Readers are always asking where I get my ideas. Well, I have to confess that the setting for the first trilogy would never have been my immediate thought.
This was a request by Avon HarperCollins who’d just offered me a 3-book deal! In fact, they gave me four words to write these three books: Dr Barnardo’s, Liverpool, orphans, and WW2.
After the initial euphoria I had a complete wobbly. The only recognisable request was the period. That was fine. But I knew little about Dr Barnardo, only that he was more than just an observer of society in the 19th century, and especially of children, but set up a home to take in homeless boys and give them a chance in life. Well, I guessed I could do some more research on him. But three books set in a Dr Barnado’s home – filled with children?
I don’t have any children and am rarely around them. How would I know how children felt, spoke, learnt, misbehaved, interacted – and orphans would have many more problems to deal with. Lastly, I’d never been to Liverpool, and to be honest it didn’t really appeal. I was beginning to think my dearest wish of being published by my dream publisher was doomed before it had even taken off! Anyway, they left me to think about whether I would accept the offer to write The Dr Barnardo’s Trilogy.
Fortunately, my small group of writing friends brought me to my senses and made me ring the editor immediately saying I’d be delighted. I now had to find out everything I could through books and a visit to Liverpool. To my amazement I found Liverpool a fantastic city with some of the friendliest people I’d ever come across. But since the city was the most heavily bombed after London during the war, much was destroyed. However, enough buildings remained for me to take notes of the places where my heroine grew up, and the museums were invaluable to capture the period.
Back home, I watched old films to see the way children behaved and spoke, but mostly I wrote almost instinctively, imagining I was that child.
The next trilogy was entirely my own idea. I wanted to write about three sisters doing completely different jobs in the war effort. I knew them quite well as characters but had no idea what they would set out to do. Then I watched a TV programme about Mary Ellis, at 101 years of age describing her time as a pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary, delivering aeroplanes, including Spitfires, to the fighter pilots. Perfect for independent Raine, the eldest sister!
The middle sister, Suzanne, was musical, so I knew she would join ENSA – that’s the Entertainment National Service Association – and like my heroine, Vera Lynn, would sing to the troops abroad.
The idea for the youngest sister, Ronnie, a tomboy, came late in the day. I wanted something unusual and came across an article about young girls and women carrying cargo from London to Birmingham on the Grand Union Canal in the Second World War. Apparently, the work was so backbreaking, only about 40 of them ever did this work. It would be just up Ronnie’s street.
To complete the family would be a prickly French mother who the girls called ‘Maman’.
Now I’m writing a new series. A tingle shot right through me as my editor said the words ‘Bletchley Park’. I jumped at it. I’d been to Bletchley Park three times over the last 20 years, so it wasn’t unfamiliar territory. However, I knew it would be difficult for me to get to grips with all the code-breaking, but the many books I bought and borrowed played a huge part in my research.
In between the current pandemic restrictions, I managed a day trip with a historical tutor, and this propelled my new heroine to life in that most secret of buildings. More next month about The Bletchley Park Girls!
On that note, I do hope the New Year has all good things – including plenty of fabulous books – in store for you