When writing a novel (unless science fiction or a fantasy novel) real places, events and people are often incorporated into the narrative. An author has to decide whether the places named and described are in existence or are invented. So, for example, a town and its name might be a complete invention, or perhaps the name might be invented but the description and general location might reflect a real place, re-named for the purposes of the story. Similarly, an author might wish to include people who really existed to lend authenticity to the narrative, but might choose to centre the action around a group of imaginary people.
In writing The Keeping of Secrets I have borne in mind that it is set in an historical period. Thus I wanted places and public figures to be real and the events to be reflective of the real dangers faced by the people who lived through the Second World War. In the same way that a novel set in the City of London in early September 1666 ignores the Great Fire of London at its peril, so a novel featuring the monarch’s first Christmas speech of the Second World War cannot name that monarch other than King George VI, for to name the monarch Queen Hattie II, for example, would be so anomalous as to render the remainder of the novel unbelievable.
I therefore decided to set The Keeping of Secrets in real places and to reflect real events where possible. Within that framework, however, the novel is fiction and, while it attempts to mimic real life, does not necessarily record conversations word for word or present a blow by blow account of events as they actually unfolded. Further, some of the events that are reflective of real experiences are based on an individual’s recollection and no two eyewitnesses viewing the same event will necessarily provide identical accounts.
Here are some of the places, events and people featured in The Keeping of Secrets and their corresponding real or invented status.
Brixton – my mother grew up in the Clapham / Brixton area and the names of the roads where the main character in the novel lives at various points are roads in which my mother lived. My mother was in the dentist’s chair in Acre Lane two doors up from the rest centre when the buzz bomb cut out on 28th June 1944 narrowly avoiding the glass blasted onto the chair and she witnessed the devastation the bomb caused, recalling a man saying to her that she looked as if she had seen a ghost owing to the white plaster that showered down on her. Whether my mother helped any of the survivors I do not know, but I was writing about my character in the novel, not my mother, and contrasting her response at the rest centre to the bomb a few days earlier in Beechdale Road. I am not aware that my mother was in Brixton on the occasion of the Beechdale Road buzz bomb, a real event but details of which I fictionalised for the purpose of the novel as part of the cause of the anger Pat later expresses in her letters to Jon. I am most grateful to the Brixton Society’s Alan Piper for his information and advice in respect of the background to the buzz bombs in Brixton.
St Martin-in-the Fields School – I am immensely grateful to the school’s Headteacher for her support in my placing of my main character in the school which was attended by my mother and with which my mother was evacuated in 1939, and for her consent for the inclusion of an extract from the school song in the text. All the teachers and pupils depicted in the novel are the product of my imagination and their depiction is intended to be respectful of the teachers and pupils of the time. I am also most grateful for information provided by and support of members of St Martin-in-the Fields Old Girls Association to whom I am indebted for making my mother feel so welcome at their meeting at the school in 2011, a highlight of her failing years. The description of evacuation in my novel and of the main character’s several relocations are not intended to be read verbatim as a strict historical record, but, rather, as forming part of the background to the main character’s feelings around the impermanence and instability of her life. For an historical account of St Martin-in-the-Fields School I recommend the book From Schoole to School referred to in my recommended reading page.
St Birstan’s School – St Birstan’s, by contrast, is entirely a figment of my imagination. While my mother’s school was evacuated to Leatherhead, there is no school there by the name of St Birstan’s, not the buildings or the location described, and the St Birstan’s pupils referred to are entirely my invention.
The Beaver Club – The Beaver Club did exist and my grandmother worked there during the War. A poignant reminder remains from her time there, a square of lace given to her by a Canadian soldier on leave in late 1944 or early 1945 who had taken pity on one of many starving Belgians lining the roads during the Allied advance desperate to sell anything for food, and bought it from them.
