Knee-deep in research, obsessed and fascinated by everything I can source about the Home Front in WW2 and other matters relating to my new novel, I know it is time to start writing it. After all, only a smidgen of what I am reading about will eventually find its way into the book. There is nothing worse than reading a novel that screams out to the reader I did all this research and I am determined to prove it to you on each and every page! It will require a selective process of providing sufficient detail to convey the tone and mood of the times and a careful choice of pertinent detail.
But as I begin actually to put pen to paper – or rather fingertips to keyboard – I stumble up against an obstacle. Or at least a concern.
How did people actually talk all those years ago?
Now this might sound foolish. Clearly, they used the same English language, similar vocabulary and conducted conversations in a way immediately recognisable to us today.
Yet equally, there were differences.
You only have to listen to the young Queen’s voice on her coronation in 1953 and compare it with how she sounded some 69 years later to acknowledge this.
And even leaving royalty aside, films made in the 1940s will reveal that accents were different. Sometimes extraordinarily different.
The question is how much of the way people spoke in films was adopted because that was how they assumed actors should speak? Were they told to project an image of clipped and precise English voices that were, in fact, very different from the average man and woman on the street?
One of my all time favourite classic films is Brief Encounter – for me, one of the most perfect love stories that ever made its way onto a screen. Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Rachmaninoff’s soaring Second Piano Concerto, passion, restraint, duty, selflessness- and that wonderful narration by Celia Johnson in her home counties, crystal-clear, almost metallic vocal tone. Did people really talk like that?
Then there are the actual expressions to consider. I always find it very annoying when the characters in a novel adopt phrases that people simply did not say in a particular decade. So it seems important to me to give my WW2 characters an authenticity. Yet will it sound too strained and cliched to inject certain phrases into the dialogue?
Looking at my late mother’s very truncated and somewhat random diary of 1943 (I obviously inherited her lack of commitment to keeping a diary and hers would have been such a source of insight for me now if only she’d made the effort!) she talks about the weather being darned cold and her boss (apparently!) being in a gay mood, but still love him like poison and Daphne and I arranged about going to the flicks on Thursday but if I inject such expressions and call films, the flicks, will it sound forced?
Reading more comprehensive and published diaries of the time is a great resource to tap and one that I would recommend to anyone wanting to capture details and mood of a particular era.
In addition, it corrects the danger of referring to information and facts that were not actually known at the time. For example, I was not aware that radio and newspaper announcements only made vague reference to the location of bombing attacks. It would be The Midlands, or In South West England rather than precisely defining Birmingham or Bristol. Of course, word got around and if you were actually living in the place you knew very exactly where the raid had been – but I must not make the error of assuming my characters living in one place (the novel is set in London) know immediately the next morning the exact city or towns affected.
Few Eggs and No Oranges – The Diaries of Vere Hodgson 1940 – 45 is a wonderful source of detail about the Home Front:
Such a struggle to get an onion
she says on 17th September 1942. And a week later:
I purchased at an enormous price some fresh black-out for the bathroom and there is great excitement in November 1942 when shopping in Hatch End, Middlesex and:
To my amazement I saw a batch of kettles. Could not believe my eyes, and hastily purchased one. I enquired for a colander – but the woman shook her head like everyone else.
In addition to nouns like flicks and wireless to note, adjectives will need care. There a lot of uses of scrumptious and scrummy in Vere Hodgson’s entries which I think I will have to use with discretion – sounds just a little too like something out of an Enid Blyton story extolling the virtues of a Midnight Feast!
So no doubt it’s a case of balance in all things. I hope my research will help me avoid any anachronisms, but I must also ensure that my attention to detail does not dominate so much that it becomes an irritation. The story, after all, is what it is all about.
Let the writing begin!