When author (and friend) Maisie Thomas asked if I’d like to review her novel, The Railway Girls, which is inspired by her great aunt Jessie, I thought it sounded too good an opportunity to miss.
Unfortunately my TBR pile is a little bit out of control and I didn’t have time to read it before publication day. What’s the next best thing, I wondered? I know, how about a mini Behind The Book post instead.
Maisie was born and brought up in Manchester, which provides the location for her Railway Girls, which will be a series of three novels.
She loves writing stories with strong female characters, set in times when women needed determination and vision to make their mark.
As I said, the books are inspired by her great aunt Jessie, who worked as a railway clerk during the First World War.
Maisie lives with her railway enthusiast husband and their two rescue cats. They often enjoy holidays chugging up and down the UK’s heritage steam railways.
Here’s our Q&A:
What made you pick the Second World War to write about?
It’s a period of history I’ve been interested for some years and I have quite a large collection of books about life on the home front. I started writing a WW2 saga a few years ago, but didn’t finish it, though a lot of that material has now been used, or will be used, in The Railway Girls series.
As for what made me write the series – quite simply, I was asked to! I know – it’s amazing, isn’t it? Cassandra Di Bello, who at that time was an editor for Arrow, came up with the concept. She asked my agent if she could suggest an author who would be suitable and my agent suggested me. I sent an email with all the reasons why I would love to write the series, including my existing interest in the war and also my husband’s love of heritage railways and knowledge of trains. After that I was asked to put together a proposal for the series, including details about characters and plots, and after that came the offer of a contract. The whole process happened very quickly – in just 12 days.
How much research did you need to do?
I’ve found that the best way to tackle the research is to read a variety of books about the home front without necessarily looking for specific information. If I come across something I want to incorporate into the story, then fine, I make notes, but otherwise I work on the basis that simply having lots of general knowledge will inform my writing in a natural way.
This means that the books I choose have to be enjoyable as well as interesting. My favourite book is undoubtedly How We Lived Then: a History of Everyday Life During the Second World War by Normal Longmate. As well as being the most comprehensive book I have come across, it is also highly readable and entertaining and I recommend it to anybody who has an interest in the subject.
As well as general information, there are also many occasions when I require specific information. For example, the oral history in Female Railway Workers in World War II by Susan Major was invaluable in helping me to choose different railway jobs for my characters. I was amazed by the huge variety of jobs available and, from reader feedback, I know this has fascinated lots of other people too. For the second book in the series, Secrets of the Railway Girls, which will be published in September, I used various resources, including books, online information, maps and numerous photographs to help me write the scenes involving Manchester’s Christmas Blitz, which took place in 1940.
And I really ought to mention my lovely husband, who has by now got used to being asked random questions, such as ‘When a train is about to pull out of a station, exactly what would someone on the platform see and hear and in what order?’ and ‘How do you clean the inside of a locomotive?’
Can you think of one thing you discovered that you didn’t know before?
I can think of lots. Here are three for you:
– We think of recycling as being a modern phenomenon, but it was an important feature of everyday life in wartime.
– I was astonished (and vastly entertained) by stories of how completely disorienting the blackout could be. There are numerous tales of stone cold sober people leaving buildings and walking outside into surroundings they had known for years and finding themselves wandering around, hopelessly lost in the darkness, or even heading straight into a ditch or a duck pond.
– And you know those little circles of paper you get when you use a hole-puncher? Well, if you’re ever in need of confetti…
You said that you were asked to write the Railway Girls series. What guidelines were you given?
I was told to create a group of girls and women and choose three of them to concentrate on for the first three books. These three are Joan and Mabel, who are both in their early 20s, and Dot, who is in her 40s with two sons serving in the army and two 10-year-old grandchildren.
Although each book can be enjoyed as a stand-alone, they are also linked together as the reader follows the stories of these three viewpoint characters.
One of the decisions I had to make before I started was the logistics of how these women were going to be friends. I could, for example, have given them all the same job, so they spent their days working alongside one another and having lots of personal contact; but I didn’t want to do that, because I wanted readers to get a sense of the many different jobs that women were required to do. Instead I have my group meeting regularly for a cuppa in the buffet and that’s how they get to know one another and build their friendship. In fact, that was part of the brief I was given – that the characters must develop staunch friendships that would last a lifetime.
There you go, short but sweet. As a bit of a train fan, I’m really looking forward to reading Maisie’s first book in the series. I can’t wait to meet Joan, Mabel and Dot.