Bill – Part of understanding my main character, Pat, was to understand that as she grew up burdened with family secrets she could only afford to cultivate a friendship that placed no pressure on her to breach confidentiality or secrets. Bill’s friendship, she thought, was straightforward and undemanding. Pat grew to feel safe in a boy’s world, so much less complicated than girls’ endless petty arguments and friendships that waxed and waned according to mood. The character of Bill, Pat’s relationship with him and the revelation of his romantic interest in her is my invention.
James – No search of the internet will bring this character to light as he is entirely created by me. My research into the Battle of Britain and, in particular, for the purposes of the novel, the airmen who flew Hurricanes, has served only to increase my respect and gratitude to the thousands of airmen from many countries who risked, and in many cases gave, their lives in fighting for the Allied cause. The Great Italian Turkey Shoot, as it came to be colloquially called, did take place and I understand none of the airmen of Squadron 249 out of North Weald were killed in the battle. My depiction of my character, James Alistair Bonar, his role within the Royal Canadian Air Force and liaison with the Royal Air Force is entirely fictional and not to be confused with anyone or any role which may have existed at the time in which the novel is set.
Becky – I invented Becky to show that Pat is capable of developing a close girl friendship. Although Pat struggles at first, witness her initial hesitation to tell Becky about Bill’s overtures, she realises that sometimes she has to take a risk, and the risk pays off with a deepening friendship between the two.
Jon – Jon is not my late father but some of my late father’s wartime stories were the inspiration for events encompassing this character. My parents told the story of my father falling in love with a photograph of my mother and wanting to meet her. The detail of their first meeting I do not know; the events of Easter 1941 depicted in the novel of Jon and Pat’s meeting are entirely my own invention. My father was in REME and his army records show his anti-aircraft training at Berwick in July and August 1943 (although I do not know whether there would have been a photograph of General Sir Frederick Pile there, a detail invented for the purposes of the story) and then seconded to the School of Electric Lighting at Lowercroft Camp near Bury in late August 1943. He used to tell of his work there on early computers, a story I took with a pinch of salt as I thought of computers as my generation knew them; only when researching for the novel did I fully understand that he was in fact working on improving the pre-cursor of the modern computer, the electromechanical analogue computing machines used with anti-aircraft gunnery. So much of his reminiscences now made sense, including the story he used to tell of the demonstration visit by his unit to Frinton-on-Sea. While my research into the history of the Second World War in Frinton-on-Sea did not bring to light the incident described by my father, when I visited Frinton-on-Sea and walked along the sea wall overlooking the golf course it all fitted with the story I had heard many times, accompanied by much chortling on my father’s part, and so I decided to include it in the novel. Jon’s special training at a camp in Scotland is invented, although commando training did, I understand, take place in Scotland during the Second World War. My father also told of his trips to London with top secret papers, amused at the reason for his being chosen above the others (i.e. his family home’s proximity to the Ministry). His unexpected appearances were also recounted to me by my grandparents. I have used those reminiscences as my source for the trips, although the detail of the vest, the password and the cultivation of Stella (a completely fictional character) are all invented.
Lowercroft Army Camp – I established in my research that the School of Electric Lighting was indeed situated at Lowercroft Camp, having been relocated there from Gosport, and I decided to resurrect the location of the camp in my novel, the huts of which have long gone and have been replaced with a 1970s or 1980s private housing estate. I am indebted to Richard Bowden who runs the Lancashire at War website for information about Lowercroft Camp. I am also indebted to Tony Saville who recalled seeing pieces of an electromechanical analogue computing machine when visiting his father, a staff sergeant instructor at the School of Electric Lighting, in his instruction hut. Our fathers were there at the same time and I am sure would have known each other. I should make it clear, however, that Staff Sergeant Cooper, also the major, lieutenant and the other members of the unit in the novel, are entirely my own invention and are not intended to resemble anyone who was a serving member of the School of Electric Lighting at the time. Walshaw exists, but has no Orchard Lane.
I have outlined a few of the events, characters and places appearing in The Keeping of Secrets and the extent to which they are fictionalised and to which they are purely inventions of my imagination. If there are any other parts of the novel about which you’d like to have more background please do contact me through my later Contact page.