“The Widow’s Confession”, my second book, is a murder mystery set in 1851. Thanks to my madcap writing process, the plot has gone through various twists, turns and changes, but the setting has remained constant: Broadstairs in Kent, the seaside town where I grew up.
Writing about a place I know so well was initially daunting. I thought that being so familiar with a town would make it hard for me to reinterpret it and see it through Victorian eyes. But it wasn’t difficult to edit out modern buildings in my mind, and see the traces of the past: the grey flint cottages, Holy Trinity church, and the pubs, like Neptune’s Hall and the Tartar Frigate. A scan through Victorian directories shows they were there in 1851, and the names of those who lived there. I used the places, but I left the real people in peace – only one character in “The Widow’s Confession” bears the name of a real person, and I hope I have treated him well.
There were advantages to the familiarity. I know what it feels like to live by the seaside: its bleakness in winter, its intense vivacity in summer. I knew I could distill something out of those feelings, and see if I could make them correspond, even a little, with the thoughts of those who lived there 150 years ago. I well remember the jolt, each year, when our empty town suddenly filled with holidaymakers, and took the seeds of that to imagine the attitude of Broadstairs folk in 1851 when the Londoners arrived by the carriage-load and made the town their own.
There are also places in Broadstairs which have an extra potency for me. The driveway leading up to the Rectory of Holy Trinity is one such place. Looking up that shadowy, winding driveway as a teenager always stirred my imagination. Rather than delving into its past, I drew upon its significance to me as a psychological space, and the ominous, complex feeling it provokes in me. For me, those memories are as valid a source as all my research.
I had, at least, a little distance: I left Broadstairs in my twenties to work in London. My relationship with London is entirely different: its liveliness, endless variety and freedom has been hugely important to me as a writer, and as a result I set my debut novel there. But writing about my first home means drawing on layers of memories and experiences, from the sound of the sea on rough winter nights, to the sight of a beach full of tourists. If my relationship with London has been a rollercoaster of an affair, my relationship with Broadstairs has been one of quiet solidarity and friendship. We know each other well: in happiness and sadness, through all the seasons. And I hope that intimacy lends depth and colour to the portrait of it in “The Widow’s Confession.”
By Sophia Tobin