Today on Author Chats I’m delighted to welcome Clare Flynn to talk about her most recent novel, Sisters at War. She reveals how her “other” life of travel informs her locations, and how she dealt with the challenges of writing during the pandemic, when inspiration and hope seemed over the horizon. Firstly, a little about Clare’s inspirational characters and setting…
Sisters at War
1940 Liverpool. The pressures of war threaten to tear apart two sisters traumatised by their father’s murder of their mother.
With her new husband, Will, a merchant seaman, deployed on dangerous Atlantic convoy missions, Hannah needs her younger sister Judith more than ever. But when Mussolini declares war on Britain, Judith’s Italian sweetheart, Paolo is imprisoned as an enemy alien, and Judith’s loyalties are divided.
Each sister wants only to be with the man she loves but, as the war progresses, tensions between them boil over, and they face an impossible decision.
A heart-wrenching page-turner about the everyday bravery of ordinary people during wartime. From heavily blitzed Liverpool to the terrors of the North Atlantic and the scorched plains of Australia, Sisters at War will bring tears to your eyes and joy to your heart.
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Thanks for chatting, Clare. Do tell us more about yourself and your writing.
Does writing energize or exhaust you and how do you wind down/ recharge?
If you’d asked me that a year or even six months ago, I’d have said it completely energized me. But now after a year of living in virtual isolation thanks to Covid, I feel emotionally drained. I think it’s because usually I get a lot of energy and stimulus from two things I have been unable to do – traveling and meeting other authors. It’s really odd how the less you have to do the less time you have to do it in! It’s hard to imagine how I packed so much in before and still managed to research and write a couple of books a year. I did a lot of painting, quilting and playing the piano as well as going away for foreign trips – but all these have fallen by the wayside since being locked down. So, my lesson learned is to recharge the batteries by focusing on all those kinds of things again so I can get my mojo back!
If you could go anywhere for a year to be inspired for your next book, what setting would you choose and what would you write?
Frankly, Elizabeth, right now I’d go anywhere! What a dream it seems!
Seriously, I am about 20,000 words into a book set in Paris. I lived there in 1989/90 so I know it well – but I’d give anything to be walking those streets again rather relying on Google Earth. I want to sit in the spring sunshine in the Luxembourg Gardens, wander around the Louvre and wander aimlessly through the Quartier Latin where I used to live.
For a bit of a recuperative self-indulgence combined with writing, I’d also like to escape to an island in the Far East. I have my eyes on a hotel in Langkawi. I wrote three books set in nearby Penang so I’d also want to pop over to that island too to relive the memory of writing those books.
What does literary success look like to you?
The most important judges of success are readers, so I focus on them. I like nothing more than getting emails from readers all over the world telling me how my books resonated with their own lives. I often write about World War 2 – something I never planned to do – but that’s another story! – and readers often tell me about their parents or grandparents and what they went through. It can be very moving.
But I am an ex-Marketing Director so I’m also very driven by targets and results which means I look at sales and rankings. I see them as measures of success not as ends in themselves.
What did you edit out of this book?
I am one of those rare animals who happens to love editing so I don’t dash off a first draft and then re-write. It’s a constant ongoing process. When I finish, I do a final read-through and edit and then it goes off to the editor. The things that then get edited out tend to be minor stuff that requires tightening – cutting any repetition, removing “filtering” words that risk sounding too “telly”, eliminating my verbal tics – that kind of thing. Most of the time I am more likely to under-write than need to cut – my editor sometimes tells me I need to add the odd scene to flesh out an aspect of the story. I did cut out a couple of short sequences where I was wearing my research on my sleeve rather than moving the action forward. There’s nothing worse than historical information dumps which don’t serve the story! Cut!
How do you select the names of your characters?
I’ve been known to wander round graveyards! I also look at birth records by year. Occasionally I start out with a name but decide to change it as I am writing because it isn’t sitting well. I’ve never regretted such changes. One lesson learned from my fourth novel, The Green Ribbons, is to avoid names that are so unfamiliar to readers that they trip over them. I was trying to channel Thomas Hardy and wanted a name a bit like Bathsheba Everdene – one with Biblical connotations so I settled on Hephzibah Wildman. Some readers struggled to pronounce the name Hephzibah. For my wartime books I tend to stick with relatively simple names, common at the time – in the case of Sisters at War Hannah and Judith are the daughters of a religious zealot so it was essential they had names from the Old Testament. Will is an Aussie and I wanted a simple name and the other significant character is Italian – Paolo Tornabene. I made up the surname. I once had a colleague whose surname was Trovamala (which is like trova male – meaning find evil). I thought it was a great name but didn’t want to steal it! I picked a similar construction and came up with Tornabene – which means comes back well.
How long did it take you to research and write this book and where there any “wrong turns” along the way?
I started Sisters at War after I finished writing my second Penang novel, Prisoner from Penang, back in December 2019. I wanted a sequel to Storms Gather Between Us which ended with war being declared in September 1939. I’d spent a couple of days in Liverpool in July 2019 to research the book and had bought lots of books on the Liverpool Blitz from the Museum of Liverpool as well as doing some location visits – so I was raring to go. All went well until the coronavirus struck and I went into paralysing fear and simply couldn’t write. As not writing is alien to me and probably made me even more anxious, I decided I couldn’t possibly stop. Yet reading and writing about bombs and destruction and death was making me very glum. And Liverpool – my birthplace and a great city – was not helping. Deprived of my liberty and all opportunities to travel I decided to do it vicariously and so set aside the manuscript and started writing a third Penang book so I could wrap myself in tropical sunshine. After A Painter in Penang was published I was feeling full of energy and enthusiasm and took up Sisters at War again. This time it went without a hitch and I enjoyed every minute of writing it.
Clare Flynn is the author of thirteen historical novels and a collection of short stories. A former International Marketing Director and strategic management consultant, she is now a full-time writer. Having lived and worked in London, Paris, Brussels, Milan and Sydney, home is now on the coast, in Sussex, England, where she can watch the sea from her windows. An avid traveler, her books are often set in exotic locations.
Clare is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a member of The Society of Authors, ALLi, and the Romantic Novelists Association. When not writing, she loves to read, quilt, paint and play the piano.
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