By Molly Maguire
Gill Hoffs grew up on the Scottish coast and studied psychology, biology, and English literature at the University of Glasgow. She is the author of The Sinking of RMS Tayleur : The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic, The Lost Story of the William & Mary : The Cowardice of Captain Stinson, and The Lost Story of the Ocean Monarch : Fire, Family, and Fidelity.
Thank you Gill for taking the time to chat about your books, writing, and research process! What made you interested in writing about shipwrecks, and how do you find the next story that you want to write about? Do you have a list in your head of stories you want to write someday?
I grew up in a tiny fishing village in Scotland where not everyone who went to sea came back. Shipwrecks have always held a grim fascination for me, along with drowned villages etc., but it was only when I moved south to Warrington, in the North West of England, that this childhood interest came to a head. I visited the museum, a curator told me about a porthole on display (from RMS Tayleur , which was built nearby) and advised me to read the survivor accounts, and that was that – I was hooked! The research for other contemporary wrecks, so I knew roughly what was and wasn’t typical at that time, led me to the stories of the William & Mary and the Ocean Monarch . I have many, many files of notes for novels and stories, but not for shipwrecks. I specialise in the wrecks which have largely been forgotten and I’m currently keen to find an 1860/1861 wreck involving extreme weather conditions. So do get in touch if you know of one that might fit the bill at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Do you have a set schedule for writing, or do you write only when you feel inspired? If you are writing on a deadline, what strategies do you use to make sure you meet it?
With fiction, I prefer to binge-write when I feel like it, and since I’m not under contract for any of my novels or short stories, I have the freedom to do so. However, with my nonfiction there’s usually some kind of deadline, whether personal (e.g. I want to complete the research on X before the school holidays begin) or professional (first draft of first three chapters plus completed proposal including chapter plan, synopsis, etc., to be submitted according to someone else’s schedule).
I use mathematics to egg myself on when tackling a looming deadline, and old cereal boxes. It can be really overwhelming and unnerving to think along the lines of “I have to have A WHOLE ENTIRE BOOK ready for A STRANGER to actually READ and JUDGE by [whenever]” and the thing is, until you actually have completed that book and sent it off, your task isn’t complete, and it will hang over your every waking – and sleeping – thought until you’ve done it, and make you feel rotten.
Far healthier (and more productive) is to break it right down in a reassuring way, like, “Okay, I have approximately 60,000 words of narrative to generate in three months. A lot of that will be other people’s words in the form of appropriately juicy quotations. There’s also the reference section and bibliography to tackle, but that can wait. So that’s 20k a month. Four weeks in a month, so about 5k a week, or 1k a day, five days a week. That’s, like, a couple of A4 pages. Not much at all. Twelve chapters of about 5k each, so a chapter a week, no problem. And if I’ve a clear plan in my head/notes of what I want to cover where, that’s
grand, I just have to type it out coherently so it makes sense to me – not necessarily anyone else – when I come to edit it. I can easily type, say, 500 words in an hour, never mind cutting and pasting the appropriate quotations and attributing them, so that’s a couple of hours’ work a day. No problem at all.”
Also, I open up an old cereal box and make the blank side into a rough calendar for the time up till the deadline, mark off days I can’t work because of school events or night shifts (I also work in a nursing home), and give myself rough but realistic goals of when I aim to have chapters written by, and keep track of my actual daily word counts on there AND draw smiley faces next to them because it satisfies my inner toddler and perks me up on days when the word-flow slows to treacle.
Usually I prefer to binge-research and binge-write and complete a first draft of the book within 4-6 weeks, but it’s best to always plan for longer so you aren’t adding to the pressure you’re already putting yourself under. The most important thing to remember is that your readers won’t know and shouldn’t care how long it took for a book to be written and edited: they should only care about how it makes them feel.
Once you know what you want to write about, what is the research process like? Do you research as you go or try and get all the information you want and then start the drafting process?
I binge, basically. I’m autistic so tend to be yes/no, all or nothing, in everything I do. The internet is my friend, the sofa is my home, and I immerse myself in whatever I can find online about the wreck and the key people involved (once I work out who they are, and the commonest spellings of their names). It soon becomes apparent what form the narrative should take, when to start and when to stop and summarise their later lives, in order to have the story flow for the reader, and who to focus on. There are hundreds of people involved with each wreck, dozens of rescuers if not more, and while it would be lovely to be able to devote a book to each individual’s actions and encounters, it simply isn’t possible. Once I’ve got that settled in my head, and worked out what the key areas of research should be and where any gaps in the narrative appear, I can start narrowing down topics (e.g. did Victorian sailors commonly wear underpants?) and then the fun really begins!
Have you ever been unable to find information you want or need in the research process, and how do you address those unknowns in your writing?
All the time, and it frustrates the hell out of me. Sometimes I wish I had a time machine purely for the entirely selfish occupation of tracking people down and begging them to have their accounts recorded for posterity and stored somewhere fireproof. I tend to write around the problem so it either adds to the mysterious circumstances of the wreck or individual concerned, or sidesteps it entirely, and then acknowledge that this was an issue and request help from readers in the afterword – and I sometimes get wonderful responses, which are then incorporated into an appendix in a later edition. In my latest book, “The Lost Story of the Ocean Monarch : Fire, Family, and Fidelity” (Pen & Sword, 2018), I was dead set on
establishing the identity of a long-overlooked heroine who was not only anonymised in the press but slagged off despite giving her life in order to save others. I knew she was black and a stewardess – these factors and her gender probably account for her mistreatment by the media – and that’s about that. Unfortunately, I still do not know much more about this extremely brave individual, and I hope somebody somewhere will recognise her from their own family history and get in touch.
Do you have a favorite of your books, or do you love them all equally? Is there one that was most challenging to write?
Each has been challenging in its own way but “The Lost Story of the William & Mary : The Cowardice of Captain Stinson” (Pen & Sword, 2016) was probably the trickiest to research and write, because it was my second shipwreck book and most of the accounts were in an old form of Frisian, which I neither read nor speak. Luckily everyone I encountered during this process was incredibly kind and generous with their time, experience, expertise, and energy. People tend to be wonderful when given the opportunity. I love all my books differently but equally, however my favourite is probably my first shipwreck book, “The Sinking of RMS Tayleur : The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’” (Pen & Sword, 2014), which grew from a short nonfiction piece included in my first book, “Wild: a collection” (Pure Slush, 2012) and completely changed my life.
Some of the people you write about in your stories have living descendants today who read your books. Have there been any specific interactions you’ve had with descendants of your subjects that have been especially moving to you?
I managed to meet the direct descendants of the only family to survive the sinking of the RMS Tayleur intact and show them their graves. They’d attempted to research their ancestors but hit a brick wall, and it was an absolute pleasure and privilege to be able to tell them what the dad looked like, what happened to them, and how brave these people were. I found it rather amusing that the dad was an ex-convict who returned from Australia to reunite with his sweetheart and son and take them back to the Gold Rush to sell shoes, and his descendant was a retired police officer.
In addition to the facts of the forgotten events you write about, what do you hope readers can learn from your stories?
I hope they learn to have hope, for themselves and others, and remember that no matter how awful a situation or event, there will be an element of kindness in the reactions it provokes that can be clung to in their darkest, most dispiriting days. And to make the most of every moment because you never, ever know when that’ll be THAT.