Monday, 21 February 2011
I am often asked how I get the ideas for my books. The answer is anywhere and everywhere: books, newspapers, things I've experienced, things people tell me, and a book might have more than one source of inspiration as in the case of THE SUMMER HOUSE, published in 2009 by Allison and Busby.
My grandmother was an indomitable lady who was midwife, nurse and confidante to the whole village of Necton in Norfolk from before the first World War until the coming of the National Health Service in 1948. She was not unique in what she did, there were thousands of women doing the same job. They were referred to as 'the handywoman' or 'the woman you sent for.' And when she was sent for, she always went, whatever the time of day or night
She lived with my grandfather and a maiden aunt on a small holding with no electricity, gas, main drains sewerage or telephone, just four walls and a roof and a few acres of land. The loo was down the garden, the bath hung on a hook on the outside wall and the cooking was done on the kitchen range When it got dark we sat by the light of an oil lamp and lit our way to bed with a candle.
Grandma was a fund of stories, told when something jogged her memory. When she began with 'That time o'day,' she wasn't talking about hours and minutes but times gone by and I knew there was a story coming. I heard about my grandfather's work as a shepherd, their disastrous wedding day, my mother's illness as an infant, helping the doctor take out a child's tonsils on the window sill of a cottage during an earthquake, about the first World War and the Zeppelins. I soaked them all up and the result was her biography, The Mother of Necton..
I was evacuated to stay with her during the second world war and it was that time which was the initial inspiration for The Summer House. WW2 is now considered history by publishers, which both amuses and horrifies me. I remember it so vividly it seems like yesterday. I remember the blackout, the blitz, rationing, shortages, the black market, the evacuees. That did not mean I didn't have to do any research. It is easy, looking back, to get times and dates wrong and things in the wrong sequence. The plot must fit the facts, not the other way about, though some of the films you see on TV nowadays seem to ignore that! I had my background. But background is only a part of it. I needed characters and a plot.
Just after the war my mother worked in a home for unmarried mothers. The girls (some of them very young) were taken there a few weeks before the birth to have their babies who were then taken away for adoption. A week or two later were sent home and expected to get on with their lives as if nothing had happened. She told me some heart-rending stories of what went on there and how she often had to take the new babies by train to London and hand them over on the station platform to another social worker who took them to their new parents. That way mother and adoptive parents were kept as far from each other as possible.
That tale stuck in my memory. I could not help wondering about the poor mothers and how they must have felt. Could that be a basis for a story? It was then I tried the what if exercise. What if one of my characters had an illegitimate baby? In the second world war it was still a disgrace, though becoming more common. In the Great War its impact would be even worse for the mother-to-be. What if my mother-to–be was an aristocrat? What if she was married to a serviceman who was away fighting in France? What if the marriage was not happy and she fell in love with someone else? What if he, too, was sent away to France, leaving her pregnant? What if her parents insisted on having the child adopted? How would she feel? How would she cope?
I asked myself what kind of life would this baby have? What would her adoptive parents be like? Rich or poor? Why were they adopting? Would she be cared for and loved? Would she be told the story of her birth or would it be kept a secret from her? What if the real mother does find her daughter again, how would she feel? What could she do about it?
In answering those questions I had my story.