Today, I’m delighted to welcome Margaret K. Johnson to my blog, to talk about her writing process, and especially, historical fiction.
So Margaret, what first attracted you to the era you’ve written about?
The First World War really moved me as a subject when I was at school. We learnt about it in Twentieth Century history, and we studied the First World War poets in English. I suppose it was the completely shocking waste of it all, and the way poets like Sassoon and Owen really conjured up the sights, smells and feelings of it.
And what was it that sparked your first foray into historical fiction?
I found an amazing book about VADs and nurses during the First World War – The Roses of Noman’s Land by Lyn MacDonald . It’s full of diary extracts from the time, and the voices of the VADs, nurses and ambulance drivers really shine through. It really helped when I was writing dialogue and making the story seem authentic.
Diaries are always fascinating to read…
Tell me a bit about your research process – are you able to stay focused, or do you find yourself distracted by new, interesting snippets or stories?
I used Lyn MacDonald’s book heavily for my research, but also went one step further by visiting the Imperial War Museum in London to look at some of the original diaries I’d read extracts from in my book. It was such an amazing experience to be handling the original diaries!
Here are two examples, from the diaries of Millicent Norton and Kit Dodsworth , which really give us an idea of the varied backgrounds of some of the young women who volunteered in France.
Millicent Norton: “My sister and I were very scared of my father. You never dared go against your parents. After I left school, a friend asked me to go and stay with her family in Ireland, and by some miracle, my mother managed to persuade my father to let me go. When I got to the station, I discovered he had brought his own luggage with him. I simply could not believe it. He said, ‘You don’t think I’d be letting you go alone, do you? I am coming too. I have booked into a hotel opposite their house.’ I shall never forget how embarrassed I was, having to explain that my father had come too. Of course, they were very polite about it and said, ‘Well do ask him to call’. But he wouldn’t. He just stood at the window of his hotel. We could see him watching us every time he went out.”
Kit Dodsworth: “I came out at a big dance. It was the Yorkshire Hussars Ball, and I had a marvellous dress. It was white satin, all beaded. It cost twelve pounds – and that was a frightful price! After that one evening, you were grown up; until then, you were a child.”
I also spent hours looking at newspapers of the time on microfiche. I wrote my first draft of A Nightingale in Winter quite a long time ago, before the internet simplified things! I then put the novel up into the attic for a very long time before I got it down to work on it again, but that’s another story!
You’ve obviously encountered a lot of real people through their diaries and letters then. But which is your favourite of the real people who have appeared in your writing?
Dr Frances Ivens . Dr Ivens came across as such an interesting and strong character during my research, that I included her as a character in A Nightingale in Winter. Frances Ivens was pioneering in many ways, setting up a hospital in a former abbey staffed entirely by women from the Scottish Women’s Hospitals organisation at Royaumont in France. Despite the challenges of the building, this hospital was ahead of its time in many ways, and Dr Ivens’ practises meant that it was extremely successful in saving both lives and limbs that might otherwise have been amputated.
Have you ever had to include a real historical character you’ve really disliked?
Not yet! Although I have enjoyed inventing thoroughly evil fictional characters! Leo, in A Nightingale in Winter is a ruthless, ambitious artist who will stop at nothing, even murder to find the inspiration he needs for his work.
If you could visit any historical event or period (as a witness only, no changing things!), which would it be, and why?
The celebrations following the end of the Second World War – what a party that must have been! And since I would be visiting from the future, I could join in without the pain of having lost close friends or family during the conflict. I’d have to learn to dance though.
Any how about ‘rewriting’ the history books? If you could change any single event, which would it be, and what would be your preferred outcome?
I suppose, since A Nightingale in Winter is set during the First World War, I’d do myself out of a book and stop the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on 28 June 1914, which led to the outbreak of war. Although I’m not sure how effective this would be. It’s possible that the stage was set for war anyway, and if it hadn’t been for this reason, it would have been for something else. But it would be worth a try, to save millions of lives.
Finally… You’re allowed a whole afternoon to yourself with anyone from history. Who would it be, and what would you want to discuss?
It would be fairly recent, I think, because I think an afternoon spent in Nelson Mandella’s company would be hugely inspiring. I’m sure he would have plenty to say about the current refugee crisis, and many of the other problems in the world today. I think he would inspire me to be a better, more proactive person than I currently am.
Thank you for joining me Margaret!
Margaret K Johnson began writing after finishing at Art College to support her career as an artist. Writing quickly replaced painting as her major passion, and these days her canvasses lay neglected in her studio. She is the author of women’s fiction, stage plays and many original fiction readers in various genres for people learning to speak English.
Margaret also teaches fiction writing and has an MA in Creative Writing (Scriptwriting) from the University of East Anglia. She lives in Norwich, UK with her partner and their bouncy son and dog.