I’m delighted to be joining the Arrow tour hosting Maisie Thomas in my hot seat chatting to us about The Railways Girls, the first story in an exciting new series.
The Railway Girls by Maisie Thomas is published by Arrow publishing (28th May 2020) and will be available to purchase in digital, paperback and audiobook formats.
In February, 1922, at the western-most entrance to Victoria Station in Manchester, a massive plaque was unveiled. Beneath a vast tiled map showing the lines of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway network, a series of seven bronze panels recorded the names of the men of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway who gave their lives for King and Country in the Great War – a total of 1,460 names.
In March, 1940, a group of women of varying ages and backgrounds, stand in front of the memorial, ready to do their bit in this new World War…
Mabel is determined to make a fresh start as a railway girl where no one will know the terrible thing she did and she can put her guilt behind her… Or is she just running away?
Meanwhile Joan will never be as good as her sister, or so her Gran keeps telling her. A new job as a station clerk could be just the thing she needs to forget her troubles at home.
And Dot is further into her forties than she cares to admit. Her beloved sons are away fighting and her husband – well, the less said about him the better. Ratty old sod. She is anxious to become a railway girl just like her dear mam – anything to feel she is supporting the sons she prays for every night.
The three women start off as strangers, but soon form an unbreakable bond that will get them through the toughest of times…
Hi Maisie, welcome to Jera’s Jamboree.
Please summarise The Railway Girls in 20 words or less:
A heart-warming saga about lives and loves of the brave women who took up work on Britain’s railways during WWII.
What was the idea/inspiration for your novel?
Having grown up hearing tales of the war from my mum and others in her generation, I loved to read about it too. I also have a large collection of books about all aspects of life on the home front, so it felt natural to build my own stories about life during the war. As for the railways in particular – that’s partly because my husband loves heritage railways and we’ve travelled to many of them. And also partly because my Great-Aunt Jessie was a railway girl during the First World War. Her own father was a lifelong railway clerk, working in the charging office, where they sorted out the journeys and costs of anything other than passengers that had to be transported – parcels, factory goods, even livestock. Working in the charging office is the job I gave to one of my main characters, Joan.
How do your characters come into existence Maisie?
Each character starts with a few ideas – hair and eye colour, favourite song or a kernel of a backstory. As soon as I start writing them down, more ideas follow. It’s important to know all about the character, her family, her background etc. before the writing starts.
Please tell us about the characters in your book.
The Railway Girls has three main viewpoint characters – Joan, Mabel and Dot, as well as a lovely wider cast of women and girls who make up the Railway Girls.
19-year-old-Joan is an orphan who, together with her sister Letitia, has been brought up by their strict grandmother. Compared to her beautiful, clever sister, Joan sees herself as second-best. As a sewing-machinist making blackout curtains, she is anxious to find a job that will give her the chance of doing ‘real’ war work.
Mabel is privately educated and wealthy – but her family’s money was acquired from her father’s factory and, at a time when everyone was class conscious, she is aware of being ‘new money’. Her aim in doing war work isn’t so much to join the railways as simply to get away from home, leaving her guilty secret behind her.
And Dot – oh, I love Dot! Dot is in her 40s, a mother and grandmother. She is one of those amazing wartime housewives who signed up to do her bit for the war effort, then came home after a long day’s work and took care of her home and family. Life has never been easy for Dot, least of all at home where she has long since fallen out of love with her husband, but it’s in her nature to make the best of things.
Does your book tackle a social barrier Maisie? How have you incorporated it into the story?
In those days, class was hugely important. It informed every aspect of a person’s life. In the book, when working-class Dot meets fellow railway worker Cordelia, who is the middle-class wife of a well-to-do solicitor, Dot notes that, in different circumstances, she wouldn’t have been Cordelia’s colleague – she’d have been her charwoman or as we know it now, cleaner. I wanted to address this aspect of society because it was part and parcel of everyday life, but also during WWII, these social barriers started to be questioned and I wanted to explore that process.
Your book is part of a series, what is in the future?
The Railway Girls is the first in a series. In the second book (Secrets of the Railway Girls, which will be published in September) and the third book (as yet untitled), Joan, Dot and Mabel continue to be our focus. Being asked to write three books about them enabled me to explore their lives in depth, which has been enormously satisfying for me as a writer and I hope that readers will enjoy being immersed in their lives too.
Do you have a most creative time of day Maisie?
That’s an interesting question. Back in the days when I was writing for pleasure, I used to find that the writing flowed best in the afternoons and long into the evenings – but now I wonder if that was simply because I’d got warmed up by that time! These days, working to deadlines, I knuckle down to it in the morning. Mind you, I do still wonder about writing long into the night, but my home circumstances don’t permit that any more.
Pantser or plotter?
For years I wrote for pleasure and was a complete pantser, but now I am a plotter. I start with a detailed synopsis, which I break down into scenes. Since I write in multi-viewpoint, it is important to divide up the story so that each viewpoint character is represented evenly throughout. Having various sub-plots on the go means that I have to make sure everything happens in precisely the right order. Because The Railway Girls is written around real events, such as Dunkirk and the Manchester air raids, having a date-by-date list of the plot points was essential.
Finally, have you a tip to share with new writers?
The best piece of advice I can give is: don’t stop writing today unless you know how you’re going to start writing tomorrow. There are various ways of achieving this, such as making a few notes or stopping in the middle of a scene. I was told of one writer who used to stop mid-sentence, though I’m sure most of us would struggle to do that!
Thank you for being my guest today. Wishing you success with all your writing projects.
Maisie Thomas was born and brought up in Manchester, which provides the location for her Railway Girls novels. She loves writing stories with strong female characters, set in times when women needed determination and vision to make their mark. The Railway Girls series is inspired by her great Aunt Jessie, who worked as a railway clerk during the First World War. Maisie now lives in beautiful North Wales with her railway enthusiast husband and their two rescue cats. They often enjoy holidays chugging up and down the UK’s heritage steam railways. Twitter : @MaisieThomas99