AJ Pearce immersed herself in the music of the 1940s and watched air raids on You Tube “with the volume turned up as loud as possible, trying to get some idea of what on earth it was like.”
[in an interview with ‘The Bookseller’ magazine, January 12, 2018]
Any novelist who has set a story in the recent past knows the joys, and pitfalls, of online research. Such is depth of digitised records now that there is almost nothing from the 20th century that is not accessible online. Author AJ Pearce, whose debut novel Dear Mrs Bird, is set in World War Two, turned to contemporary novels and You Tube.
In Dear Mrs Bird, Emmy Lake becomes an agony aunt on a magazine, offering advice, or not, to letter writers. Obviously Pearce immersed herself in magazines of the period. But she also read novels of the time, particularly Cheerfulness Breaks In by Angela Thirkell, published in 1940, and Henrietta’s War by Joyce Denys. “It’s funny and light but every now and then there’s a line that takes your breath away because it is so sad,” she explains.
In The Bookseller interview, Pearce is asked why she chose the World War Two setting. “I think it’s because the stories are so inspiring… You say to yourself, ‘Could I have been that brave?’ Just getting up in the morning and not knowing if your family is all right – every day for months, for years. We know that Hitler was defeated but they couldn’t know. People say they were the greatest generation and the more I read and the more I understand, well, you can’t fail to be inspired by the stories you hear.”
She is so right. I have a You Tube habit too, and a members card for the Imperial War Museum. My third novel Sweet Joy is set partly in London during The Blitz. So I can currently be found in the British Library reading about rationing, Dig for Victory and Make Do and Mend; and at The National Archives, carefully leafing through original ARP warden reports. It is fascinating.
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