Here's what's in this newsletter:
Publication day for TO DIE BUT ONCE is closer than ever now—some three weeks away at time of writing this newsletter. For my part, I have just returned from the UK, where—among other things—I was on the research prowl, revisiting various locations to add to my sense of place for the novel I am working on at the moment. I am sure you know that while you are waiting for TO DIE BUT ONCE, I am already ahead of you, crafting the next book in the Maisie Dobbs series.
St Paul's Cathedral during the Blitz
To get the essence of time and place in writing takes some imagination. It's one thing to walk the streets of London, or to wander around a village in Wiltshire, or even to meander along the lanes of Rye, in Sussex—close to where my parents lived for many years, and where some key scenes in TO DIE BUT ONCE take place—but then I have to refer to old maps, old photos, and just pay attention to try to "see" that place as it would have been in 1940. And though I know these places fairly well, when writing a scene, sometimes it's important to just get the characters from A to B—so let's just say some "editing" has to be done to the journey. However, I am sometimes amazed by the "truths" that emerge after a book is written, when I realize my imagination didn't do such a bad job.
Rye in Sussex
When I wrote the first novel in the Maisie Dobbs' series, I based the Retreat—the home for soldiers with severe facial wounds—near Sevenoaks in Kent. I chose the town because it's within reasonable striking distance of the Queen Mary Hospital in Sidcup, where much of the work to restore faces with surgery or using masks took place. I had been at college near the hospital, and a friend of mine worked there, so years ago I'd been aware of its history, but had done more research for MAISIE DOBBS. I also knew that the founder of the fictional Retreat would choose a rural location, plus I needed it to be within about an hour's travel from London in 1929. Following publication, I received a letter from a reader in Canada, who told me she had grown up just outside Sevenoaks, and that on several occasions, while playing in the woods with her friends, they had encountered older men with severe facial wounds who, upon seeing the children would pull sacks over their heads or perhaps an old tin mask and run away, as if fearful at having been seen. She said that when she read my book, she wondered if I had known anything about where those men lived, and asked if I had based my book upon their "retreat." I was stunned—the Retreat in Maisie Dobbs was complete fiction. I had only imagined it.
Something like that has happened many times over the years. During a recent visit to Whitchurch in Hampshire, my cousin was driving me to see my aunt, who lives nearby, when I said, "I've given this road a large Georgian house where WAAFs (Women's Auxiliary Air Force) are billeted." He then told me that in fact there is a Georgian house on that street, but not visible as it's behind trees and set well back from the road. I had never seen it.
Whitchurch in Hampshire
I am fortunate to be able to visit the places I write about, and to be able to linger and ask myself how it might have felt to be in that place at another time—a time when it seemed Hitler's armies would land on England's beaches, when searchlights scanned the night sky in London, and when so many families had been dislocated due to wartime enlistment and childhood evacuation. You'll be reading about Joe Coombes, the young apprentice so far from home, and of course there's Anna, the little evacuee who has been billeted to Maisie's home in Kent, and who has found her way into the investigator's heart. You'll meet the bubbly WAAF with a heartbreaking job, who gives Maisie some vital information, and another young man close to Maisie who wants only to "do his bit"—at great risk to his life.
Now for some messages from my publisher, Harper Collins:
Thank you for reading!
With best regards,
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