Writing fiction wasn’t something I thought I could do until a character named Maisie Dobbs presented herself for consideration. Prior to writing my first novel, Maisie Dobbs, I was a writer of non-fiction, of op-eds, essays and articles, and I thought that if ever I attempted a book, it would be a biography, or on a broad subject in connection with women’s history, which has been a particular interest since childhood. However, one day on my way to work – and most writers have day jobs; mine was in sales – I was stuck in dreadful traffic. Nothing was moving so I allowed my mind to drift. I can still see and feel that moment when, in my mind’s eye, I saw a woman dressed in the garb of the mid-1920’s exit Warren Street tube station in London. She stopped to buy a newspaper from a stall – I could hear her conversation with the newspaper vendor – and then she walked along the street to a grim, smoke-stained Georgian house, took out an envelope with two keys and entered. Suddenly I could hear car horns sounding around me and realised the stalled traffic had moved on and I was holding up every car behind me. One man rolled down his window and shouted, asking if I was waiting at the light for any particular shade of green! I sped on my way, but by the time I arrived at work, I had the whole story in my head.
I’ve often thought about that experience and have considered it to be a moment of “artistic grace” – as if I had been chosen by a character to tell her story. However, I don’t believe those moments happen in a vacuum. My interest in women’s history had been focused on the time just before the Great War right through to the Seventies. The years following the First World War represented a time of enormous change in almost every sphere of life, and particularly for the women who came of age during the war. They were not only the first generation of women to go into war work in modern times, but that war ensured their lives would never be the same as experienced by their mothers and grandmothers before them, not least because so many would remain single due to the number of men of marriageable age who were killed or profoundly wounded in the war. Women moved into public life as never before, and during the war barely a field of endeavor was left untouched by a woman’s hand. What an amazing opportunity I had, to write about a woman who had seen death of a most terrible kind at an impressionable age when she worked as a nurse at the Western Front, and then to see how she might grow and change over the years. That was the challenge before me.
When I began to write Maisie Dobbs, I thought it would be the only book I would ever write. I had no thoughts of a series. However as I was writing, various thoughts and ideas were coming to me that I realised had no place in the narrative as it unfolded, so – being a hoarder – I kept those ideas in a file on my computer desktop labeled “Fragments.” I added to it with sections I decided to delete, perhaps a descriptive paragraph here or dialogue there. After I finished the manuscript I set about finding an agent, which meant a lot of research and sending out query letters, and after I’d landed the agent, and then later a publisher, the book went into production. On that day my new editor called me and asked what ideas I had for the next book in the series. I confess, I had to tap-dance, and said I would call her back later. In a slight panic, I took that fragments file and printed out every single page, whether it contained a descriptive paragraph, a scrap of dialogue or just a few words. I placed the pages across the floor and began moving them around, and soon realized I had the vital seedlings for another six stories featuring Maisie Dobbs. I just had to grow them. That’s when I knew I had an important decision to make. What sort of series did I want to create?
I knew this – that I wanted to continue to shape not only a main character, but the ensemble cast of characters. I wanted them to grow and change over time, and I wanted to find out not only how they might be impacted by what comes to pass as a result of Maisie Dobbs’ work, but how they are affected by the events of their day; by what happens in their personal lives, and how relationships between characters might develop. We are all impacted by the events of our time, so I could not ignore the truth of the matter or the possibilities for me as a writer.
In addition to my file of fragments, I started a notebook where I maintained a log of themes I might want to incorporate along the way of major events in the world, and simple points such as weather at a certain time, the price of household goods, what was popular on the radio or in local and regional newspapers. However, more than anything, I found that as much as I created the character of Maisie Dobbs, so she revealed herself to me. The same was true, perhaps to a lesser extent, with the other characters readers have come to know as they have read through the series.
I’m often asked about my research – I’ve done a great deal of both primary and secondary research for my work, and my best advice is to treat research as if it were an iceberg – only 7% of it should be above the surface. Just because you’ve learned something doesn’t mean you have to use it – instead trust that it will inform every word you write.
(c) Jacqueline Winspear
Author photograph (c) Stephanie Mohan
Maisie Dobbs appears in Jacqueline Winspear’s new novel, A Sunlit Weapon:
October 1942. Jo Hardy, an Air Transport Auxilliary ferry pilot, is delivering a Spitfire to Biggin Hill Aerodrome, when she has the terrifying experience of coming under fire from the ground. In a bid to find out who was trying to take down her aircraft, she returns on foot to the area, and discovers an African American soldier bound and gagged in an old barn. A few days later another ferry pilot crashes and is killed in the same area of Kent. Although the death has been attributed to ‘pilot error’ Jo believes there is a connection between all three events – and she wants desperately to help the soldier, who is now in the custody of American military police.
Jo is advised to take her suspicions to Maisie Dobbs. As the psychologist-investigator delves into the case, she discovers the attempt to take down ferry pilots and the plight of the black American soldier are inextricably linked with the visit to Britain by the First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt. Maisie must work with speed to uncover the depth of connection, to save the life of the president’s wife and a soldier caught in the crosshairs of those who would see them both dead.
Order your copy online here.