Monday, 8 June 2015

How the #WWII film Brief Encounter inspired a book

Trevor Howard & Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter

If you were born in the 1950′s as I was, you will no doubt remember wartime stories passed down to you from your parents.

My parents were not old enough to fight in the second world war, but their stories of gas masks and rationing, dried egg sandwiches, and night-time forays into the Andersen shelter at the bottom of the garden, stuck with me. In particular, one story fascinated me – the one about a neighbour of theirs who was taken prisoner early in the war and spent five years in a forced labour camp for the Germans. He struggled to get over his experience more than those who had actually been fighting, and I always wondered why.

Years later, I moved to a small town ; Carnforth in Lancashire. The town itself used to have a big ironworks, long since gone, but now its one claim to fame is that it was once the scene for the famous film ‘Brief Encounter’ starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. When I went to look around the Station Heritage Centre and found out more about the filming, I discovered the film was made in the last months of WWII. So now I had two ingredients – the story of a prisoner of war, and the story of the making of ‘Brief Encounter.’
Train arriving at Carnforth Station with its iconic clock
Research led me to discover that in February 1945, when David Lean was filming ‘Brief Encounter’, on the very same day we were sending bombs to decimate the beautiful cultural city of Dresden. What if these two events could be brought together? So, I had the third ingredient and an idea was born, the story of a wartime couple torn apart by war. But not just that – ten years later they are married, but neither has any idea what really went on for the other during their separation, or what it will mean for their future relationship. Wartime stories by necessity deal with larger themes of love and death, and people under extraordinary pressure. Rhoda and Peter have always hidden their pasts from each other, partly from self-preservation, and partly to shield the other from the truth. When Rhoda finds a letter from another woman, and the facts begin to surface, will Rhoda and Peter survive knowing the other’s darkest secret?

I was very attracted by the visual style of the film, ‘Brief Encounter’, its light and shadow, the way it made locations significant and tell their own story, so I have tried to keep that in my descriptions. The theme of the film is that hard choices have to be made about loyalty if a relationship is to survive, and I wanted my book to reflect this.

Whilst writing Past Encounters I interviewed people who remembered wartime Carnforth, and drank more tea and ate more biscuits than is probably good for me, whilst scribbling frantically in my notebook. I was also incredibly grateful for on-line sources such as ‘The People’s War’. Memoirs of prisoners of war and soldiers who endured the Great March of Prisoners of War through frozen Germany, also helped give a backbone to the book.

One of my aims is to show just how amazing ordinary people can be, if you scratch beneath the surface. By the end of the book Rhoda and Peter have found and lost loves, fought for survival, endured tragedy, and discovered the hidden depths that make a bond between two people true and lasting.

from the film, The Long March

Do you like music? Listen to the track Carnforth Station

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Nursing just after WWII - Fetch Nurse Connie

I am thrilled to welcome Jean Fullerton to my blog today, to chat about her latest book and the way in which she researched and wrote the story. Known for her wonderful Powerpoint presentations about East End London life, Jean brings all her research and life experience in the NHS to her books about 1940's and 50's nursing.
Fetch Nurse Connie - Cover 18th Feb th Jan 2015..doc
Fetch Nurse Connie will be the fifth book in the East End Nurses series. How have circumstances in healthcare changed for Millie and Connie since the first book?

I purposely set Call Nurse Millie in the years after the end of the WW2 and before the introduction of the NHS in 1948 so people could see what the system of health care before the NHS was actually like. In the first book of the series Millie and Connie are employed by a local Nursing Association which is a voluntary organisation supported by subscriptions and fundraising rather than central funding. The second book All Change for Nurse Millie starts on 5th July 1948, the day the NHS came into being so I could show the changes to the new system and some of the problems it had from the very start.

As Connie is Millie’s closest friend and we meet her a great deal in Millie’s story it seemed natural to tell her story in Fetch Nurse Connie, during the same time period. Like Millie’s, Connie’s story starts on VE-Day 1945 when the old health system was still in place so we see Connie  not only grappling with the her patients illnesses but also the social conditions of the time.

