An interview with Jean Fullerton

June 2013 Web 1Welcome, Jean!

In 2006 you won the Harry Bowling Prize. How much of an impact upon your writing career did this have?

I can’t even begin to tell you how much winning the Harry Bowling changed my life and writing career. It was my big break. It got me my lovely agent Laura and my first two book contract with Orion. It literally changed everything.

Your love and passion for the history of the East End of London is obvious through your work. Growing up in the shadow of The Tower of London must have been amazing, when did the inspiration come to you to create stories within this setting?

I absolutely adore my birth place of East London and use real places and have my characters walking past actual shops and houses if I can. My family have lived in and around the Hawksmoor church of St George’s in the East since the 1820s. I have drawn on my family heritage for my stories, such as the local charity school, public houses and market. I even had my first heroine Ellen O’Casey living in the old house I lived in as a child.

Do you always create the characters and place them in the accurate historical setting, or do you also use real life personal histories as a basis for them?

I am passionate about historical accuracy and do put my characters in the right time and place. I don’t push the edges of history and so if there weren’t steam boats on the Thames until 1842 then I won’t put one in a story set in 1840.

What is your favourite period of history to read or write about?

My life-long love of all things historical started when I was about 5 or 6 and a very young Roger Moore rode on to our 10 inch black and white TV screen as Ivanhoe. This love grew to fruition when I read Katherine by Anna Seton as a teenager. I love all areas of European history and before settling on East London as my place to weave stories I wrote books set in 10th century Wales, 13th century Scotland, during Hereward the Wake’s rebellion in the Fenlands, in Boston just before the American War of Independence and in the Caribbean during the ages of piracy.

I’m still an avid historical reader and as long as the story is historically accurate and pulls me in I’m happy to read any period. I’m also very fond of alternative histories i.e. what would have happened if Harold had won the Battle of Hastings?

You work very hard as a full-time lecturer as well as a writer. Does this affect the way in which you work? Do you plot ahead and schedule, or still let the story evolve on the page/computer screen?

The only way my full-time job really impacts on my writing is that I have to write in the evenings and at weekends. I do plot out my work on a grid as you can see from the first chapter of Call Nurse Millie below. With so many subplots in my books I find it easy to keep track of characters by plotting out the story. I even colour code the scenes on a grid with a particular colour for some characters to ensure I keep an eye on how often they appear.

Scene Events date
1 VE day Millie delivers a baby as street prepares for a Victory party. blancmange pilchards 8/5/45
2 Gets back & has to take over as the superintendent is drunk.
3 Argues with one of the nurses. Phone rings to say her father’s ill
4 At her father’s bedside with her mother as peace is announced. Churchill spoke at 3pm
5 Calls her Aunt Ruby. King at 9pm?
6 Ch2 Goes back to work and meets her friend Connie

Of course, it’s not written in stone and it changes as I go along but it helps keep me on track. It’s very easy to get lost in a 140,000 word novel. Even your own!

I also have a work schedule on which I mark dates when I should have reached a certain point of the story. I usually start writing for a February deadline after Easter with an aim to finish before Christmas. Of course it doesn’t always work out that way but so far the system has helped me hit my deadline with a week or two to spare.

You are an inspiration to many, overcoming dyslexia to become an author. Have you any advice you could give as to how you determinedly set about achieving this goal?

I’m quite happy having dyslexia as I feel it is one of the components of my creativity. If you’re dyslexic at college or work there has to be provision made for you. There’s no such arrangements are in place in publishing. You just have to work very hard and get professional to edit your work.

The aim for any unpublished writer is to get off the slush pile and to do this your submission to an agent or editor must be word perfect. I would advise anyone who has dyslexia to have their manuscript professionally copy edited. And note that doesn’t mean your friend who’s better than you at English. I know it costs money but it is an investment. I actually did a night duty in a care home each month to fund my copy edits.

As a fellow graduate of the RNA’s New Writers’ Scheme I still remember some of the advice that I was given whilst being an unpublished author. What advice do you consider helped you to make the breakthrough into print?

Firstly, if it took me three years to become a nurse, another two to qualify as a district nurse and a further three to become a lecturer, why on earth would I think I could learn the craft of writing overnight?  Very few first books are of a publishable standard. Mine wasn’t. Learn your craft!

Write what you love. If you’re chasing a bandwagon by the time you’ve jumped on its left town.

And persevere. Getting published is a long, hard road but you’ll never achieve it unless you stick with it.

Click to view this book on

Susan Lamb, the Head of Fiction at Orion books asked me to write this book. Orion publishes Call the Midwife along with Jennifer Worth’s other three books. Susan thought as I’m a District and Queen’s Nurse and an East Ender I would be the perfect person to write a fictitious account of a District Nurse and Midwife’s life and work in post-war East London.

I was apprehensive at first but my wonderful editorial team were so sure I could bring the duel strands of my background and profession together in Millie’s story I decided to give it a go. I’m so glad I did because I had a wonderful time researching my own profession and creating Millie’s family, friends and patients.

I started Millie’s story on VE day May 1945. As the troops begin to return home we see the inhabitants of London attempt to put their lives back together.

For 25-year-old Millie, a qualified nurse and midwife, the jubilation at the end of the war is short-lived as she tends to the needs of the East End community around her. But while Millie witnesses tragedy and brutality in her job, she also finds strength and kindness. And when misfortune befalls her own family, it is the enduring spirit of the community that shows Millie that even the toughest of circumstances can be overcome.

Through Millie’s eyes, we see the harsh realities and unexpected joys in the lives of the patients she treats, as well as the camaraderie that is forged with the fellow nurses that she lives with. Filled with unforgettable characters and moving personal stories, this vividly brings to life the colourful world of post-war East London.

What is next for Jean Fullerton?

Well hopefully a new contract very soon for Millie’s friend and fellow nurse, Connie Byrne’s story set this time in and around Spitalfields and Shoreditch again in the immediate post-war period. Then who knows? I have dozens of stories in my head that I’d like to write so that should keep me out of trouble for a good while yet.

Thanks for such very good questions, Val, and giving me the chance to tell people about my writing life.

More by Jean:

2 thoughts on “An interview with Jean Fullerton

  1. I really enjoyed this interview. Well done to both Val and Jean. I am not familiar with London at all but Jean’s desire for authenticity makes me eager to read Millie’s Story, especially since I enjoy nursing stories too. Overcoming the dyslexia earns my respect. I have written about a character with dyslexia and now I cringe, hoping I got all my facts right.

  2. Thanks, Gwen, for taking the time to drop by and your kind words. It was a great joy to not only walk the East London Streets I love but to delve into the history of my profession; district nursing and I hope you enjoy Call Nurse Millie.

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