With Before the Dawn, I wanted to explore the phenomenon of the "American Invasion" of Britain, when over 1.5 million servicemen came to our shores to train for the Allied attacks against Germany. In particular, I wanted to discover more about the people. What was it like for these men – many who were just teenagers and some, like Sam, who had lied about their age to enlist – being so far away from home, and everything they knew? What motivated them? And how did they cope being thrown into war at an age where now, many of them would just be leaving school after taking their A Levels?
Thankfully, there's a wealth of material available in archives such as the one at the Imperial War Museum which reveal the human stories behind this mass movement of troops. And happily, a lot of this material is available digitally – handy when you can't travel to London or visit museums because of a pandemic! One document in particular stood out: a pamphlet called Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain. Although originally printed on 7 pages of foolscap, Instructions is still available to buy as a 31-page facsimile from the Bodelian Library. This fascinating document contains everything a serviceman arriving here with the US Army, Air Force or Navy would have needed to know about the British: from the appropriate language to use within earshot of a British person to warnings about keeping out of arguments; why it's important not to show off; why Britain might look a little “shop-worn and grimy”, and much more. What must the Americans have thought of us, reading these words? And how did the reality match up once they were here?
Set against the backdrop of a period in history which has long fascinated me, I found the themes of the novel which emerged as I wrote, of family, identity and finding love against the odds, were not only universal, but timeless.
Although many of the difficulties Sam and Ruby face are very much of an era, my hope is that the resilience they show in overcoming them will resonate with modern day readers, bringing this time and these characters to life.
Tips for Writers:
As well as being a writer, I teach creative writing, working with writers of all ages and abilities. When you first start, the mere idea of completing a novel can feel overwhelming. How do you even begin? And how do you sustain the momentum once you've started? Here are my top tips for writing your novel:
- Find out what works for you, and don't let anyone tell you you're doing it wrong. Some people write every day; some people don't have time to do that so they write at the weekends or on their days off. Some people (me included) write exclusively on the computer whilst others find the words flow better if they write by hand. Some people (me again!) plan, some don’t. The important thing is to try and form as consistent a writing habit as you can – this will not only help you get the book written, but also help you improve your writing craft.
- You will get stuck at some point. I always do! Writing novels doesn’t get easier, exactly, but the more you write, the more ways you learn to overcome any roadblocks you encounter along the way. My favourite way to get unstuck is to take my dog for a walk and let my subconscious do the hard work for a while; by the time we get home, I’ve usually been able to come up with something to move the story along.
- Alternatively, you can try taking a step back and writing yourself a letter which begins So, what needs to happen next? Sometimes taking a look at your story from the outside in will help you work out what’s holding it back.
- And if you’re really stuck, there’s no shame in parking that bit of the story for the time being – perhaps writing yourself a note in the manuscript to remind yourself you need to come back to it – and moving on to a bit of the story where you know what to write. Over the years I’ve developed a rather non-linear writing process, especially at the planning stage. It’s more of a weaving back-and-forth than a start-at-the-beginning-and-work-to-the-end way of writing, but it works for me.
- Take every opportunity you can to get feedback on your work. This might be via a writing group, or a trusted beta reader, or through the services offered by consultancies such as the Literary Consultancy, who I’ve been reading manuscripts for for the last 5 years. But make sure that whoever’s giving you that feedback is constructive. Someone just saying “This is lovely!” about everything won’t be much use to you if you’re trying to improve as a writer, but neither will criticism without any attempt to try and help you figure out how you can make things work. (And let’s face it, writing is a lonely business at times: us writers all need to be told when we’ve got something right!)
- Finally, get that novel written. It doesn’t matter if you have plot holes. It doesn’t matter if you have scenes which are just acting as placeholders and which you know you need to return to in order to make them work better. I call my first draft “Draft 0.5” to give myself permission to write something which is ugly, lumpy and a bit broken. That way I don’t end up feeling bad about it or worrying it’s not perfect. Then I can go back and (hopefully!) make it into something which does work, even if that takes several more drafts and a lot of coffee and grimacing at my laptop screen. As author Jodi Picoult once said: “You can always edit a bad page. You can't edit a blank page.”
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