No matter how much you read or watch, there’s nothing like travel to get a deeper feel for a place whether you’re doing historical research or not.
There are things you just don’t think of asking or looking for while researching a place from afar. And things that other sources might not mention because they seem too mundane or obvious.
But by being in a place, you absorb so much, whether consciously or not, that adds depth to understanding your story’s or your ancestors’ settings.
I spent a few days in Bradford in West Yorkshire this week, a place that’s currently going through some tough economic times.
I felt a sadness there – a feeling that was much more palpible than all the research I’ve been doing about the place over the past year.
Is this a vestige of its history? Did the working poor of the 19th century have the same apparent feeling of defeat as I perceived in Bradford this week?
A few people made a lot of money in the textile industry of Bradford in the 19th century.
But the vast majority of its 200,000 inhabitants, including thousands of children – and my protagonist Annie – worked 12-hour days in appalling conditions, earning barely enough to keep body and soul together.
And they lived in dark, dingy, and overcrowded housing surrounded by 200-foot high smokestacks spewing sulphurous smoke from factories throughout the city.
A classic Dickensian scene of the industrial revolution.
Adding to the misery, then and now, Bradford is a very windy place. Relentlessly so. And last week it was really cold too despite the spring season.
It wore me down the way I imagine it wore Annie down as she walked, hunched over in the pre-dawn light on her way to the factory where she worked.
But there were times when the simple pleasure of hearing songbirds chirping made me smile as I walked down the street, or looked out onto the famous moors of the Bronte sisters, and I imagined it bringing some happiness to Annie too.
Along with the more linear research I’ve done so far, I am holding fast to these feelings and impressions of Bradford, adding fuel to the fire of my imagination as I conjure up Annie’s thoughts, feelings, and actions.
And also to work them into her memories as she traveled miles from the only home and life she ever knew before arriving in the village of Granville (later Vancouver), in 1885, a tiny settlement with a lumber mill, surrounded by towering evergreens, and a dearth of white women.