Here I am living on Romney Marsh, I know about PLUTO and the air-fields and the armoured train. I knew the coastal areas were restricted and that sheep had been evacuated from the Marsh. But when it comes to writing about fictional characters, I needed to know the tiny details: what did they eat, what did they wear, what war work was available locally and what was it like in one small town on the front-line? All of a sudden I felt very lost and wanted to race back to Medieval times, an era in which I had previously done a lot of research. But I persevered…
(Actually I didn't, I wrote a chapter of a medieval novel and three chapters of the 1870 one and then returned to the 40s)
The opening chapters are set in Lydd. The town suffered a lot of bombing in the early years of the war. One significant event was the bombing of the church and this was the point where I was compelled to start the novel. Immediately I was in trouble: my reference book said the bombs fell from Messerschmitts fighters. So I wrote that that the bombs fell from a fighter plane. Luckily I read this scene to my writers' group and was told that fighters don't drop bombs. I rewrote the scene. Later, I discovered that it was a fighter-bomber. I learned then to take a lot of care whenever planes were mentioned.
It's really important to me that I get the facts right, so I had to be careful not to mention events that hadn't yet happened. For instance bringing in rationing before its time. At the beginning of the war, the women could happily bake their sponge cakes and puddings, as time progressed the rationing increased and I had to think carefully about what treats could be provided – many rock-cakes were eaten! I searched make-do-and-mend, as when invited to a dance my character was inspired to alter an old dress by the posters encouraging her to be frugal with material. This was in the summer of 1941. I couldn't mention in beforehand.
My main characters do their war work on the NAAFI tea-van. But what did they serve? Tea, cigarettes and chocolate, an internet search revealed. I was able to view photos of restored NAAFI vans and see the selection of chocolate apparently on offer – all in authentic looking wrapping. Kitkats, Bounty and Mars bars, along with Cadbury's Chocolate – I wasn't so sure about that. Some further research revealed that the servicemen in the 1940s were not so lucky – they suffered Ration Chocolate. Cadbury's Dairy Milk ceased to be made in 1941 when the government banned manufacturers from using fresh milk. Instead Cadbury’s manufactured Ration Chocolate, made with dried skimmed milk powder. Not quite so tasty? How easy it is to be misled by 'authentic' images of past times.
Readers have often asked for a map at the beginning of a book so, with my limited experience of moving images and text boxes on a screen, I began to prepare a simple map of Romney Marsh in that era. I found some little plane shapes and placed them where the airfields were. My son's friend looked at the map and queried the era – 'they are jet planes,' he said! A mistake narrowly avoided!
I really hope that readers appreciate all the research that went into creating it. Now I move onto a totally different era and immerse myself in Saxon Hythe. More about that next time.