It was 1973, and I was sitting in the front passenger seat of the car, with my fourteen-year-old younger brother in the back, reading a comic. Dad pulled over opposite the hardware store, and he was in a hurry. “Quick son, nip in there and pick up the paint I’ve ordered.” My brother rolled his eyes as he threw down the comic and stepped out of the car. My father watched him saunter across the road and shook his head. “When I was that age, I living away from home and fending for myself,” he said. I didn’t think any more of it, assuming that, like my mother, he had been evacuated from London during the war. However, it was decades later, in the hospice where he would spend his final days, that we revisited stories about his childhood, about family and the things he loved, that he began telling me about the years when he lived away from home – and it wasn’t the story I was expecting. Like most working class kids in those days, my father left school at fourteen to go to work – in his case for a painting and decorating business, taking up an apprenticeship secured for him by his father. It was 1940, and his employer had landed a government contract to paint every RAF building in the country with a special fire retardant – at the time, new aerodromes were being built in a hurry, so there was a lot of work. Dad joined a crew moving from one region to the next, living in lodgings, and he was doing the sort of work that an apprentice was landed with. He was blending the emulsion as well as painting, and testing each wall as it was finished fell to him.
“I had to line up blowtorches right next to a wall,” he said. “And after three hours I’d come back, and do you know – there wasn’t a mark to be seen.”
“Really?” I asked. “What was that stuff called?”
“Oh it never had a name, just a number.”
This was in the days when men did not wear protective clothing or masks, so an adolescent boy, still growing, was exposed to an unnamed toxic emulsion that had doubtless not been subject to adequate testing because it was wartime and they needed those buildings to resist fire. I knew in that moment that I had a story, yet it wasn’t until 2017 that I began work on To Die But Once, about a young apprentice painter, a member of a crew applying toxic emulsion to airfield buildings in the spring of 1940. My character, young Joe Coombes, is not my father – but every aspect of his work is based upon the story my father shared with me that day, just a week before he died. And because my father loved one of his “billets” more than any other – on a farm in Hampshire – so Joe loves the county. Of course, other threads had to be woven into that central story, but I drew upon personal experience to give color and texture to the characters. Joe’s sister is a telephonist on the government exchange – an easy choice for me, as my mother worked on the government exchange, and she’d told me a lot about what it was like to be a telephonist working on secure lines in the 1940’s. Over the years I’ve cherry-picked nuggets of my own and family experiences to provide those often telling details – some very small – that give color and texture to a story; tools to draw in the reader so that they are transported, in the moment, to a different time and place. And sometimes, it’s those seemingly miniscule details that make all the difference in the crafting of a narrative.
My mother always said I was a nosy child – the kid who asked the embarrassing questions. I once revealed the pregnancy of my mother’s friend’s teenage daughter, when it transpired I was the only one who’d noticed her swollen belly and asked, in innocence, when she was having her baby! I might use that vignette in a story one day. Yet I don't think I was nosy, as much as curious – and I believe that we writers were probably all curious kids who kept that curiosity going into adulthood. We noticed details – things we come back to, slipping into our writing something observed in human behavior so it plays a key role in touching upon universal truths.
It was during one of my visits to Whitchurch in Hampshire, where I have family, that I garnered two golden nuggets – precious pieces of information I would come back to. My cousin happened to mention that paper money was printed locally, and that the Bank of England had moved some of its operations to the area during the war. I tucked that one away, did more research, and used it in To Die But Once. Then my aunt told me a wartime story of having to make her way home through a daytime bombing raid, when the office where she worked sustained damage. She was walking along when she saw a woman clambering over a pile of searing hot rubble, pulling at bricks and burning her hands. “My girls! My girls!” she screamed, while the ARP men tried to tear her away. My aunt began to run, stumbling, crying because people were dying in the street, when she saw my mother running toward her in the distance. The American Agent opens with a war correspondent broadcasting her report of a nighttime bombing – where she has witnessed a woman tearing at burning rubble searching for her daughters, who have perished in the attack.
There is no secret to using personal experiences in fiction. As a writer, you’re already an observer of people every day. But the key is in using those golden nuggets with care, weaving them into the narrative so they fit – and writing from the heart.
The American Agent (number 15 in the bestselling Maisie Dobbs series) by Jacqueline Winspear is out now and published by Allison & Busby.