I love the research involved with writing historical fiction – in fact, it is so absorbing, so much fun I have to give myself a cut off point or the novels would never get written. The inspiration for ‘The Beauty Chorus’ came from a tiny obituary in a flying magazine for a woman who flew Spitfires during WW2. My gut instinct was – why don’t people know about this? Then: this is a story that has to be told.
I’m married to a pilot, but I knew nothing about aviation during WW2. I didn’t know a Lancaster from a Stirling, or how to fly a Spitfire – but I do now (at least on paper). When I was little, I wanted to be a detective like Nancy Drew, to solve mysteries like Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Researching historical fiction is just as exciting to me now. I taught myself everything I could from the material available to the public – read everything I could, from first person autobiographies and memoirs from the women who had flown with the Air Transport Auxiliary, to biographies of the ‘big’ figures like Amy Johnson. Then the fun really started.
Once I had the ‘scaffolding’ of the story – the major plot and characters outlined, the really deep research began. I poured over archives, handling documents and diaries yellow with age. I talked to surviving veterans who had lived and worked through this time. I read the wartime diaries of housewives to find out all I could about ‘make do and mend’ and ‘digging for victory’. I watched endless black and white films of the era to tune my ear into the dialogue, and listened to the music of the time. I wrote my first draft listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra. I spoke to museums, libraries, chased down every single detail I could get my hands on to bring the story to life, to create a sense of place.
I found out amazing things – each clue, each question led to others. I found out pilots of the American Eagle Squadrons were known among the girls for their racy green socks. There were other sartorial cultural differences - while the American love interest would have worn ‘boxer shorts’, the Imperial War Museum told me normal British men would have worn utility underpants. I learnt that while the female pilots dreaded being stuck out at some bases, they loved getting stranded at the US bases because they could stock up on lipstick and silk stockings. Then there were larger things – I pieced together countless accounts of Amy Johnson’s last flight from biographies and RAF reports, and the account in the novel brings together details I haven’t read anywhere else. There was so much information I didn’t use a lot of it in the story – but I hope as Hemingway once said, you get a feel for the depth of this knowledge in the story – almost reading between the lines what isn’t said.
It was wonderful researching this story, and I hope my enjoyment and enthusiasm comes through. These women were amazing – modest, brave and skilful civilians doing one of the most dangerous jobs in the war, but they are all but forgotten. I hope ‘The Beauty Chorus’ will introduce them to a few new people.
‘The Beauty Chorus’ was published by Corvus, Atlantic on 1 April 2011; available from Amazon UK and Book Depository. Visit Kate's blog, What Kate Did Next, at http://thebeautychorus.blogspot.com.