Writing life

Lesley Pearse on character inspiration and travelling the world

Bestselling author Lesley Pearse on how travelling around the world has inspired her characters, and her tendency to 'eat, sleep and live' the periods from her books

Back at the start of my writing career I didn’t need to do a great deal of research for my books as I was setting them in the period I’d grown up in, and in places I knew well. It was only when I began Ellie, set in WW1 that I discovered the delight of delving into the past and putting my characters into dangers I’d never personally experienced. I had always liked history, and having an excuse to dip into archives, visit museums and read history books was a pleasure. I am fortunate that I soak up atmosphere and information about the past like a sponge. I only have to walk around the streets of the East End of London, Seven Dials, or go into the kitchens of a stately home, and my imagination goes into over drive. I do tend to have a ‘Below Stairs’ mentality though. It is always the poor people, the kitchen maids, the ragged children and all those who have drawn the short straw in life, that speak to me.

Never Look Back was the first book I did really extensive research for. I read at least two hundred books on American history, drove the length of the Oregon Trail to find out about the early pioneers, plus walked around the back streets of New York and visited the Tenement Museum and Ellis Island to get the flavour of what it was like to be a poor immigrant back in the 19th century. Never Look Back made me see historical stories were my forte.

Trust Me, the heart rending story of the British child Migrants sent to Australia came next and I spent a month in Australia researching it. I talked to former child migrants, heard their heart breaking stories and visited the schools and orphanages they suffered in.

Later I was to discover the true life story of Mary Broad, who was sent to Australia on the first fleet of prisoners to populate that vast country. Digging into the true facts surrounding her life there and the audacious escape she planned and executed was thrilling.

Hope, was set in old Bristol and in the Crimean War. I spent hours in the library archives to learn about Bristol’s old slum areas, now all gone, about the scourge of Cholera, and then went on to visit the battle fields of the Crimea. That seemingly senseless war all came to life for me as I stood up above Balaclava and imagined hordes of mounted Russians galloping towards the ‘Thin Red Line’ of Scots, who not only bravely stood their ground, but beat the Russians back.

I learned a great deal about the Gold Rush while in San Francisco, when researching Never Look Back. It demanded a book all of its own, but I was loath to write another story set in the same place and time. Several years later I found out about the Klondike Gold Rush and I hot footed it off to Alaska and Canada to learn more to write my book Gypsy.

Of all the places I’ve delved into for research, that was the most fascinating. My journey took me by planes, boats, coach and train to Dawson City following the footsteps of those tens of thousands who risked their lives and health in search of gold. What they went through defies belief sometimes. 

I got into Dawson City on the first plane of the year in May. The river Yukon was flowing again, but the banks still had ice left some six foot deep, giving me some idea of the severity of the Winter months. I felt the ghosts of all those brave, but foolhardy people who created such a colourful and poignant chapter of history.  


I do tend to eat, sleep and live whatever period I am researching

The idea of Belle came to me while visiting New Orleans. The old bordello’s and Cat Houses of the 1900’s may have been pulled down and replaced by housing projects, but the flavour of the City of Sin still clings to the French Quarter and wafts out with the joyous music in Bourbon Street.

I loved the character of Belle so much that I felt compelled to write a sequel, The Promise.  For years I’d wanted to set a book in WW1 and Belle was a natural to star in it, especially as I wanted to do more with Etienne, the man who had had such a big influence on her and had saved her life.

I had visited the war graves and battle fields some years previously, and in this case I didn’t want to go back and have my mind clouded by seeing well kept graves and monuments. So my research had to be purely from books to keep alive the horror of that war which had always haunted me. As so often when I start digging, I came upon rich seams of heroics from accounts of the ambulances drivers, nurses and doctors in particular.  I do tend to eat, sleep and live whatever period I am researching, and even though The Promise is in the shops now, the images I got from my research are still haunting me.

More about the author

Related features