Backstory

Authors tell you what inspired their work

Jacqueline Winspear, author of "Messenger of Truth"

I was inspired to write my first novel, Maisie Dobbs, by the character herself, who appeared in my mind's eye as I allowed my imagination to wander while stuck in traffic. I have referred to that spark of creativity as a moment of "artistic grace." It best describes the experience that led me to rush home from work later that day to begin writing, because by the time I started my car to drive home, I had the entire story in my head.

At the time I was working full-time and was also a non-fiction writer. I think I had last written fiction at primary school, starting with the words "Once upon a time" and ending with, "and they all lived happily ever after." Now I am a full-time writer, though what that really means is that I spend a lot of time traveling on book tours, answering emails, responding to letters and ensuring that I keep up with the administrative tasks that come with being a writer.

I am inspired by the generation of women represented in the character of Maisie Dobbs, who was a nurse in the Great War 1914-18, and who the reader meets in 1929 when she is setting up on her own in business as a "Psychologist and Investigator."

In reality, Maisie's generation of women were the first to go into war work in modern times -- some 60,000 in Britain alone, with another 460,000 taking on "men's work" to release men and boys for the battlefields. They experienced a bittersweet independence as a result of that war -- bittersweet as so many lost brothers, sweethearts and husbands to war.

The 1921 census revealed that there were two million "surplus" women of marriageable age in Britain, for whom there would never be a husband and children because so many young men had been killed, severely wounded or shell-shocked. There was a pamphlet published describing "The Problem of the Surplus Women," and all manner of books were written for and by this extraordinary generation of women who very quickly realized that they had to take care of their financial security for the rest of their lives, that they had to nurture relationships to sustain them as they grew older, and that they had to play a part in their communities -- or be invisible.

Obviously there were those who married, and there were those who floundered, however, others blazed a trail -- entering public life like never before, going out to work in factories and offices, living alone or with other women. I believe an archetype was born at that time, a very capable, opinionated, independent, yet compassionate woman of strength and substance -- you can see her characterized in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Ladies in Lavender, and of course in Agatha Christie's Miss Marple.

So, as long as I am curious and interested in the way in which the character of Maisie Dobbs is impacted by her past, by her work and by the events of the era, I will be writing about her.

History is always one of my inspirations, though it is social history, the stories of the people that fascinate me. I have come to understand that I am most curious about what happens to ordinary people in extraordinary times -- and no time was more extraordinary in terms of the changes wrought on society, than the time from the onset of the Great War, to the end of the Second World War. A mystery provides an interesting framework with which to explore such a time. If you look at the original meaning of mystery, you have an archetypal journey though chaos to calm, to reconciliation, to atonement, perhaps. There is a pilgrimage to a place of understanding, yet before that comes loss, risk, a dark night of the soul -- you can wrap all of those experiences into a compelling story, delve into character and use history as a backdrop. The challenge of immersing oneself into that kind of storytelling is inspiring -- if awe-inspiring at times.

In the vein of inspiration, I am working on two other projects that have come about as a result of my research and inquiry for my mystery series. One is a novel set in 1940, and the other is a work of non-fiction. I hope to get the first project completed by the end of next year, and the second -- well, that's ongoing at the moment. That's what happens when inspiration strikes as a writer. It's like being a chef with a lot of pans on the stovetop -- you always have to cater to the people who've placed an order first, which means that writing the next book featuring Maisie Dobbs always takes priority!

Jacqueline Winspear is the author of Messenger of Truth: A Maisie Dobbs Novel. To visit her website, please click here.

Photo credit: Mark Fairhurst


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