Clare Flynn’s latest novel, Storms Gathers Between Us was published by Canelo in June 2019. Living on the South Coast of England, Clare’s historical fiction is set mainly in the inter-war era and Second World War. Subjects such as unwilling emigration, post war society and the economic circumstances of the day are all evident in Clare’s work.
What inspired you to set your novels in the turmoil of the inter-war era and the Second World War?
My first novel, A Greater World, was going to be Victorian, but soon after I began writing I had a rethink and chose the 1920s. That seemed a much more interesting time for that book to be set in – women had just been (partially) enfranchised, those men who returned from the war, even if whole in body, were deeply affected. My characters were emigrating (unwillingly) to Australia and adapting to a new country and trying to find their way in tough post-war economic circumstances.
I set Kurinji Flowers and my latest book Storms Gather Between Us in the 1930s and The Gamekeeper’s Wife in the immediate aftermath of the First War. Those interwar years are fascinating to me. People had believed that after the sacrifices of 1914-1918 they would have a prosperous future with no possibility of a return to conflict – yet the Depression followed and within a mere 20 years the world was on the brink of another terrible war.
The Chalky Sea is the only one of my books so far actually set during WW2 (although I am working on another right now). I didn’t plan that – in fact I’d always said I’d never write about the war, but three years ago when I moved here to Eastbourne on the English south coast, I discovered that this little seaside backwater had seen front line action with continual bombing raids – starting before the London Blitz and ending only just before the D-Day invasion. Strategically placed right across the Channel from occupied France, it was one of the probable locations for a German invasion. Another surprise was that the town had a heavy presence of Canadian soldiers stationed here. The more I discovered about its history it became obvious I’d have to set a book here. That led to two others following the same characters in the post war years in Canada. I hadn’t expected that either! But that’s what I love about writing and research – you never know where it will lead you.
You write about areas that are incredibly well known to the general public and readers. What lengths did you have to go to research the 20s, 30s and wartime?
Yes, those periods may be well known but aspects of them aren’t at all, such as the things I wrote about in The Chalky Sea – the bombing of Eastbourne and the long wait for action endured by the Canadian army in Britain. One of the other elements about writing fiction is that where the facts are aren’t available there is an opportunity to make educated guesses, consistent with what is already known. I wrote a blog post the other day about how a hunch I had in writing that book was recently vindicated by the discovery of a secret wartime diary. https://clareflynn.co.uk/blog/my-hunch-about-wartime-beachy-head-is-vindicated
Even the best-known historical periods will have elements that are not widely known to the average reader. I like to explore these. Examples include the Italian campaign of WW2 and the role of Canada in it, the decline of the coal mining industry in the Blue Mountains, the brewing industry in St Louis, life on rubber and tea plantations, the adventures of a plant hunter in 1920s Sarawak.
Sometimes I visit the locations of my books in order to do research – as in the case of Australia, St Louis Missouri and India. And other places such as Italy and the various UK locations were well known to me. But I do a lot of desk research to supplement that and to understand the period I am writing about.
I couldn’t get to Canada for my two post-war books, but I was lucky enough to be introduced by a mutual friend to a retired librarian in Ontario, via Facebook. She recruited two other librarian friends and the three of them were pure gold in advising me when I wrote The Alien Corn and The Frozen River, putting me right about word usage, farming methods, Christmas customs and much more.
I also do a lot of reading around my subjects. I amass quite a collection of history books, memoirs, maps, guide books, and more for each book. I visit museums, watch old newsreels, listen to contemporary music and watch old movies, as appropriate. Google Earth can also be a useful tool – as of course is the internet in general. I’m a member of the Historical Novel Society and can tap into the hive brain of other authors to ask questions.
Your new book, Storms Gather Between Us, is set in Liverpool in 1938/9. Could you tell us a little about the book and the history behind the storyline?
I was commissioned to write a follow-up to A Greater World – but not necessarily using the same main characters. I picked up some threads from that book and moved forward in time and set it in a different place. At the end of A Greater World, a secondary character, Will Kidd, runs away to sea, so it seemed a good idea to find out what became of him. My grandfather and great grandfather were both merchant seamen as were other family members. They were from Dublin, but my grandfather moved the family to Liverpool. It was an interesting challenge to channel these familial connections when writing the book.
