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Researching Winterman

May 4, 2019

The original germ of the idea for Winterman goes back a year or two.  I'd had the idea of trying to write a book set in the aftermath of the Second War World, when the Attlee government was trying to implement the welfare state in the face of severe austerity and rationing. My second thought was to set the book during the harsh winter of 1946-47, when weeks of heavy snow paralysed the country, and to locate it in East Anglia, where the subsequent thaw resulted in equally damaging floods.

 

The book is, like my other novels, is a police procedural, but this was the first time I'd set a book in the past. With my UK based procedurals, I've generally tended not to research heavily in advance of starting to write a book. This is partly because I usually have only a fairly loose idea at the start of where the writing's likely to take me. Instead, I tend to research as I go, identifying the areas where I need more information and then targeting my efforts accordingly.

 

In this case, though, as with my books set in Mongolia, I felt I needed to understand this world as fully as possible from the start. This was a period that had always fascinated me for a variety of reasons. I was interested in the lingering psychological impact of the war and, on the home front, of the relatively recent threat of invasion.  I was interested in the impact of the 1945 Labour landslide and the transformational achievements of Attlee's government, as well as the reasons why that government lost support to the point where it lost the General Election (though admittedly not the popular vote) in 1951.

 

More generally, I was intrigued by what it must have felt like to live through that period of austerity and rationing, less than 15 years before my own birth.  Over the years, I picked up anecdotal accounts of what life was like during and after the war from my parents – who were teenagers during these years, not so different from the young people we meet in the early chapters of the book. I recalled my dad's stories about having to cycle to work along an icy path by the side of a frozen canal during that severe winter. I remembered my mother's tales of the war, listening to the Allied and German planes flying over. But I needed to fill out the picture, as well as gaining an understanding of what policing was like at that time.

 

In the end, the research took me far and wide. Some books stood out as particularly useful. David Kynaston's magisterial Austerity Britain is a superbly detailed account of the time, its people and its politics. Simon Garfield's Our Hidden Lives, which collects extracts from the diaries written for the Mass Observation study in the period 1945-48, proved both a fascinating read and invaluable in providing a real insight into everyday life in the period.

 

Other books opened up new avenues of thought, and sowed imaginative seeds that subsequently grew into elements of the plot. Ben Wicks's extraordinary and deeply moving account of the experiences of wartime evacuee children, No Time to Wave Goodbye, made me wonder about the possible fates of some of those displaced boys and girls. The evacuation process was a logistical triumph, but it is clear that some of the evacuees fared much better than others. Some were badly treated and even abused, and I wondered about some of those who might even have been, horrifyingly, lost in transit.

 

Another book which opened up a facet of the plot was A Higher Form of Killing, a history of chemical and biological warfare originally published in 1982 by two young journalists called Jeremy Paxman and Robert Harris (wonder whatever happened to them?). I'd initially picked up an aged copy of the original paperback in a secondhand shop, and was fascinated by its account of the often appalling practices and experiments carried out during both World Wars. That opened up another seam of ideas which fed into the eventual plot.

 

Alongside that, I read books around the history of policing. The period during which the novel was set was a period of substantial change in the structure of police forces, with the 1946 Police Act (which came into force on 1 April 1947, shortly after the setting of the novel) abolishing 15 borough police forces, alongside a range of other amalgamations of forces. It occurred to me that, in this period of post-war uncertainty, it was likely that various organisational anomalies would have developed, at least temporarily. This allowed me to envisage a motley group of misfit officers operating in an overlooked outpost, with the possibility of corruption and exploitation never far away.  

 

From this disparate stew of information and ideas, the story slowly began to emerge. I envisaged a young, bright detective who'd had a problematic war, both personally and professionally, and had now been exiled to a rural backwater. I had a dark back-story set during the early days of the war, and an idea of how this would intrude into the post-war setting of the book.

 

Then, as so often, an image came from nowhere that began to make all these elements gel – in this case, a young man in a pub trying to goad an older man, a clergyman, into telling his 'ghost story'. I had no idea at first where that image had come from or what it might mean. But it began to pull all my research together, and from that early scene Winterman was born…

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