My late mother would probably roll her eyes at what I am about to write, which amounts to a confession regarding a childhood trait of mine that was the cause of much embarrassment for her. You see, I was a rather nosey kid and I'm not really sorry about it. I would ask my elders all sorts of questions, interrogating them about anything that occurred to me regarding "the olden days." I remember asking one of my mother's friends about her childhood in the olden days, and she said, "Not so much of the 'olden' if you don't mind!" My mother raised her eyebrows and gave me that, "Wait until I get you home" look—I seemed to get that look a lot when I'd overstepped the mark with my questions.
I was all ears when someone uttered the words, "Well in my day..." before going on to tell a story about life in another time and place. If I was at someone's house and there were sepia photographs on the mantelpiece or on top of an old upright piano, I would stare into them, taking account of every detail. Sometimes I thought people hung onto old pianos just to have a place to display their family portraits. I would look at photos and wonder what made that person look away from the camera at someone in the distance, or I'd be curious about why that child was frowning at the photographer. Asking questions brought the past alive for me in a very direct and colorful way. People told me things they might have kept to themselves—and I have recounted some of those stories in my upcoming memoir, This Time Next Year We'll Be Laughing, which will be published on November 10th. Not long to go now!
There was the elderly gentleman who described the time he was the only witness to a meeting between Winston Churchill and General "Ike" Eisenhower in the summer of 1944—I was on the edge of my seat as he described his job and why he was tasked with keeping the meeting a secret. And there was the grandmother of a childhood friend, a very dignified woman who appreciated my love of books and allowed me to look at any book that caught my attention in her library. My eyes widened the day I saw a personal inscription from a very famous author, only for my friend's grandmother to inform me, "I was once her secretary." Had I known about degrees of separation then, I would have been jettisoned to the moon.
I'm often asked how I go about the "research" for my writing, whether I'm working on a novel, an essay or short story, and the truth is research starts with asking questions; delving deep into a subject and then asking more questions—a process of inquiry that takes the writer on a journey of discovery. The challenge is in knowing when to stop, when enough is enough, though as far as I'm concerned, everything I gather is "inventory" for me to access at any time.
Sometimes I will read a book simply to find that one little snippet of information that will provide the seedling from which to grow a whole scene, or develop a character, or a plot point. However, as you will notice when you read This Time Next Year We'll Be Laughing, much of the research for my stories is in remembering—after all, memories are inventory too. For my fiction, I'll take perhaps a nugget of family history then weave a different kind of story. Drawing upon my late parents' experiences during wartime has helped give color and texture to my writing. In my memoir you'll read another story about my father, one that inspired the next book in the Maisie Dobbs' series (The Consequences of Fear, to be published March 23, 2021). You heard it here first, though you'll have to read the memoir to discover the other story about my Dad.
I began writing my memoir many years ago, stashing an earlier, very different version in a drawer because I couldn't quite bend the words to my will. Now publication day is almost here for This Time Next Year We'll Be Laughing, so I'm excited, yet also filled with trepidation. As any writer will tell you, whether you are a first time author or have published a raft of books, publication day can be daunting. Yes, it's thrilling, but scary too—the book you've worked on for a long time is now "out there" and you just hope that readers will enjoy the story you felt compelled to write.
Until the next time...
With all good wishes,
PS: You can read more about This Time Next Year We'll Be Laughing, along with an excerpt here: www.thistimenextyearbook.com