital part of producing quality prose, for anyone. Of course there are always minor professional differences but you have to take it on the chin. I wrote for the press in Thailand for a few years and I learned there how to deal with furious, desk-thumping editors. Duck!
However, I realised how important it was for a local writer to do the Children’s History of Nottinghamshire. Although the book was verified by independent historical experts, they needed someone with local knowledge to fill in the gaps. I feel I’ve made the book truly local. Then there was the picture research, which I helped with, but I found it fascinating. There are a couple of my photos in the book. It’s beautifully illustrated by the way.
Which do you prefer writing? Fact or fiction?
The book does have micro fiction inspired by real life. This helps children feel what it must have been like, for instance, to watch the Romans arriving in your village or the Vikings sail up the River Trent. Furthermore it has so made me want to write historical fiction. Use my knowledge to pen ripping sagas situated in and around the Trent Valley of yore. So if any publishers or agents out there are reading this, I’m your man.
On the other hand it really opened my eyes to the joy of non-fiction for children. It’s a way of capturing the marvels of life and pegging them down on a rectangle of paper, and in an easy-to-understand format. I would really like to do more, although no plans in the pipeline at the moment. So to answer your question I enjoy both, especially if I get paid! One more thing, even when doing fiction you have to do research, so the differences are not that great.
What’s next for Ian Douglas?
Well, we’re hoping to put together a bit off a road show to take around the local schools. I’ve been doing yet more research, stocking up with Victorian photos of Notts, composing fun quizzes, that kind of thing. We’ve got a day at the Angel Row library later this month welcoming a school party to the Local Studies wing. Meanwhile I’m hard at it with my children’s fiction. That’s the great thing about being a writer. One day I’m exploring the canyons of Mars. The next I’m rubbing shoulders with Roundheads and Cavaliers.
A Children’s History of Nottinghamshire is published by Hometown World and available from all leading bookstores.