Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for Sisters At War by Clare Flynn

Today, I’m excited to share a post from Clare Flynn about the research she undertook when writing Sisters At War, and the particular resources she relied on.

Thanks for hosting me on your blog today. 

You asked me to talk about my research methodology. I hesitate to use the word methodology as that implies I have a strict disciplined and systematic approach, whereas mine tends to be more exploratory and often serendipitous. It seems I’m the opposite to you, MJ, I’m a writer first and then a historian.

I usually start with a big pile of books to read around the subject. While I mostly read fiction on an e-reader, all my non-fiction research books have to be physical copies. I don’t necessarily read everything cover-to-cover although sometimes I do if it warrants it. I tend to begin like a magpie hopping around and grasping things, then I turn into a rabbit and disappear down the research hole! 

For Sisters at War I read a wide range of books – about the merchant navy in general and during World War 2 in particular, about the Liverpool Blitz, general background on the war, on the Wrens, on life on the home front, on the rounding up of Italian “aliens”, etc. I visited Liverpool and bagged a pile of Blitz books – including photographic books from the Museum of Liverpool. The latter – which I visited before I started writing the book ­– also had an excellent photographic exhibition of the Merseyside Blitz with memories of those there. I often find images more helpful than words in creating a believeable canvas on which to paint my story.

REFERENCE BOOKS AND MAPS (author’s own)

A sense of place is very important to me. I was born in Liverpool ten years after the end of the war, then left as a child, and the war changed the cityscape dramatically. I ended up buying about a dozen street maps from pre-war to cover the entire area in detail – I have a bit of a thing for maps and even if I don’t always use actual place names or street names I like to place them exactly. I also look at public transport timetables, and bus routes. I also have detailed maps of the Liverpool docks before and during the war.

Sadly, everyone in my family who was around in the war is now dead, but I drew on what I remembered from my mother’s stories of her childhood – and read accounts in the Museum of Liverpool and listened to testimonies online. 

I do a lot of online research. Unable to visit Liverpool again while writing the book, I discovered the excellent website for the Western Approaches museum. I was able to wander freely around this underground rabbit warren using the excellent virtual tour – almost as good as  being there and without stairs to climb! Western Approaches is a giant underground bunker under the streets of Liverpool and was the nerve centre of the Battle of the Atlantic.

Western Approaches Map Room with permission of photographer, Mark Carline

To immerse myself in the period I also use music – I listen to songs that were popular at the time, films – I’ve always been a fan of old black & white movies and grew up on a diet of old war films, fashions – I have various books on period fashion and supplement them with online research – Pinterest is often a treasure trove as are old sewing patterns.

Part of the book is set in Australia – in Tatura in Victoria where there was an internment camp for civilian enemy aliens shipped out there by Britain, and a little bit in Sydney. I lived briefly  in Sydney so had my own memories to draw on, backed up with online research and Google Earth. I’ve never been to Tatura (a bit of a one-horse town) but the family of my brother’s wife come from nearby Mooropna and I was able to check if I had my impressions of the scenery right – again supplemented with online research. I found a video on YouTube of a train journey between Melbourne and Sydney – edited down to two hours so I was able to experience the scenery for real! I also did a lot of digging to make sure I was having my ships dock at the right quay in Melbourne and again looked at old YouTube videos and maps.

I chanced upon the tragic stories of the Italian ‘aliens’ and their experiences on the two ships, the Arandora Star and the Dunera while reading about Italians in Britain in WW2. That led me to lots more online research – including videoed testimonies from the surviving ‘Dunera Boys’ recorded in the 1980s-90s.

HMT DUNERA IN 1940 – credit Australian War Museum, public domain

While I read, watch, look and listen, I take notes in longhand. I have a dedicated notebook for each novel and go back and highlight the areas I want to include and cross things out once I have used them. I do far more research than I include in any given book and try to wear the research lightly. There is nothing worse than reading novels where you feel you are sitting in a lecture hall as the author displays all their knowledge in front of you. The research is there to serve the story not the other way round. And a lot of research is not used at all – it’s fact checking, making sure dates are correct, checking the tiny details that add flavour and colour, and making sure no anachronisms creep in – particularly in speech. I also try to check every historical reference as often we can make erroneous assumptions. An example – I have a character listening to one of Churchill’s famous speeches on the wireless – the one at the time of Dunkirk – and had assumed the broadcast was the one we are familiar with now with Churchill’s stirring rendition. In fact it was not! When that speech was first brodacast it was read by a BBC announcer. It was only later that Churchill recorded himself for rebroadcasting. That meant I needed to rewrite that scene.

You asked what draws me to ‘play with the facts’ but as I don’t write biographical fiction, I don’t see it as playing with facts. All my characters are fictitious – although their experiences draw on my discoveries about real people’s similar ones in wartime. My characters are also ‘ordinary people’ so the historical facts are dates, times and locations of bombs, etc – all of which form the hard scaffolding on which I hang my entirely fictitious story. I am meticulous about repecting the history.

My approach to research is more as a creative exercise. I’m not someone who locks themselves away in a library for months before they begin writing. I do some reading in advance but for the most part I dip in and out, moving between writing the book and reading around the subject. Frequently, something that crops up in my research feeds the story and takes it in a direction I had not anticipated before starting – so it is a huge aid to creativity. For example I had not planned to write about the experience of Italian aliens – but once I discovered their dramatic and often tragic stories I had to bring back Paolo Tornabene – a minor character in Storms Gather Between Us – and give him a significant role in Sisters at War. As you will have gathered by now, I am not a planner – my stories evolve as I write and research them.

I hope this has given you some insight into how I work and thank you very much, MJ, for giving me the chance to share it. 

Thank you so much for sharing your research with me. It’s always so fascinating to discover how authors go about creating their stories. I’m not one for much planning either. The story comes to me as I write and research. Good luck with Sisters At War.

Here’s the blurb:

1940 Liverpool. The pressures of war threaten to tear apart two sisters traumatised by their father’s murder of their mother.

With her new husband, Will, a merchant seaman, deployed on dangerous Atlantic convoy missions, Hannah needs her younger sister Judith more than ever. But when Mussolini declares war on Britain, Judith’s Italian sweetheart, Paolo is imprisoned as an enemy alien, and Judith’s loyalties are divided.

Each sister wants only to be with the man she loves but, as the war progresses, tensions between them boil over, and they face an impossible decision.

A heart-wrenching page-turner about the everyday bravery of ordinary people during wartime. From heavily blitzed Liverpool to the terrors of the North Atlantic and the scorched plains of Australia, Sisters at War will bring tears to your eyes and joy to your heart.

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Meet the Author

Clare Flynn is the author of thirteen historical novels and a collection of short stories. A former International Marketing Director and strategic management consultant, she is now a full-time writer. 

Having lived and worked in London, Paris, Brussels, Milan and Sydney, home is now on the coast, in Sussex, England, where she can watch the sea from her windows. An avid traveler, her books are often set in exotic locations.

Clare is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a member of The Society of Authors, ALLi, and the Romantic Novelists Association. When not writing, she loves to read, quilt, paint and play the piano. 

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Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the Sisters At War blog tour with The Coffee Pot Book Club