A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.

Opening Locked Doors – My research process

Ten years ago I visited Edinburgh for the first time. I had gone up for the festival and fell deeply in love with the city. I went back again, fell in love some more and regretfully went home. But a voice wouldn’t leave me alone, a lovely soft Scottish burr kept whispering in my ear telling me bits of a story. She turned out to be Isla and I wrote her narrative in a slight Scots dialect because I really wanted anyone who might read the book, if I were ever lucky enough to be published, to hear her voice as I did.
I read lots of non-fiction books about Edinburgh, devoured many novels by Glaswegian James Kelman who captures the Scottish accent so beautifully and looked a lot at my photos of Edinburgh. In all honesty it seemed pretty easy. It didn’t feel like hard work, which is how I remembered ‘research’ from University.

Now I am on my 6th novel and my research process is very different.
The idea for this novel came when I was visiting Lanhydrock in Cornwall.


As I walked around the beautiful house, through the impressive kitchen and up the many flights of stairs to the nursery I could feel something pulling me and it wasn’t one of my children. My eye was drawn to a roped off area that had a sign saying STAFF ONLY. I had a vivid flashback to Anne Boleyn’s home Hever Castle and a similar roped off sign that my brother and I had ignored. We cautiously ducked under the rope and pushed opened a door which we had presumed would be locked. A locked door.

The idea lodged in my mind. I knew there was a potential story behind each and every locked door in Lanhydrock and I wanted to open them all. As my three children were with me this time I didn’t duck under the rope but I did get myself booked on a Secret Servants Tour at Belton House once I got home.


I had to drive through a blizzard to get there and was very late but it was worth it. On this very select and private tour I was allowed to duck under all the ropes, go beyond the STAFF ONLY signs and ask my guide three billion questions. The seeds were sown and The Locked Door was opened.



My novel is set during World War II so historical detail and accuracy are very important. I find researching this period incredibly engrossing. There are just so many sources of information available. Sometimes however I am almost overwhelmed by facts, figures, accounts, journals, diaries and letters. I have to pull myself away from too much research and keep my eye on the story that I want to tell. I have three notebooks for this particular novel and fill them with different kinds of information.

Notebook 1 This notebook is full of details about place, location, setting and atmosphere. The house I have in my head is a combination of Lanhydrock and Belton House with bits of other historic houses I have visited over the years. I have an images document full of pictures of historic houses, their gardens, maps and photos of the kind of people who might have lived there. I see footage of my fictional house in my mind as if I were watching a documentary about it.
I have information in this book about the food eaten, the crockery used, the amount of times a week the linen would be washed, what each room was used for and by whom. I find all these details absolutely fascinating, despite knowing I will probably only use about 50% of them, if that.

Notebook 2 Is about character. I often find I hear snatches of conversations between my characters and jot these down. I write small bits of monologue as they come to me even though they are always out of sync and time with where I am in the novel at that moment.
I write detailed descriptions about how the characters look, sound, smell, walk, personalities, hobbies, and relationships with other characters, their past, present and future anything and everything I can think of that will be of use or interest.

Notebook 3 This one is for facts and figures and timelines, especially about World War II.
Each book I read as part of my research gets listed in here accompanied by copious notes.
I find myself using this notebook to check if I am in the right place at the right time in my novel in terms of events in the UK but also internationally.
I have used this system for both my 5th novel and the one I am writing now. I don’t know if it will work with every novel but it does for the moment. Each story is different to the last and needs a different approach. I saw a Crooked spire the other day and already another idea is settling down in my mind. I have a few new notebooks ready and waiting but first I need to finish the story of The Locked Door.

UntitledR.M. Ivory
Rhian Tracey was found on the slushpile at Bloomsbury Children’s Books. The slightly quirky title of her first novel ‘When Isla meets Luke meets Isla’ caught the eye of a commissioning editor and 4 book deals followed.
Rhian is now writing as R.M.Ivory (her married name) and has recently finished her 5th novel which is about art, witches, ghosts and a river with a past. She has started on her 6th novel which will be set during World War II and the present day.
Rhian has always wanted to be a writer but was told to get a proper job, so she trained as a teacher. Rhian currently lectures in Creative Writing and Children’s literature but spends as much time as possible on her non-proper job, writing.
Rhian is represented by Kirsty McLachlan of David Godwin Associates.

R.M.Ivory has written 4 novels under the name Rhian Tracey, published by Bloomsbury.
She has recently completed her 5th novel writing as R.M.Ivory and is halfway through her 6th.

About rhianivory

I am a YA author, Creative Writing tutor and workshop leader. I have 4 novels published by Bloomsbury under my pen name Rhian Tracey. The Boy who drew the Future will be published on September 17th 2015 by Firefly Press. HOPE will be published September 2017 by Firefly Press.

3 comments on “Opening Locked Doors – My research process

  1. sophs3
    May 6, 2013

    I love Lanhydrock! It’s such a beautiful place. My mind always starts buzzing with story ideas too when I go there. And Edinburgh is so wonderful too, I am longing to go back to the festival there! xx

  2. Sue Hyams
    May 6, 2013

    Oh I love research and reading about other people’s methods. I must take I’m very taken with your three notebook idea. Any excuse to buy new stationery aside, it seems like a good plan. And I look forward to hearing more of the story of the locked door.

  3. kerryldrewery
    August 18, 2017

    Reblogged this on AUTHOR ALLSORTS and commented:

    The last post in our Throwback Week is from Rhian Ivory. Rhian’s new book, Hope, is out on 15th September.

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