Your books are impeccably researched. What are the two most valuable resources you use for discovering about medicine in the 1950's?
jean1 web picture
Thank you for saying so, Deborah. Unlike my previous 19th century books the East London Nurses’ Series is within living memory so I have the great privilege of being able to speak to nurses who worked in East London during that time.  However, my most valuable research resources are my collection of 1930s, 40s and 50s nursing and midwifery text books. These include books on child health, contraception, midwifery, nursing dictionaries and a 1945 doctor’s prescribing dictionary, all of which I have to hand all the time. The most valuable of these books is the 1947 edition of Merry and Irven’s District Nursing. This was the text book all trainee Queen’s Nurses’ would have bought. It has everything from clinical procedures to the various charitable institutions of the time like the Sick Children’s’ Fund and the Destitute Relief Board. It also sets out how fees were calculated and the proper administration of a local Nursing Association. It was totally invaluable in helping me breathe life into district nursing during that period. There is also a breakdown of the way the new Welfare State was to be implemented and how much the individuals had to contribute in to the National Insurance Scheme before they were entitled to receive benefits. I also think I must have every nurses biography of the 20th century and a few before.

Apart from Millie, who is your favourite character to write? Is he/she constructed around a real person from the past?
I actually enjoy writing her friend Connie, who is the heroine of the new book.  She has a very different story and other issues in her professional and personal life to cope with. Unlike Millie she is part of a large East End family, very like my own. After her fianc√©’s home-coming takes and unexpected turn Connie finds herself spending a great deal of time trying to put her heartache behind her and convince her mother and two sisters that there’s more to life than marriage and children.
I never consciously construct a character around anyone in particular but I hope Connie, like Millie, is a little bit like the nurse I strive to be.

What would surprise Connie and Millie most about nursing  today?
As a registered district nurse with 20 years’ experience working in East London I’m sad to say that today ‘care’ sometimes seems missing out of the equation. Not by nurses’ I might say. I teach nursing at a London University and can assure you the vast majority of the nurses I nurture through their 3 year’s training are kind and compassion and I’d be happy for them to nurse any of my nearest and dearest. Sadly, it’s the overburdened NHS full of targets, statistics and research that sometimes put unbearable pressure on them. In Millie and Connie’s day a nurse was responsible for all their patients’ needs. This included housework, personal care and nutrition along with the more obvious nursing tasks such as dressings and medication.  However, I’m sure she’d be amazed at the range of drugs now available – especially those to regular body systems such as diabetes, high blood-pressure and pain relief  plus being able to undertake such complex operation as open heart surgery and joint replacements.

How carefully do you plan your books? Do you have a strong outline, or do the characters know where they want to go?

Because I weave at least six patients’ stories through Connie’s over-arching story I plan my novels very carefully on a colour coded table. This allows me to space out Connie’s meeting with her patients, family and her ex-fianc√© Charlie. I can also see, for example of there are too many scenes with her family bunched together or if there’s too much space between her patients as we see their stories.
Of course it changes as I get to know the characters and ideas come to me but it gives me a place to start.

Thanks for asking me to drop by Deborah and for anyone who might want to read Connie’s story here’s a quick insight.
Fetch Nurse Connie.
Connie Byrne, a nurse in London's East End working alongside Millie Sullivan from Call Nurse Millie, is planning her wedding to Charlie Ross, set to take place as soon as he returns from the war. But when she meets him off the train at London Bridge, she finds that his homecoming isn't going to go according to plan.
Connie's busy professional life, and the larger-than-life patients in the district, offer a welcome distraction, but for how long?
Available from Orion Fiction on kindle, paperback and hardback on 4th June 2015
Click on the bookcover to pre-order.
Easter with Nurse Millie out 19th March
Fetch Nurse Connie out 4th June 2015.
All Change for Nurse Millie
Christmas with Nurse Millie e-novella.
Call Nurse Millie.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

What have Kate Bush, Alison Moyet and Led Zeppelin got in common?

Answer - they are all artists I listened to whilst creating Past Encounters.

I need to be able to access certain states in order to write well, and music helps me do this. What I was trying to capture in Past Encounters was a kind of longing – a longing that borders on nostalgia, but is not that sentimental. It is at the edge of things. We have no English word for it, but the German word is sehnsucht. For this novel I was looking for transparency and intimacy, to keep the words simple so you could almost see through them.

I remembered Mary Chapin Carpenter’s John Doe #24 ,which does just this, with its simple tune and narrative arc, telling the story of a blind, deaf and dumb man stripped of identity, the ultimate loss, yet still the character haunts us. In Past Encounters, Peter becomes a prisoner of war, just a number, so I went back to the track and listened again. In the song, sensory detail becomes enormously important, his toes feeling the streetcar rails underfoot, the scent of jasmine.
If you want to know more, about my writing process you can read the rest here, and discover more about music and the writing process from Roz Morris's other guests on Undercover Soundtrack.

