I sometimes think my writing life would be a darn sight simpler if I wrote chronologically and stuck to one timeline, but I don’t think it would be half as satisfying. I suppose it must be my intense curiosity about what makes people tick that drives me to write dual time-line novels. The complex task of structuring a plot over two and sometimes three different times, can be brain-achingly challenging, but like crosswords and riddles, I’ve always liked a puzzle. By seeing the before and after, the past and the present, I hope to arrive at a greater understanding of how a person’s life has evolved. Why do people behave the way they do? Just what has created that irascible character or formed that stubborn personality?
And it all began with two dear old ladies, both good friends, who I came to know several years ago. Their mischievous comments one day over a cup of coffee in a care home, prompted me to start asking just what intriguing secrets lay hidden in those neatly coiffed grey heads. Betty, who by then was well into her nineties, had smiled at Lindsay who was balancing precariously on the burbling waterbed, and said, ‘Shall we tell her what we did in the war?’
They both giggled like schoolgirls and then told me they hadn’t revealed their secret for many years because they had sworn never to say a word after signing the Official Secrets Act. They then went on to tell me they had both been recruited by MI5 and Betty had later advanced to MI6. Of course I was fascinated and wanted to know exactly what important tasks they had undertaken, but in answer to my questions they would never go further than saying, ‘Oh we did a lot of filing,’ or ‘There were a lot of strange people in London at that time.’
Such dear ladies, now gone, so I never found out exactly what they got up to. I tucked away their cheeky smiles and tantalising quips for a long time, until I was asked by a cousin to look at a long hidden cache of letters dating from the start of WW2. Written by my Great-aunt Norah to her young husband serving in France, the heartbreaking pain of their separation reached out to me. Their story was particularly sad as Norah was widowed when her only child was a year old. I later discovered that she had served with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation (UNRRA) somewhere near Frankfurt after the war was over. At that point I found myself asking why I hadn’t known this when she was alive and began to think about all the undiscovered stories our elderly relatives might not have told us.
When I first began submitting my finished novel MY NAME IS EVA to agents in the summer of 2018, I had little hope of it being accepted. It was my seventh novel and although I had been learning with each one, breaking through seemed an impossible task. So how was a novel about a little old lady trying to keep her secrets hidden going to hit the spot, however much I was committed to her story?
By the time my debut novel published in September 2019, I had already completed my second book, BURNING ISLAND, and was writing THE GIRL WITHOUT A NAME. Again, I found dual timeline gave me the opportunity to undertake a deeper exploration of the island of Corfu’s wartime history and to dig deeper into the possible history of the unnamed girl who died in the 1952 Lynmouth flood disaster.
With my latest novel, THE SHUT AWAY SISTERS, which publishes on June 29, I decided using dual timeline again allowed me to examine Virginia Woolf’s statement in A Room of One’s Own – ‘Among your grandmothers and great-grandmothers there were many that wept their eyes out.’
Of course I realised that these words related to women’s opportunities for education and advancement, but it made me question how different our grandmothers lives were to ours now. Then I thought that uncovering the hidden life of a dying elderly relative who had lived through the Great War and the Spanish Flu pandemic, contrasting this with the life of a woman with a successful career just before the Millennium, provided an enormous contrast in lifestyles.
My current WIP is set in Florence in 1943 and 2019, giving me an opportunity to explore how tragic events shape the work of a successful artist. I’m following a plan, of course, but every now and then an exciting diversion suggests itself, so I feel I’m on a journey of discovery, which I hope will translate into gripping excitement for the reader.
I have loved every minute of my own adventure into publishing so far and the fact that this coincided with a very big birthday – yup, seventy years – has made it even more exciting. I know I’m not going to make my novels easier for my readers or myself by employing more than one timeline, but I hope we can solve the puzzles and enjoy the challenge of the adventure together.
(c) Suzanne Goldring
About The Shut Away Sisters:
Two sisters torn apart by war. A little house full of dark secrets…
As German bombs rain down on London and lives are sacrificed in a long and terrible war, fifteen-year-old Florrie is forced to grow up fast. There has been no word from her father, fighting in the muddy trenches, and her mother is heartbroken and distracted. Florrie, lonely in the freezing house, turns to her sister Edith for comfort. Since her sweetheart Frank left to fight for his country, Edith has withdrawn from her sister, leaving the house in secret, not telling anyone where she is going. Worried by her older sister’s strange behaviour, one day Florrie follows Edith and makes a shocking discovery…
Years later Kate, running from her broken relationship, is sorting through her dying aunt Florrie’s house, which she shared with her sister Edith. At first the musty shut-up house, with its threadbare carpets and dusty ornaments, seems to be the perfect place for Kate to hide and heal her broken heart.
But as time goes by, Kate discovers that the little house has dark secrets. Why is there a locked room hidden at the end of the passage? What is the story behind the abandoned wedding dress wrapped in tissue and tied up with a ribbon? Is there any truth in the strange stories the neighbours tell, that they never saw her aunt Edith leave the house? And when Kate discovers the tragic secrets that have bound her family together, will she ever be able to move on?
A heartbreaking historical novel of war, tragedy and the dark secrets between two sisters. Fans of Fiona Valpy, Kristin Hannah and Victoria Hislop will be hooked by The Shut-Away Sisters.
Order your copy online here.