I interviewed Helen Yendall about her research for her debut novel, A Wartime Secret. In my Research Secrets slot in issue #245 13 Jul 2022 of Writers’ Forum, you can read all about the research Helen Yendall did for this historical novel set in WWII and how this research inspired her plot, setting and characters.
Helen explained that A Wartime Secret, was inspired by the true story of a bank and its staff that were moved to the countryside for the duration of the war. The main character is feisty Maggie Corbett, who moves from London to the Cotswolds with Rosman’s merchant bank. She’s a fish out of water in many ways. Although it’s set during the war, it’s an upbeat story and one reviewer described it as ‘EastEnders meets Downton Abbey’.
She discovered the story of the bank moving to Upton for the duration of the war, when she visited an exhibition at Upton House called Banking For Victory. This was long before she decided to write a novel about it. The house was reconfigured as it would have looked during the 1940s and Helen revealed she visited it more than once. By the time she realised it would make a great setting for a novel, the exhibition was over. However the National Trust researchers were was able to confirm many of the details she remembered.
Real aspects of Upton House are included in A Wartime Secret: the outdoor swimming pool, in which bank employees swam before work (and which features in an incident in the novel), the Mirror Pool in the grounds, which was filled in during the war, so it didn’t act as a marker for enemy planes and one of the Canaletto paintings, which currently part of Upton House’s art collection.
“I always had Upton House in my mind when I pictured my fictional Snowden Hall but I moved the house slightly, from Warwickshire to Gloucestershire, to create a little distance from the real place.”Helen Yendall
Helen does a lot of research before she starts to write a novel, as it always gives her ideas for her plot. For example, the real bank – M Samuel & Co – was actually moved from the City of London to Warwickshire in 1939, as soon as war broke out. Helen decided to move the bank in 1940, once the Blitz had started. She told me this was vital for the very first scene of the book when Maggie is lying face down on the floor of a bus, during a raid, an idea that she said came from The People’s War by Felicity Goodall. This book contains an extract from a woman’s diary, describing her reactions in an air raid.
Primary sources were invaluable to Helen. She explained when you’re writing historical fiction, you really need to try to immerse yourself in that time. If you can read letters or books written in that time or watch films made during that era it all helps.
But her research was not always plain sailing. Helen discovered several thousand adult Jews were smuggled into Britain during WW2 but couldn’t find out anywhere how this was done. So, although it features in her story, she had to be vague and non-specific about it and let the reader imagine contacts and underground organisations for themselves.
“Sometimes you simply won’t be able to find something out and you can spend hours and end up no further forward. If this happens to you, ask yourself if it’s absolutely essential to the story, or can I get around it in some way? Sometimes, if you’re a little vague about how something might have happened, I think that’s better than putting in lots of details that might actually be wrong.”Helen Yendall
For A Wartime Secret, Helen needed to know how long it would take a letter to arrive and then how long it would take for her character to receive a reply, within Britain. She struggled to find this out so in the end, she emailed her question to an expert at the Postal Museum https://www.postalmuseum.org/ and had an answer within a few days.
Another valuable resource for Helen were the 1940s Facebook pages she belongs to. She said someone on those will often answer a question, if she is stuck. However, she reminds people it is wise to double-check information found via social media.
“It is worth joining a few relevant groups that are interested in the same era as your novel is set. They can provide a wealth of information, photographs and helpful links.”Helen Yendall
For people wanting to do their own research into WWII, Helen suggests looking at the British Newspaper Archive as it contains 50 million pages of news stories from 1699 to 2009. She explained it is a paid subscription service, starting at £6.67 a month if you subscribe for a year and there are lots of articles available for free.
Helen warned it’s very easy to get carried away with your research and end up with much more material than you can ever feasibly use, at least in one novel. Her advice is no to try to cram in everything you learn about a period of time. Be selective. If one strand won’t fit into this book, perhaps you can use it for another – a sequel perhaps.
To read my future Writing 4 Children or Research Secrets interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.