Pic from

Friday, 13 February 2015

70 years ago - the bombing of Dresden

Type 'Dresden Bomb 1945' into Google Images, and this is the mildest of the images you will see. The atrocity of the bombing of Dresden on the 13th and 14th February 1945 is a part of English history we don't care to look at too closely. But we should look. Like Auschwitz, it serves as a grim reminder. This week on one of those days, we celebrate Valentine's Day, a time to recall our love for those close to us. But love in its best form includes feelings of compassion for every person, not just those we personally know. The fact that all human beings are capable of love makes such an unnecessary tragedy as the complete destruction of Dresden and its population, seem even more senseless.

First hand account by Victor Gregg

Friday, 27 June 2014

The Shape of a Story - keeping it simple

How we shape our stories is a vital part of our ability to connect with readers. In this humorous presentation, Kurt Vonnegut reduces the story arc to a few strokes. What I love about this is its simplicity. As a novelist I often get embroiled in over complicated plots, multiple timelines and different points of view.

What the video taught me was to look at  my main characters' tension arcs through the novel. Even with a not very exact representation of this (see below) I could see where the 'dead' points might be for the reader, and where there was too much going on.

The timeline runs left to right and the peaks represent crux points for that character. It took less than three minutes to do, but was nevertheless very informative. As I often work with historical characters, sometimes their peaks and troughs are determined by the history I'm dealing with. In my last novel it was real events in WWII. This can lead to imbalance in story structure which needs to be addressed, but it can be invisible unless you take a quick overview.

As you can see, Character No.3 particularly has a lot of action near the beginning, but not much through most of the middle of the book, reappearing at the end but not with enough impact to compete with the other two major characters. I had to either lose this character altogether or strengthen his role in the novel.

My four hundred page novel reduced to a few squiggly lines might seem laughable, but as Kurt Vonnegut points out, if it works for the New Testament, why not for me?!

What deceptively simple writers techniques do you use when writing?

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The wonderful efficiency of CreateSpace

The proof copy of my paperback has finally arrived. When I say finally, I am exaggerating, because from uploading it to receiving the proof copy here in the UK took less than a week. All the way from the US to the UK!

And I am thrilled with the way it was packaged and delivered - and even better - thrilled with the way the book looks and feels. Apart from the fact that the cover can't have fancy embossing or anything like that (even if I could afford it) - the book looks exactly like a traditionally published novel. The paper quality is the same as the ones on my shelf, and the binding is not too tight to make reading difficult, nor so loose I fear I might lose some pages. It was well worth all my soul-searching about sizes and colour of paper and font (see previous posts).
By the way, did you spot the loose/lose combination there? Proves I have taken my editing seriously....

Now of course I have to read the damn thing again. For the umpteenth time - to check all is well and there are no lurking typos or other glitches. It will take me longer to re-read it than CreateSpace took to send it, but I'm hoping to get caught up in it at least once to the extent that I forget I'm supposed to be proofing. The sign of a good novel! Which of course means I'll have to go back and read it again. Then I can get some copies out to reviewers, and get some of that stuff you paint on your fingernails to stop me from biting them.

Then I might have hands like the ones on the left, though what the rest of their bodies are doing is anyone's guess!

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Writers struggle - it's a fact #amwriting

I was heartened to listen to 'One to One' the other day on Radio 4 and hear AL Kennedy talking to Rachel Johnson about writing. In it, both Rachel and Alison talk about the struggle that is their daily writing life. The programme is only 15 minutes and well worth a listen. A few nuggets of inspiration in there too. If nothing else it will demonstrate that whatever your particular writing struggle right now, YOU ARE NOT ALONE!
Here's the link.
and  AL Kennedy's website
In the programme Alison also mentions a special writing chair which she uses where the head is lower than the feet. Could it be this? Or this? Both seem a little extreme!
Ergonomic workstations

The old-fashioned way before computers has something to recommend it too. I envy those young people scribbling away, for whom writing is still a joy. They have none of the angst and soul-searching that goes on when you're trying to write something as long and complicated as a novel. Just 'What I did on my holidays' though actually today it's probably, 'How I used my ipad and smartphone on my holidays.'

But whatever your desk and chair are like, however flashy your computer, I guess you will still have to suffer the pain of you and your novel, and find from somewhere the sheer persistence that gets the thing written.

The 'One to One' series also has another episode in which Rachel Johnson, who writes comedy, talks to Michael Frayn about farce - if you're writing something funny, here's the link

Please tell me if you use any special chair for writing, or other writer's aids that you use to ease the physical and mental pain!