Kate Mosse, novelist, playwright and researcher
I first hit the Archive in 2013, researching for my Gothic thriller – The Taxidermist’s Daughter – which is set in Fishbourne and Chichester in 1912. I needed maps, I needed information, but I mostly needed to connect with the texture of the period. I love research, so I pored over wonderful old maps of Fishbourne in 1912, I read back editions of the local newspaper, and dug into the history of the West Sussex County Asylum (Graylingwell Hospital) in Chichester. I walked on the Marshes most days, imagining how they might have looked a hundred years ago. I climbed the steps on the sea wall and pictured where my imaginary house might be.
The novel is a why-dunnit, as much as a who-dunnit, and one of the inspirations for the plot was Walter Potter’s Museum in Arundel. My sisters and I had been regular visitors in the 1970s – after it had moved from its original home in Bramber via Brighton Pier – and I wanted to be reminded of the creepy atmosphere, the scent of dust and feathers and fur, the bizarre mixture of imagination and claustrophobia.
In the Record Office there are two brochures from Potter’s Museum and it was wonderful to hold them both in my hand, to use the Arundel pamphlet in particular to help me to remember how I felt back then when I looked at the macabre exhibits, to be reminded of all the treasures the tiny Museum had contained.
Every inch of space was packed with curios and oddities – an iron man trap, a clapper from a Sussex bell, a mummified hand, and a stuffed robin nesting in a kettle. But what captured my heart were the display cases filled with stuffed birds and animals. Each tableaux told a story: ‘The Guinea Pigs’ Cricket Match & Band’, the score frozen forever at 189 for 7 and every furry musician holding a silver trumpet or a slide trombone; ‘The Kitten’s Tea Party’, complete with doll’s house chairs, blue and white porcelain crockery, chicken and cake moulded from paste and glue. But my favourite tableaux was ‘The Original Death and Burial of Cock Robin’, inspired by the folk song. Nearly one hundred birds – all the birds of the air, as the chorus goes – in an English country churchyard. Old tombstones and disinterred bones, sepulchres and a tiny blue coffin, a dish of blood. Every verse from the nursery rhyme portrayed inside the case. Gruesome, but magnificent.
Of course, the nature of research is that very little of it ends up in the actual novel. It’s about the background to the story, not the story itself. This is how a novel takes shape, the inspiration followed by research, in order to allow your imagination to run wild!