Isabella Muir has written crime fiction set in post-war Britain and a novel based on the true story of Child Migrants to Australia. She is an active member of organisations for independent authors, CHINDI and ALLi. Her work is based on research and on an interest in the 60’s acquired from her sibling’s experiences. Isabella’s latest book is The Forgotten Children. Details of all of Isabella’s books can be found on her website, www.isabellamuir.com.
What inspired you to write novels set in the 1960s to 80s?
I am particularly fascinated in the sixties era. I have older siblings who had their teenage years during those heady days – my sister went to a Rolling Stones concert on Hastings Pier in 1964 and my brother had a Lambretta at the same time as the mods and rockers invaded seaside resorts during the summer of 1964. As well as first-hand anecdotes I have enjoyed researching the era. There are some brilliant books that explore those years of significant social change. (The Neophiliacs by Christopher Booker; How was it for you? by Virginia Nicholson; 1965 – The year modern Britain was born by Chris Bray and In the family way by Jane Robinson – to name just a few.)
Britain has seen many periods of change throughout the centuries, but all that I have learned about the sixties lead me to believe this was a time of social revolution that affected all aspects of life. There were a number of key developments that resulted in changes to the traditional class structure so that a new ‘meritocracy’ emerged – people who became wealthy and powerful through talent, rather than family background.
You have a series of crime novels set in the 1960s and 70s. How did you go about researching policing methods of this period?
I was careful to choose a crime/mystery genre that did not involve a great deal of police procedure. Having an amateur sleuth as my protagonist gave me greater flexibility. As well as the book research mentioned above, I am a huge fan of the television series, Endeavour, which provides a reliable flavour of policing during those years.
The Forgotten Children is a really moving story based on events that did take place. What inspired you to write historical fiction about the child migration programme to Australia following the Second World War and how did you go about researching this story?
I started to write The Forgotten Children while I was completing my MA. My initial aim was to highlight the difficulties that young mothers experienced and the stigma over illegitimacy. But as I read around the subject I came across Empty Cradles (Oranges and Sunshine) the true account of Margaret Humphries – the Nottinghamshire social worker who discovered the extent of the tragedy and who has since dedicated her life (through the Child Migrants Trust) to helping those affected. I read all I could on the subject and watched the film of the book, and then planned my story in such a way as to raise the issue for any reader who might not be aware of these events.
Returning to the crime novels, this is an area that some schools study. Are there any particularly good archives or online resources that you came across whilst researching?
There are some fantastic online resources provided by the BBC:
https://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/ – where you can watch documentaries that were aired decades ago, which, as well as the subject content, give an excellent insight into the language and fashion of those decades.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/modern/ – exploring the social change experienced in Britain during the 1960s and beyond
https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/ – personal stories recorded by people who lived through the Second World War.
How did you get into writing?
I have been writing since a small child – whenever I wasn’t reading! I have worked for most of my working life as a technical editor of healthcare-related materials, so words have also played a significant role. Also, over the years I have played around with short stories, but it wasn’t until I completed my MA in Professional Writing that I felt confident enough to attempt a full-length novel. Then, having written one, the other three followed on pretty quickly.
How do you go about planning your novels?
I will admit that I am not a great planner! I usually have a clear idea for the first third of the book and know how it will end, but I do find that as I write the characters seem to suggest to me where they want the story to go. It does sound odd, I know, but I often discover that if I try to take the story in a particular direction I can sense a kind of resistance, which requires a rethink.
I handwrite all my first drafts and then begin the editing process as I type them up. I use Scrivener, which is a wonderful tool for writers, as it allows you to keep notes on characters, settings, etc, all within the main file. This is really useful when writing a series. The other critical aspect of planning is developing the timeline – not just within the story, but within the ‘real’ world – especially when writing historical fiction. I use an Excel spreadsheet showing the birth dates of each of my characters and add into this dates of key events, for example, the ages of my characters during the Second World War.
How do you balance the fact and the fiction when writing this type of novel?
