I am delighted to welcome to Bookish Jottings best-selling historical fiction author Mary Nichols who chats to me about the Second World War, her wonderful stories and what’s coming next!
Welcome to Bookish Jottings, Mary! It’s lovely to have you here! Could you please start by introducing yourself and by telling us something about your books?
As a child I was always reading, anything and everything I could lay my hands on whether it was suitable or not. My father encouraged me by joining a book club that published classics like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Lorna Doone, The Woman in White, Gulliver’s Travels, The Mill on the Floss, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Tom Jones, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations and so on. I devoured them all, even before I could understand them, but it was reading books like these that made me decide I wanted to be a writer. I produced my first novel when I was sixteen, writing it in longhand in exercise books when I was supposed to be swotting for my School Certificate. I packed it up just as it was and sent it to the editor of a magazine. (A strange choice but I must have thought it would make a serial!) It says a great deal for that editor that she took the trouble to read it and sent me a very encouraging letter, which fuelled my ambition. Although other things took over my life, the ambition was not abandoned, simply set on one side. I rekindled it when my youngest child started school. From articles and short stories I moved on to novels, my real love. I had the first one published in 1985 and I’ve been writing them ever since, over 60 to date.
You are a popular and much-loved writer of wartime sagas and historical romantic fiction. What originally attracted you to writing books set in the past?
Funnily enough the first ten books I had published (in the 1980s) were contemporary for their time, but old hat now, but I suppose I always leaned towards the historical, perhaps because of my early reading. I also owe some of it to my beloved grandmother who was born in 1884 and was a fund of stories about her childhood and growing up. My first long saga, The Stubble Field, was set in Victorian times. But I also love Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen so when I started to write for Mills and Boon it was mainly Regency and Georgian eras that I used. More recently I have been writing of World War 2, a time I am old enough to remember and which is always throwing up anniversaries of events that claim the attention of the media. Because it was such a life-changing period with danger, heroism and cowardice, shortages and the black market, people being moved all over the place and separated from loved ones, it is a treasure house of plots for the novelist.
What are the challenges of being a writer of historical fiction?
The main challenge is getting the background right and integrating the fiction with the real facts of the time, so they blend together. Fashions, furnishings, means of transport and communication must be right for the period. If you are dealing with stage coaches, you need to know how long they take to get from A to B and the route. You wouldn’t get on a train before the middle of the 19th C or make a telephone call much before WW1 and then they were only for the well-to-do. In WW2, besides knowing a little of what battles were taking place and where, you need to know what was and what wasn’t rationed and how people coped with the blitz, things like that. Dialogue should reflect the times without becoming stilted. You need to give a taste of the era in the way people speak but not overdo it. Taboos and morals, too, change over the years. What is right for one period would be frowned on in another. Sex and having babies out of wedlock, for instance.
What kind of research do you do for your books?
I read as much as I can about the period and my chosen subject. My house is full of shelves crammed with books. If I need specialist knowledge I ask the people who might know. I find they are invariably very helpful. For instance, when I wrote The Kirilov Star, I wanted someone to vet my Russian facts and spellings and Sir Roderick Braithwaite, one-time Ambassador to Moscow and a noted author on all things Russian, kindly agree to read my MS. The same applied to A Different World, some of which takes place in wartime Poland, and Adam Zamoyski, an awarding-winning historian and author of several books on Europe and, Poland in particular, read through my MS and said it was a charming story that needed telling. Both made minor corrections for which I was very grateful. Occasionally I visit a place, but I do not always find that very helpful because places change so much, they would hardly be recognisable to a person who lived there a hundred years before. I prefer contemporary maps and descriptions by people who lived or visited there in the time I’m writing about. However I did go to Bletchley Park for We’ll Meet Again and found it fascinating.
Your latest saga, We’ll Meet Again has just been released in paperback. What sparked off the original idea for this book?
As usual with me, it was something I read about Bletchley Park and the people who worked there, thousands of them, all sworn to secrecy. It could never happen nowadays.
What is We’ll Meet Again about?
It is about the secrets people were required to keep in wartime, even from their nearest and dearest, and the effect that had on their relationships Sheila and Pru work at Bletchley Park and become firm friends though their backgrounds could not be more different. Sheila is from a large family born and brought up in the East End of London, Prue is the daughter of an earl. Like nearly all the other characters, they have to keep their work secret.
Historical fiction is more popular than ever. In your opinion what accounts for the genres enduring appeal?
There is a lot in the media about the anniversary of this and that nowadays, especially the two World Wars. Costume drama is always popular; productions like Pride and Prejudice, Wolf Hall and Poldark fuel people’s interest. On the documentary side we have programmes like Time Watch and Who do you think you are? Apart from all that people who like to read, like a good story and if it is set in the past, all the better.
What is your all-time favourite historical novel?
This is a hard one to answer, I change my mind a lot, but I think A Tale of Two Cities has got to be one of them and so has Dr Zhivago. But I mustn’t forget Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen. I like Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels too. So, you see, my taste in books is very eclectic.
Any advice for aspiring writers?
Read, read and read some more. Study the successful authors in the genre you have chosen, but don’t try and copy them. Find your own voice and be true to yourself. Above all, don’t give in. I could paper the wall of the smallest room with the rejections slips of my early days. That is, if I hadn’t scrapped them as too depressing to keep!
What’s next for Mary Nichols?
It’s been a bad year for me health-wise and it’s slowed me down a bit, but I’m coming towards the end of my next book for Allison and Busby, set in the English countryside in WW2. I’ve done seven of these book now and am thinking of a change, but what that will be, I don’t know. A lost depends on my publishers, and my readers, of course.
Thank you so much for chatting to me, Mary! If you want to find out more about Mary and her books, visit her website at http://www.marynichols.co.uk. Mary’s latest novel, We’ll Meet Again is available now from all good bookshops and online retailers.