Ghosts, villains and a young detective
6th Apr 20

Ghosts, villains and a young detective

Look out for ghosts, greedy villains and a real life author in this ghostly, atmospheric story THE HOUSE OF HIDDEN WONDERS by author SHARON GOSLING!

In this atmospheric story set in Victorian Edinburgh, three siblings find themselves up against ghosts and greedy villains. Zinnie is determined to find a way to keep her two sisters fed and safe. But working as an assistant for medic and detective Arthur Conan Doyle (the author of Sherlock Holmes) brings mixed blessings.


Q: What The House of Hidden Wonders about?

A: The House of Hidden Wonders tells the story of Zinnie, Sadie and Nell, three sisters who have nowhere to live but the derelict underground streets of Mary King's Close on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. When Nell gets sick and a ghost begins to terrorise the girls' makeshift home, Zinnie has to keep her family safe from all sorts of different threats.

Q: Was there one thing that inspired the story?

A: I love writing strong female characters. This time around I really wanted to write about a group of sisters and the bond between them, and what the strength of that bond could accomplish.

Q: And was there a real 'House of Wonders' in Edinburgh at the time, exploiting people like those in your novel?

A: I don't think there was a particular place quite like MacDuff's House of Wonders, but in my research I looked at old adverts for amusements from the exact period. Some of the wording I have MacDuff's posters using is taken straight from those adverts.

The Victorians were very curious about 'scientific' curiosities of all sorts, and there would be regular demonstrations of 'discoveries'. There were circuses, too, both travelling ones and those that were housed in permanent buildings, and I researched some real newspaper adverts for entertainments in Edinburgh in that time, around 1869.

Q: The story is set in the Old Town of Edinburgh, why did you choose this area and how much research did you need to do into this period?

A: Edinburgh is one of my favourite cities, and I had already set quite a few books set in London in the Victorian period, so I thought it would be interesting to see what life was like in a different city in the same era. I did quite a lot of research, including getting a local historian and walking tour guide, Robert Howie, to tailor a walking tour of the Old Town for me to show me some of the aspects of the period that still exist but that I wouldn't have known about just by looking at them myself. That was really fascinating and I learned a lot.

I visited Mary King's Close, of course. I asked the National Library of Scotland to produce an A1 photocopy of the 1879 postal map for Edinburgh and Leith, and I had that up on the wall over my desk as I wrote. Looking at it made me almost feel as if I was travelling in time, following my characters along the streets exactly as they would have been in the year that Zinnie and her sisters were walking them!

I also visited the Scottish Life Archive at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh - they are collecting as many photographs as they can that depict all aspects of historical life in Scottish towns and cities, and that was a brilliant resource to go through.

Q: Zinnie, your main character, lives with her sisters in the Old Town. Can you tell us a bit more about her, and how she and her sisters survive in this world?

A: Zinnie was abandoned as a baby on the steps of an orphanage, and didn't have a good time growing up there. She ran away and has tried to be as independent as possible ever since. Her sisters are more important to Zinnie than anything, and she's determined to do whatever she can to keep them safe, even though that sometimes means she puts herself in difficult situations.

Q: You also feature a real person, Arthur Conan Doyle, when he was training as a medic. Why did you decide to introduce him to the story and at this point in his life?

A: I thought it would be interesting to suggest a few things that might have later influenced themes in his writing. Some of the Holmes stories feature The Baker Street Irregulars, a group of London street children who know the city better than even Holmes himself, and who the great detective sometimes turned to for help in finding information and people. I wondered where that idea had come from - this is my answer!

In his later life, Conan Doyle became convinced that the supernatural existed and that there was a way to communicate with the afterlife. I wanted to explore where and when the seeds of that belief might have been planted.

Q: The book reflects the huge explosion of interest in spiritualism at the time. What were some of the more far-fetched stories you read about spiritualism?

A: I think it's just fascinating how prevalent a belief in the afterlife was, and how readily people were convinced by the spectacles that some 'mediums' put on. I went to an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London when I was researching this book, which had a lot of historical material both about mediums of the period and those who spent a lot of time exposing their tricks.

Many stage magicians and illusionists at the time became avid 'de-bunkers' of spiritualists. After all, they could see exactly how the tricks were done, because they often used the same mechanisms themselves. One of these was the great American illusionist Harry Houdini, and he and Arthur Conan Doyle became embroiled in a very public spat - Conan Doyle insisting that the supernatural was real, and Houdini saying the opposite. They engaged in a feud via the national papers - that's pretty extraordinary to think about in itself!

Q: Have you ever seen a ghost? Would you want to?

A: I don't think I've ever seen a ghost, although how can I be sure? Maybe we see ghosts all the time and just don't realise that we're seeing them. I like the idea that places hold memories or traces of what happens in them, good as well as bad - I think that's why we refer to 'atmospheres' when we go into somewhere new and get a feeling without knowing why.

The house where I live is very old, and it is built into the side of a graveyard that is even older. If there were going to be ghosts anywhere, it would probably be here. And yet everyone sleeps well in our little house. Everyone always walks in for the first time and says how lovely it feels inside. I think it's probably always felt like that - it's a happy place. Maybe that's a type of ghost.

Q: You include other real women from the time in this book - an explorer and a doctor. Where did you find out about them and why did you want to include them and to highlight their achievements in the 'Historical Note' at the end of the novel?

A: Lady Sarah is a fictional character, but I also mention Isabella Bird, another sometime resident of Edinburgh around this period, who travelled all over the world. I've been wanting to write about Bird for a long time, and originally it was going to be her featuring in the role that became Lady Sarah. But the problem is that I know her character too well from having read all of her books many times over, and she just didn't fit into the effervescent, larger-than-life personality that appeared in my head as I began to plan the book out. That was Lady Sarah! Hopefully I'll get to write about Isabella Bird in some other capacity. I do love Lady Sarah, though. I'm glad she popped into my head.

I came across Doctor Sophia Jex-Blake as I was beginning to research the idea of setting a book in Victorian Edinburgh. She was born in Hastings, where my family lives, and I was visiting them when I first read about her, which seemed fortuitous. She was a fascinating person and extremely important in terms of the history of women in medicine in the UK, and yet when I started my research I discovered that there was only one modern biography about her, and that had been published 30 years ago - even though the hospital she started in Edinburgh was in use for 100 years and became part of the NHS. It only shut in 1989! I wanted more people to know about her.

Q: Will we be hearing more about Zinnie - and Arthur Conan Doyle?

A: I'd really love to revisit Zinnie and her sisters - I do have an idea for another adventure, but we'll have to see!

Q: Where is your favourite place to write and do you have any bad writing habits?

A: I have a desk in our living room which has a big bookcase built over it, and that's where I usually write. But we've just converted our guest room into a study, so once the bookcases are up in there I'll be able to work up there, too. It's got a reading nook and everything, I love it.

I'm not sure about bad writing habits... Writing is hard, so I tend to think that however you manage to do it is good!

Q: What are you writing now?

A: I'm about to start a first draft of another stand-alone middle grade adventure that may or may not make it to the bookshelves, but I want to write it anyway. It's another Victorian adventure, this time featuring meteorites, Kew Gardens, transatlantic voyages, deserted islands and the Natural History Museum. Cross your fingers for me!

Q: What are you most likely to be found doing when you're not writing?

A: Right now, trying to keep the rabbits off my allotment. I'm about to go down and put the gate back on my plot before they nibble the tops off all my broad beans. Tsk.

Thank you for answering our questions @ReadingZone!

THE HOUSE OF HIDDEN WONDERS (Stripes Publishing) is now available from all good bookshops (6.99)

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