It is important to draw the reader into the story world and when the story is set in the past then it needs to be populated with elements that make that clear. So, for example, factual references to events that happened during the time of the story. Just as a film has to be careful about the ‘props’ they use, an author of a historical novel has to introduce props that the reader can visualise. In my stories I mention sixties fashion and hairstyles, music that was popular, television programmes that were on air – all help to paint a picture. Accuracy is also vital – we all know how annoying it is when we see something in a period drama that doesn’t fit with the era. The internet is a wonderful resource, so I check everything that I can – even the weather conditions for a particular time!
One of the areas that my website is looking at currently is the way that history is interpreted and presented to the general public. How do you go about deciding how to portray your characters and the events in which they become involved?
This is an interesting question and a tricky area. Every account of history, whether fiction or non-fiction, relies on the author to take a stance. ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter’ is a well-known phrase and one that can be applied to all aspects of history. In non-fiction the author’s selection of what to include and what to omit will in itself skew the viewpoint presented. We all hold some form of bias, whether it be as a result of our gender, age, ethnicity, family background or personal experience.
When I was writing The Forgotten Children I felt an enormous sense of responsibility to the people who had experienced these traumatic events for real. I could only guess at how someone might feel when they discover, for example, that the mother they have been trying to track down for decades is no longer living. A sensitive topic requires a sensitive approach; something I bore in mind when writing the story.
I don’t know if there is a perfect way to present history – whether in fact or fiction – perhaps, as authors, we have to hope our readers will be wise enough to read around a subject to get a balanced view.
Which authors have been most influential to your own writing to date?
I guess there are two aspects to this question. The authors who influenced my choice of genre and subject matter would be Agatha Christie for the Sussex Crime series and Margaret Humphreys for The Forgotten Children. I first discovered Agatha Christie when I was about thirteen and when I decided to set the Sussex Crime series in the 1960s, her style of crime writing seemed like a good fit.
The authors who have influenced my writing in more general terms would be those who write the kind of stunning prose I would love to write one day! There are many, but top of the list is Helen Dunmore, followed by Ann Patchett, Maggie O’Farrell, Anita Shreve and Barbara Kingsolver.
Have you got any plans for future books that are in a historical setting?
Yes! I am currently working on another Sussex Crime novel, once again set during the 1960s. I am also planning to collaborate with a fellow author to co-write a thriller, which we are hoping will be published later this year. The story moves between events that took place during the Second World War and eventual repercussions happening in the mid-sixties.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Have fun and never give up! Writing is, by necessity, a solitary pursuit, so wherever possible develop support networks that will encourage you to keep going when your enthusiasm and self-belief might be starting to wane. Of course, social media is useful, but it is also great if you can team up with other authors and have the chance to meet face-to-face. I am lucky enough to be part of a committed group of indie authors, known as CHINDI (https://www.chindi-authors.co.uk/). We are very active locally, taking part in local festivals and book events. I am also a member of ALLi (https://www.allianceindependentauthors.org/) that provides many useful resources on all aspects of writing and publishing. And I have stayed in touch with two wonderful emerging writers who completed their MA at the same time as me. Christoffer Petersen, whose chosen genre is Arctic noir – thrillers and crime – and Sarah Acton, who excels in the field of poetry and nature writing.
Isabella Muir is the author of the Sussex Crime Mystery series:
BOOK 1: THE TAPESTRY BAG
BOOK 2: LOST PROPERTY
BOOK 3: THE INVISIBLE CASE
And her latest novel is: THE FORGOTTEN CHILDREN
She can be contacted via:
Or on Goodreads
KM Pohlkamp – discusses her research into several periods and her novel set in Tudor England.
Lindsay Littleson – wonderfully constructed novels aimed at Primary School pupils, accompanied by teaching resources
Chris Turnbull – a range of books largely set in the Victorian era, plus a World War Two novel and one set in late 19th century Paris
David Pilling – the Longsword Series, set in the reign of Edward I
Alex Marchant – stories suitable for Primary school children and KS3, set against the backdrop of Richard III’s life
Zenta Brice – a story based in Latvia as the Soviet Regimes grip on the Baltic loosened
Jeri Westerson – an author in 3 genres, most relevant here are the Crispin Guest novels, described by Jeri as Medieval Noir
Simon Schama – an excerpt of a conversation about the way in which Historical Documentaries are produced