I have been asked why I deal with the Second World War in nearly all my books and the answer is that it’s impossible not to. I like to write stories covering one character throughout their entire life and involving several generations. This necessitates beginning the tale in the early part of the twentieth century and, as the plots are invariably set in Liverpool, the war cannot be ignored.
It would be the same if the books were based in London or many of our other major cities during the same period. The war had such a major and catastrophic effect on so many people’s lives that it is impossible to gloss over it. Photographs of Liverpool at the time show many areas, including the city centre, reduced to acres of rubble in an attempt to put the docks, a vital lifeline, out of action. Statistically, Bootle, where I was born, suffered a higher than average death rate per thousand people.
Research can be simple, difficult or, occasionally, downright impossible.
Nowadays, an enormous amount of information can be obtained from the
internet. All you do is type in a question, eg, you need the words of
the song, Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair, as I did for Lime
Street Blues, and low and behold, seconds later, there they are!
Or you want to know more about the Runcorn suspension bridge, as I did
for The House by Princes Park, and you get a photograph, the
name of the architect, and when it was constructed. For the book I’m
writing now, I wanted to know about the Jewish Agency operating in Cairo
during the war and found pages and pages. For the same book, I needed
the date that Picturegoer magazine ceased publication - April
However, not even there, or in the library, could I find anything about the equipment that would have been in a commercial laundry in the nineteen-thirties - (for Dancing in the Dark). I just had to make it up. My husband suggested gas irons – I hadn’t known such things existed – a drying room and boilers, naturally. I took a chance that in those days there could have been an electric steam presser and no one has written to correct this. (I have had three letters pointing out errors, the first to say I had called a cinema by the wrong name, the second that a character in Stepping Stones should have been addressed as Lady Molyneux, not Lady Elizabeth and, thirdly, I had mentioned the game Scrabble in Queen of the Mersey years before it had been invented.
Cathy Hankin, a good friend, sends me every Liverpool history book as soon as it is published, so that I have built up a useful library. Another friend, Margaret Sarsfield, who is a nurse, provides me with all the medical information I need. I have other very helpful contacts at the end of the phone willing to answer my varied and sometimes rather odd enquiries. People are always very helpful. For Stepping Stones, I wanted to know if launderettes had been established just after the war and discovered there was an Association of Launderette Owners. They had just celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the first one opening and sent me a booklet they had just had printed.
Hamlyn’s A Pictorial History of the Twentieth Century establishes what was going on in other parts of the country – and the world – during whatever year – or even month – I happen to be writing about. The Best of Cellars by Phil Thompson was enormously helpful when I wrote Lime Street Blues as it lists every single act that performed at The Cavern, including the day and the time, over the entire period it was open, so if one of my characters visited The Cavern on a particular day, I was able to list the genuine artists who were playing. A book on 20th century fashion shows the styles my female characters would have worn – I only take these as a rough guide, as there has only been one character in a position to buy couture clothes, but I do know if skirts should be up or down.
My bible when writing about the war is How We Lived Then by Norman Longmate, a book that every saga writer should possess. It contains just about every conceivable piece of information about the war from the point of ordinary civilians, many thousands of whom contributed towards this wonderful book. From this, I found out exactly how a car had to be laid up when people could no longer buy petrol – information necessary for Through the Storm. Laceys of Liverpool was set in a hairdressers and I learned that, during the war, women were obliged to provide their own towel, setting lotion was made from sugar and water, shampoo from soft soap and water brought to the boil. From just a few of the forty chapter headings: Put That Light Out, Careless Talk Costs Lives, The Kitchen Front, Dig for Victory, Music While You Work: you can comprehend the range of this massively informative book. It was invaluable when I wrote the war trilogy and has continued to be so ever since.
Liverpool images by kind permission of The Mersey Partnership (TMP)