At the beginning of Storms Gather Between Us, we meet Will in port in Zanzibar – I do love exotic locations! By now the callow, lovelorn teenager has become a man in his early thirties, unsettled, disenchanted and drifting around the world. Hannah Dawson is the daughter of a religious zealot. A chance meeting with Will on a Liverpool dockside, and their discovery of a shared connection changes their lives.
I researched life as a merchant mariner, using a number of resources including quizzing a cousin who was a former merchant naval officer. For insights into the extreme bigotry and fanaticism of Charles Dawson I used US extreme evangelical Christian websites.
How do you balance the fiction and the fact?
My stories and characters are completely fictional. The historical context though is factual and the result of careful research. The amount of research I do is far greater than the amount that ends up on the page. There’s nothing worse than a book that flings the history in the reader’s face and includes everything the author has researched. Information dumps like that kill the flow. So, the balance is in getting a well-paced narrative within a believable and accurate portrayal of the period and the place.
What is your planning process?
Calling it a process is perhaps too generous! I used to write completely by the seat of my pants, now I like to have a rough idea of the general route I am taking, possibly with a few chapters or episodes sketched out. But, inevitably, I end up moving off in another direction as the characters take hold and wrest control from me. I used to try to force myself into doing detailed outlines, but I’ve stopped worrying too much now, as I can never stick to them.
I do try to have a timeline written down – but even that can fall by the wayside as I get excited by the writing itself. As a result, I often have to go back and do it retrospectively, untangling as I go. With every book, I promise myself to record dates, ages etc as I go – but I always end up make things hard for myself!
Lots of schools do make use of historical fiction in lessons, did you take that into account when writing your time travel novel? Do you think that historical fiction can help them to understand the period that your novel is set in?
No. I’ve never written with that in mind. But I do think historical fiction, as long as it’s well researched, can throw a lot of light on history. I probably learnt a lot more history from the novels I read than from the history I was taught at school. My books aren’t aimed at school children, but the principles still apply. In fact, I was recently invited by the History department of a local school to address their pupils and help them stir up interest in history by helping launch a historical short story competition.
I studied History until I left to go to university, but I probably learned as much about the American Civil War from reading Gone with the Wind as from studying text books!
Who are your favourite authors (or historians)? How have they influenced your own work?
My first love was the classics – Hardy, the Brontes, Austen, French novelists such as Gide, Flaubert and Zola, the great Russian novels and Americans such as Faulkner, Hemingway, Wharton and Fitzgerald. As a teenager I also loved to read historical novelists such as Anya Seton and Georgette Heyer and books my teachers wouldn’t have approved of by Jacqueline Susann, Arthur Hailey and Agatha Christie. And I’d happily read the cereal packet if there was nothing else to hand!
Nowadays I still read all manner of things – obviously a lot for research purposes, both fiction and non-fiction – and I try to read keep up with my genre. But my tastes are catholic. I love Kate Atkinson, William Boyd, Hilary Mantel – and recently Amor Towle’s A Gentleman in Moscow. And I have a bit of a thing at the moment for those beautifully-produced rediscovered classics published by Persephone – Dorothy Whipple, Marghanita Laski and others.
What plans have you for your writing? Will it continue to be set in this period, or do you see yourself writing in different genres, or historical periods?
I love writing in the 20th century. I doubt I’ll be going an earlier than the late 19th. I would like to try a contemporary novel and maybe even experiment with crime. That said, I have two books on the go and lots of other ideas in the pipeline, and my readers seem to like what I’m writing now! As long as it still holds my interest I’ll probably carry on.
What tips do you have for aspiring writers, of any age?
Just do it. Stick at it. Don’t get discouraged.
Read your work aloud as part of your editing process.
Don’t kill your love for writing by turning it into a rod to beat yourself with. I shudder when I hear people claiming that to succeed as a writer you have to churn out a book a month – or even every fortnight. I won’t be queuing up to read a book written that fast.
Most important of all READ! The best training a writer can have is to read widely, across genres and styles.
My website has details of all my books, and you’ll find my blog there too – I write about my research, sources of inspiration, my writing experiences etc there. And you can sign up to my monthly newsletter there – and get a free copy of my short story collection (which includes some contemporary stories too).
I’m also active on social media.