My Distant Land series was set in an area I knew intimately. Intimately for a twentieth century story. Except my books were set over one hundred and fifty years earlier. So I had to do research. What I discovered when I started to delve into the history was that I had more knowledge than I realised. I had already learnt much about that earlier time period just from growing up in the area, absorbing facts and figures about the early settlers, their way of life, etc.
Family stories from grandparents and others also contributed to the bigger picture if they lived in the area. And if you have a grandparent or two particularly proud of their relationship to the earliest of settlers and their impact on the area, well, your research is more about verifying facts than searching them out.
But when deciding to write about a place you have never lived in, you quickly learn that you don't know what you don't know. Knowledge that is common to every child who attended school in that place - in fact in that country - is new to you. You struggle to acquire the common knowledge, not realising that what you think is "delving deeper" is still just scratching the surface.
When I began my research into early Wellington, I would share facts with DH and he'd look at me as if I had two heads.
"Did you know that land around Wellington was reclaimed from the harbour?"
"Yes," followed by that look that says, "Everyone knows that," and then evidence that he knew far more than me: an indication I needed to do even more research.
"Did you know ... ?"
But there were some things he didn't know.
"Did you know that Basin Reserve was once going to be the wharf?"
He looked at me as if I was insane.
"It's true. Before the 1855 earthquake it was part of the harbour."
I still didn't convince him. Not at the time. But I think I have now. And all because of a visit.
DH and I spent this past weekend in Wellington. Now, there are obvious challenges to researching mid-nineteenth century Wellington when one lives in the early twenty-first century. Wellington is not a sleepy little town that has hardly changed. Early buildings have disappeared - destroyed by fire or earthquake (common occurrences in the early days of settlement) or removed to make way for bigger and better buildings or wider roads and motorways. Some of the earlier streets have disappeared or have become narrow access ways that are difficult to find. Wellington now, sprawling around the harbour, reaching up into the hills, is a far cry from the capital city that was birthed in the eighteen hundreds.
But there was still some evidence to be found.
We walked around Basin Reserve, established in 1868, and I was able to picture what it may have looked like one hundred and fifty years ago.
We went around Oriental Bay and even though the nursery and tea room has long disappeared, I could easily imagine the view patrons were once privileged to enjoy.
We went up to Mount Victoria lookout and for the first time, could see how Basin Reserve could have once been connected to the harbour.
We tried to imagine where the harbour used to be before reclamation but it wasn't until we walked around Lambton Quay and saw the remains of Plummer's Ark underneath the BNZ building and stood outside historic Government House and learnt that prior to reclamation, the spot where we were standing would have been three to four metres underwater that we fully appreciated the hectares that were added to the city.
We visited Wellington Museum and experienced what Queen's Wharf would have been like when it was first built (and where DH first realised my cold was making me feel extremely unwell as what should have taken me three hours to explore - and would have required much patience on his part - took me less than thirty minutes.)
And we stood inside St Paul's church, feeling the tangible awe, joy and wonder of over a century of worship within its timbered walls.
I pictured my characters living and breathing in these places as they once were. I gained enough of the sense of early Wellington to feel as if I could have once lived here.
Not nowadays. While I've idly thought at times that it could be a city I could live in and enjoy the arts and history it has to offer, I soon changed my mind.
Wellington is traffic and noise and people all the time. All the time.
And don't even get me started on the wind. Wellingtonians are a hardy bunch ... but I don't intend to join their ranks except as a character in one of my books.