Every novel requires a lot of research. In the case of this book, the action takes place over the space of a century. So that required really quite a lot of homework.
Some of this was simply historical. Much of the action of the book takes place around D-Day and the Normandy Landings. An enormous amount has been written about the Second World War, of course, so that is relatively straightforward. What’s much more complex is pulling together all the little details that make the narrative feel authentic. What slang was used in 1944? What was fashionable womenswear in 1959? What was going on in the field of education in 2016?
Then there’s the question of how much detail you need to go into. As a novelist you are trying to tell a story, not write a history book. But the more you probe, the more you realise you don’t know. It’s very easy to get bogged down to the point where you feel utterly swamped.
But it was a lot of fun, too. I love learning about new things. And I made some rather wonderfully serendipitous discoveries along the way.
Edward, one of my three main characters, was a chaplain in the Second World War, and like many other padres, accompanied the troops into Normandy on D-Day. I knew a fair amount about the Battle of Normandy thanks to visiting the museums and memorials that pepper the Normandy coastline over many years, but I didn’t know anything about chaplains. I spent a fascinating morning at the Museum of Army Chaplaincy in Hampshire, with its curator, David Blake. (He was so helpful he gets a name check in the story itself, as well as in the acknowledgements.)
Thanks to him, I met a woman called Jenni Crane, whose discovery of a leather suitcase in a junk shop in 2014 led to her search for its former owner, the Revd George Parry, who as killed on D-day aged just 29. Through Jenni I met a lovely man called Frank Treble, whose own father had also been a D-day chaplain. Frank very generously gave me a copy of his father’s unpublished memoir – and gave me his full permission to pillage it. Which I did.
And it was while I was reading the diary of another D-day padre in the Bodleian Library in Oxford one day that I came across the name of my own uncle, a Major John Hanson-Lawson. I had no idea he had served at D-day, and he died many years ago. Thanks to Facebook, I managed to track down his only son, my step-cousin, who lives in Hong Kong, and he confirmed that yes, this was his father, and yes, he had indeed served at D-day.
Perhaps most curiously, David also told me about a pre-invasion training school for chaplains where the chosen few were put through their paces between March and May 1944. Being picked for this training was quite prestigious. It was also no picnic: live ammunition was used and at least one hapless padre was seriously injured in the process. And guess what? The village where this took place is barely six miles from where I lived at the time, in Northamptonshire.
More remarkably still, just a few weeks before my conversation with David, my husband and I were driving down the A5 a stone’s throw from that village when we were stopped by a road block. My husband got chatting with the policeman who was directing the traffic. We assumed there’d been a road accident, but no. The hold-up was all because Army bomb disposal officers were safely detonating an explosive device that had lingered in the field until modern times. It seemed that the more deeply I delved, the more serendipitous my desire to tell this story began to feel.
In the end, I accumulated much more research than I actually used, but I’m sure that’s necessary. I had to remind myself that I was writing a novel, not a historical guide. Nonetheless I wanted to know enough to avoid making too many obvious howlers. Fingers crossed….