Monday, 11 November 2013

Finding Inspiration – author Helen Carey recalls the inspiration behind her bestselling wartime LAVENDER ROAD series.

Today talking about Inspiration is author Helen Carey.
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People often ask me where I get my inspiration. ‘I’d love to write a novel,’ they say, ‘if only I could think of a good story.’


But it’s often not a story that starts me off. It’s more likely to be a theme, an event or a character that attracts my interest. The story comes later.

For my wartime LAVENDER ROAD series it was an old lady I met at a bus stop in Clapham. We fell into conversation and she told me she had lived in the area right through the Second World War. As we waited for the bus she pointed out a couple of ugly 1950s houses (which I had never previously noticed) built where previous Victorian ones had been destroyed during Blitz, some missing trees where a V2 had landed in 1944 and the now grassed-over bomb shelters on Clapham Common. Laura was a born and bred South Londoner and spoke of traumatic wartime events with a kind of rough and ready humour and breezy unconcern that transported me back to those extraordinary years.

The bus came along then, but just in that short encounter was born the idea of writing a series of fun, readable novels exploring the day-to-day ups and downs, highs and lows, of people living in one south London street during World War Two.

That was over ten years and three wartime novels ago.


I am now researching the fourth novel in my LAVENDER ROAD series and nowadays, of course, on top of all the histories, diaries, letters, museums, official reports, local history libraries, film footage and BBC documentaries I used last time, there is also the internet with a million WWII sites.

But what there aren’t so many of now, sadly, are real live people who remember those eventful years. And it is people’s memories that I still find the most inspiring element of my research. Yes, historical records are great, but nothing compares with someone telling you at first hand what it was like to be caught in Balham tube station when a bomb severed the water main, or to crawl through the cellars of a collapsed building searching for a trapped child, or to take a tiny riverboat over to rescue trapped soldiers at Dunkirk, or to be parachuted into occupied France.

A few months ago I interviewed a ninety year old doctor who had been present in the laboratory where they developed the first penicillin cultures in 1940. He told me that they had to use bedpans to grow the cultures in, they simply didn’t have anything else suitable. Later on he casually let slip that in 1941 his ship was torpedoed at night crossing the Atlantic and he spent several hours tossing about in the dark on a makeshift raft in his dressing gown and slippers before he was rescued.

That is one of the odd things about the war years, people who lived through it often look back as though it was all quite ordinary. But it wasn’t, it was quite extraordinary and it forced people to show extraordinary amounts of courage and resilience. That’s what makes it such a fascinating and inspiring period to write (and hopefully read) about.

Laura sadly died several years ago, just after my second novel SOME SUNNY DAY was first published, but I am still grateful to her for that original spark of inspiration.

Thank you Helen for sharing with us the inspiration behind Lavender Road



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