I was born in Stockton-on-Tees, just after midnight, in a thunderstorm. My father died when I was two, and my brother Ian and I were brought up my mother. I always wanted to write - when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I used to say "I'm going to be a writer" - very definite.
I've always loved reading, and I spent most of my childhood trying to make real life as much like a book as possible. My friends and I had a secret club like the Secret Seven, and when I was nine I got most of my hair cut off because I wanted to look like George in the Famous Five. I was a real tomboy - I liked riding my bike, climbing trees and building dens in our garden. And I liked making up stories. I used to wander round my school playground at break, making up stories in my head.
I don't have a very visual imagination. This is a problem when trying to decide what colour to paint your kitchen (yellow, like Anne Sexton) and also when trying to imagine what a medieval peasant girl's house looks like.
When I was writing All Fall Down, about a peasant family surviving the Black Death, I bought a book on fourteenth century peasants. It was very good. It was full of useful details such as the fact that medieval children were usually named after their godparents, and it was therefore not unusual to have siblings with the same name in a family. It had gruesome accounts of babies trampled to death by pigs, or burnt to death by chickens who picked up a smouldering piece of straw from the fire and dropped it in the cradle. It had a copy of the wedding vows (in which the woman promises to be bonere and boxom, in bedde and atte bord) and incantations against rats:
I command all ye rattens that be here about,
That non dwell in this place, nor within, nor without,
By virtue of Jesus Christ that Mary bore about,
To whom all creatures ought to lout …
This book informed me that a two-room peasant house was thirty-three feet long and thirteen feet wide, and that this space was shared by the family's animals – a pig, a cow, an ox, and some chickens.
I couldn't imagine it. My heroine, Isabel, has five siblings, three of whom are still living at home. Where would they all sleep? In one bed, in two? How would her father and stepmother have any privacy? And how on earth would you stop the cow trampling on the pots?
I decided I needed some help, and took a day off to visit Cosmeton Medieval Village, in Wales. From the website, I pictured a colourful place filled with cheerful museum attendants dressed in kirtles and hose. Not, it turned out, on a wet Thursday in term time. In fact, the little village was completely empty, although the hearth-fires were lit and the candles were burning.
As museums go, it wasn't much – a few houses, an oven, archery butts and some stocks, with a couple of pigs and some geese wandering around. But for an author? It was brilliant. Utterly brilliant.
It wasn't until I'd sat in a peasant's house that I realised how small it was. How this wasn't a space for living in, but for coming home to sleep in. I hadn't realised how much stuff would be there – looms, fishing rods, buckets, scythes, hoes, bags of corn, hammers, spades, ewers, spindles and distaffs, children's toys. Like a caravan or a houseboat, everything had its place, and if it wasn't kept tidy, chaos ensued. It was this visit that taught me that 'mattress' means sacking stuffed with straw, but that ewers could – and did – come all the way from France.
I hadn't realised how dark and smoky it would be. And the smells. I hadn't imagined the smells. All Fall Down is full of smells because of that visit – woodsmoke, and straw, and pig dung, and wet grass, and tallow candles, and herbs drying from the rafters – rosemary, and lavender, which later represent Isabel's family's only protection against the pestilential miasmas.
Even the biggest house didn't seem to have space for four children, so I did what any good writer would do – poked around until I found the guy in charge of the chickens, and asked him. My book had mentioned priests denouncing the immorality of brothers and sisters sharing a bed – but, as my new incredibly knowledgeable best friend pointed out, sometimes families didn't have much choice.
That visit changed the whole way I thought about Isabel's house. I still didn't have a very visual imagination. But now I didn't need one. I knew exactly what Isabel's house looked like – I'd been there.
All Fall Down is published by Marion Lloyd Books at £7.99