> Skip to content

Article  •  25 October 2016

 

Capturing the flavour

Fiona McIntosh’s enviable research trip behind her book The Chocolate Tin.

Research for The Chocolate Tin took me from Paris to Brussels, Switzerland to Bruges and finally – incidentally – to the city of York in England. I had been searching for the story, knowing it would find me if I kept moving through the chocolate houses of Europe. I remained open to ideas, had my radars finely tuned and was scanning for nuggets that could become gold. York was not for the book though; I was there to write a travel piece, but it was in this city that had been invaded by Romans, Vikings, Normans, Germans, even Danes, that I realised I was in the sentimental home of English chocolate. Of course! All those names I remembered from childhood – Cadbury’s, Rowntree’s, Fry’s, Mackintosh’s, Terry’s – and the chocolate bars, sweets and toffees we ate as children mostly hailed from the north.

It was in the York Chocolate Museum that I first set my gaze upon a chocolate tin, sent to the trenches in 1915. I found it poignant that the chocolate remained intact, and I helplessly wondered about the man who never got to eat his precious treats.

I left without my story, but over the course of the long flight home the memory of that tin began to percolate. By the time I arrived in Adelaide, I knew the setting for this novel had to be York, that the book had to focus around Rowntree’s (and the intriguing history of its Quaker family), and especially that the story began with that chocolate tin.

Within a few weeks of that return, I hopped on another flight back to York, this time to meet Dr Alex Hutchinson, curator and archivist for Nestlé, now owner of Rowntree’s. She’s one of those incredible people who doesn’t forget anything she’s read, heard, watched or listened to. I found her brilliance not only dazzling but addictive, and we spent four wonderful days together forging a great friendship but also hammering out a thin storyline. I say ‘thin’ because I don’t write to a plan, but we needed to link together some locations. We found two great family houses in York that would serve as major locations, as well as sundry meeting places that were popular in 1919 when my story takes place. It was Alex who suggested Boothby Hospital, which in 1919 was a lunatic asylum. It’s an intriguing location, and once I’d walked through its haunting corridors, I knew I’d have to use it. She also took me around Friends Hospital, and of course she gave me a personal tour of the chocolate factory, with a particular emphasis on its history. I was allowed to read through the Tour Guide’s Book from 1919, to get my character’s patois correct, and working off archived material I was able to create the swimming pool scene accurate to the era. We walked around the Knavesmire – where the opening chapter begins – stood on the bridge overlooking the siding where Harry first sees Alex, and visited the graves of various Rowntrees until I felt I understood this world of turn-of-the-century chocolate making. We systematically walked the streets of York until I could almost hear Alex’s and Harry’s footsteps, and we ate in the York Gentlemen’s Club of yesteryear that features in the story – it’s now a pizza establishment. We walked the old city walls and through the cathedral, and visited all the iconic spots, from Guy Fawkes’s birth house to the place where the courageous Margaret Clitherow, sainted, gave her life for her faith.

While I’m mindful of not allowing my novels to feel like history documentaries, I was pleased to incorporate so much of what I learned on those days spent with Alex as I gained important texture for the book’s setting. During that time of story building and learning I was sampling a lot of English chocolate (all in the name of research, of course) and developing a close friendship that has reunited across oceans. Because Alex is such a history tragic – we both got thrown out of the British Library for talking too much! – we’re already planning meetings to discuss future projects.


The Chocolate Tin Fiona McIntosh

The highly anticipated, sensuous new blockbuster by the beloved, bestselling author of The Perfumer's Secret.

Buy now
Buy now

More features

See all
Book clubs
The Chocolate Tin book club notes

Change things up with a chocolate themed book club selection.

Recipe
Hot chocolate sauce

Try this indulgent recipe from The Chocolate Tin author Fiona McIntosh.

Article
How Kate Forsyth thought to connect history and myth in new novel

An interview with Kate Forsyth about her new novel, The Crimson Thread.

Article
5 Inspirational quotes from Lessons in Chemistry that will stick with you

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus is packed full of wisdom. Check out five of the many inspirational quotes from the book.

Article
Shivaun Plozza on painting, writing routines, and the book that inspired her to become an author

We chatted with Shivaun Plozza to learn more about her new book, A Reluctant Witch's Guide to Magic, and get some insight into her creative process.

Article
Want more enjoyment and better reading? Put down the e-reader, data suggests

In the debate over e-readers versus paper books, scores from PISA 2018 suggest that good-old-fashioned books beat digitised modes of reading.

Article
James Patterson's daily writing routine starts with a 5:30 wake-up

James Patterson’s writing routine pumps out bestsellers. This is what he does.

Article
Bachar Houli on writing a picture book, just in time for Father's Day

We spoke with Bachar Houli about his new children’s book, My Baba is the Best.

Article
The 10 types of customers you meet in a record store

Katharine Pollock, author of Her Fidelity, shares the 10 types of customers you meet in a record store.

Article
Hot tip: Bullet Train author, Kotaro Isaka, might be the next Murakami

Learn about Bullet Train author, Kotaro Isaka, and why he’s being heralded as the next Murakami.

Article
A useful guide to reading Elizabeth Strout’s Lucy Barton books

Learn about Elizabeth Strout's Lucy Barton books in honour of her Booker prize longlist nomination for Oh William! Learn more about the series and the order in which we recommend reading the four books.

Article
Did you know: Ottessa Moshfegh walked the runway, and 8 more fun facts

9 interesting facts about Ottessa Moshfegh, author of Lapvona.

Looking for more articles?

See all articles