One of the best things about being a writer is you get to have friends who are also writers. Sheena’s first novel, Taking Flight, came out around the same time as my first book, Prim Improper, and we’ve been friends since then. She loves animals and history and crochet and music and I love her books. Her forthcoming one, Name Upon Name is a little bit different to the other books, in that it’s historical. I read it last week and LOVED it, so I decided to ask her some questions about it. I love books set in the past, and am really curious about the process of writing one. Like time-travel with a laptop instead of a tardis…
- What made you want to write a novel set in 1916?
I’ve always been obsessed with that period, ever since falling for the War Poets at school, and I’ve written quite a bit about it but always short fiction. A full novel set in 1916 was more of a challenge but one I absolutely relished.
- Tell me a little bit about your research process.
There are websites for everything, but I must say I like books best – my house is coming down with books about the period, and I also used an excellent collection in the local library. Name Upon Name is set very specifically in Belfast, and I could get very geeky about, for example, checking the local weather for April 1916 – which is one of the things you can do online. I absolutely love research, but, as for many writers, the difficulty is knowing when to stop. For Name Upon Name, I had quite a short period to actually write the book, which in a way was helpful, as it very much focused my mind on what I needed to know. Otherwise, you can spend days finding out things like what colour the seats on the trains in the County Down railway were. I like to fill up a notebook with notes and then highlight the ones I think I’ll need for the book.
- Helen is so believably of her time, did you have any books or films you read or watched to get into the 1916 mindset?
Well – see above! It helped that I’ve always enjoyed books actually written in the 1910s for girls of Helen’s age. (It was great fun giving her the same books to read!) It did matter to me a lot that Helen was believable as a girl who’s growing up a hundred years ago: she has to appeal to modern readers, but she’s not a modern girl.
- You explore what it’s like to be caught between two worlds in a variety of ways in this book, but it’s also a theme that you’ve dealt with in other books. What keeps you coming back to the shifting identity?
That’s a very observant point! I suppose I’ve always felt myself to be caught between identities, as a person who feels both British (but not properly), and Irish (but not properly). Slightly on the edge of things is a good place to be for a writer. In Name Upon Name I was able to give Helen exactly those feelings, which is the first time I have really dealt with cultural identity so specifically. In my other books, it’s mainly tensions around social class – which also features in Name Upon Name, but not as obviously as some of the other tensions. And I write mostly for teenagers, and being that age is always, at some level, about forging an identity. And I guess a character who wasn’t struggling to do that wouldn’t be very interesting!
- If you could travel back in time, where would you go and why?
I often wonder that! I often go round big National Trust houses with a friend, and while she always imagines herself being the lady of the manor, I always assume I’d be the skivvy. I think most periods in history were very tough for women and girls, and much as I adore history, I’m actually very glad to be alive now, and very grateful to the women who defied convention to allow us the freedom we have today.
- Will you please write me a sequel where Helen gets involved in woman’s suffrage?
I do have a sequel in mind, though that’s not what’s going to happen. It may never be written, of course, but if it does, it will be set in 1917, and it will Make You Cry.
Are there any questions you’d like to ask Sheena about writing historical fiction? If you had a time machine, where would you go, and why?