Huge congratulations on winning the RNA Romantic Saga Novel of the Year 2021!
Hello Valerie, thank you so much for asking me. In the last three years of my mum’s life, I suddenly thought I might like to see, after years of writing factual content, whether I could write a novel and my parents’ wartime romance was so fascinating, I couldn’t wait to get it down on paper. I never thought I could make a career out of it, but it probably came at the right time for me – I was making films for environmental organisations and was running out of enthusiasm for scrambling over stiles carrying heavy camera equipment but the transition has been gradual and completely unexpected. OK, the truth is, there was no conscious decision and there’s nobody more surprised than me about where this journey is taking me.
Research is obviously something you are very used to doing and experienced in, but roughly how long do you spend researching and planning each novel?
Oh, the joy of writing your first novel when you have years to fiddle around with the words, visit endless museums and wander all over the country finding incredible women in order to get their personal stories to make sure the books are authentic. Now, novel #2 and so on, that’s a different story. I am basically doing one a year and that means I really have to get a move on. I start with a basic plot idea and then just get stuck in. Research can be overwhelming so I do the basics and then the rest takes place as I go through the book but I do get a tad obsessed. My background as a journalist means that I love the safety blanket of facts and I panic until I know that a scene I’m writing actually could have happened so I have to be careful that I don’t get completely side-tracked by research. I once spent two days finding out whether they had ginger spice in 1942 to make biscuits before it occurred to me that my character could make garibaldi ones instead. However, I am astounded how the story starts to unfold as soon as I begin to write. I once wrote the words: ‘She had to think fast’ without realising that ‘she’- my character- meant me. I had no idea where I was going next. So, a cup of tea and a strong talking to and eh voilà, it came to me- no idea where from.
Bobby’s War was inspired by strong women such as Mary Ellis, ATA pilot. Can you share with us some of the inspiration behind this and your other novels?
I was so lucky to get to meet Mary Ellis about two months before she died at the age of 101. I couldn’t help but come away inspired, awe-stricken and to be honest, with a little bit of a girl crush! She was just fabulous. My mum was my inspiration for ‘Lily’s War’ and I now realise how lucky I was that she was a WAAF in Bomber Command doing a glamorous job. The fact that my dad was in the 8th Army meant I was able to use his war time experiences as inspiration as well to tell his side of the story. I like to learn something in books I read so I want to emulate that and love giving something in the books that is unexpected so I like to look at the war from the viewpoint of a Tommy in Africa and Europe for example, or explore the shadowy world of an enigmatic civil servant or maybe even ( plot spoiler) a German POW. However, when my parents died, in a panic, because I hadn’t asked them enough questions, I raced around the country to find other servicewomen including Land Army girls, explosive workers and plotters etc and every time, I just found myself completely overwhelmed by what they had achieved- and put up with- at an age when I was having fun in the Uni bar. I loved imagining walking down the street with them in the 1940s and finding out those little details that aren’t in the history books. It made me determined to help readers walk down those streets too and make sure the women’s legacy was recorded so it would inspire future generations.
What tips would you give your younger self about becoming a novelist?
Don’t give up your day job! It’s such a slow burn to establish yourself, get people to know and hopefully, like your work at the same time as writing enough books to establish credibility. I’m in my 60s and I honestly don’t think I could have done this earlier when, of course, I needed to make a living and there are certainly no financial guarantees with novel-writing. Working for the BBC and running my own media company on top of having a family didn’t leave me much head-room to be able to think a story through, write it and deal with the social media and publicity to make my books stand out amongst all those other millions of books out there. I naively thought you just wrote a book! I think the one advantage I had at this age was that I wasn’t afraid to fail, I just wanted to see whether I could do it, so maybe the answer to this question is, certainly take the writing seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously and enjoy the ride.
What have been the highlights of your professional life: as a journalist and as a novelist?
I’ve been so lucky in my careers- I just didn’t mean to have this many of them. As a journalist, I’ve met a huge array of famous people and can out-bore any dinner party guest (when we’re allowed to have them again) with insider gossip but it was the real people who left me humbled, the ones who strove against adversity and triumphed quietly- like the woman who worked to help the mothers whose children had been snatched by estranged husbands or the family who moved to a remote hillside in India to try to save threatened tigers. I suppose the same applies with the novels. I still talk to my lovely servicewomen- now in their late 90s- who talk in matter-of-fact tones about how they were young women living every moment despite bombing raids, being constantly hungry and being asked to do things that would terrify a super hero. On days when I’ve been feeling sorry for myself because I haven’t been able to see friends or go on holiday, that common sense pulls me up sharply- these are the highlight moments of all of this for me.
What has the RNA meant to you over the years?
I’m such a newbie at this, ‘Lily’s War’ was only published last year so I’m only just finding out what an amazing organisation the RNA is and how incredibly supportive it is of romantic fiction writers. I’m about to start a course with them to find out how to use social media to promote my books and my daughters, who are on a hotline Whatsapp group, are incredibly relieved that someone else is taking me in hand and teaching me what NOT to press. Added to that is the fact that the RNA has just amazingly given me an award for only my second novel, so hell, yeah, I think they’re incredible!
What is next for Shirley?
I’m just finishing Book 3 which ‘Hannah’s War’ about a Land Army girl and I did struggle with this to begin with because both Lily and Bobby were such strong characters doing exciting jobs and I wanted to make Hannah a different sort of girl, one who was shyer and less confident of her potential. I soon realised that these LA girls were every bit as heroic as the ones like Lily and Bobby. They toiled in all weathers, in all circumstances and often, deprived accommodation to feed the country. Hannah’s journey is perhaps even more admirable because, without the war, she was one of those girls who would have remained tied to their mother’s apron strings and would, I suspect, never have discovered how strong they really were. Then it’s straight onto Book 4, which is set in the Isle of Man where they had internment camps, housing everyone they didn’t know what to do with- so Germans lived alongside Jews, Conscientious Objectors, gypsies and Italians. What a fantastic melting pot for a novel! My parents lived their last years in the Isle of Man and are buried there. I love the island and as a next step, it seems a perfect way to complete the circle from ‘Lily’s War.’ I just need to be able to get over there to start the research.
Oh, and what else is next? ….I want to get my hair cut!