Culture Writer Charis Gambon interviews Wartime for the Chocolate Girls author Annie Murray and finds it fascinating how the author incorporates history into her writing

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Recently I was able to interview historical fiction author Annie Murray about her new book Wartime for the Chocolate Girls. The book is part of a three part series and is set in Birmingham during WW2. As someone who lives in Birmingham and has studied History at University, I found the chance to interview Annie fascinating.


Where does your interest in History stem from?
People and people’s experience. To be honest, I never liked History at school because back then (the ‘70s) it was all Acts of Parliament and Wars. But when I started to learn Social History, I loved it. A lot of this stemmed from finding out about Birmingham’s past. My real interest is people and how our life experiences shape us and I found myself living in this amazing city which was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution. On the face of it, it seems a very modern place and has always changed very fast but there is so much more to know about it.

What is your favourite era of History?
Modern. Any time from 1830 onwards, our recent fore-fathers and mothers. Also I love the history of the Victorians and the Industrial Revolution. The history of the families who shaped Birmingham, for example – so many of them Quakers and Unitarians – make it really distinctive.

How have you managed to find the time to write a new novel yearly since 1995?
Well, it’s my job. I have done it while bringing up four children so it has also been the thing that kept me sane. I think that temperamentally I have to write and so I have been incredibly lucky to be able to make it my day job.

How do you find blending historical events with fiction?
I would find writing straight factual stuff quite difficult now – although of course fact and fiction as previously defined have become more closely interwoven. There is some fantastic, imaginative non-fiction around. But I enjoy the relationship of fictional characters with real places and events. It gives you freedom to invent things.

I love being able to take experience and facts and place and weave something new out of them

What is your background?
I was an incomer to Birmingham from the South, though my Mom was from the Midlands and worked at Standards, the car company through World War Two. I moved up to Birmingham for my first job and felt immediately at home. I studied English Literature originally, then trained as a journalist. What would now be called a ‘Charity Comms’ job brought me to Birmingham. I also started training as a nurse at Selly Oak Hospital, where I met a lot of patients who had worked at Cadbury’s and that was an early seed planted and which set me writing about it. But soon after, I found I was expecting twins and left nursing, sadly. I was living in Lottie Road in Selly Oak when I wrote my very first (unpublished) novel, in between working shifts at the hospital.

What is your favourite part of being an author?
There’s not much I don’t like – it just suits me. I love being able to take experience and facts and place and weave something new out of them. It’s an endless pleasure for me – though undeniably involves effort and a lot of doubt and all the other things that go with creative work.

What advice would you give to anyone who wants to write historical fiction?
Find out more than is necessary for your story, but on writing, only include detail which is really necessary. Don’t overload it with all those interesting facts you have found out. Also, never forget that you have a retrospective view. In the middle of those terrible World Wars, no one knew the outcome. It must have been terrifying.

Have you always wanted to be an author?
Pretty much, yes. Though I did go through a phase of wanting to be a gamekeeper (too much reading Born Free by Joy Adamson in the 70s who worked with lions). Unfortunately in this country it’s more about pheasants. And to join the navy (too much Nevil Shute and Requiem for a Wren. You don’t hear much about Nevil Shute but he was a very compelling writer and storyteller). But basically it always just seemed the best thing to do.

What authors have inspired you and how?
Any who write about people and their lives and experience. I was inspired by writers of the previous generation to mine, like Nevil Shute. But I love to read literature from all over the world about people’s experiences – favourites would be Isabel Allende, from Chile but based in the USA, Andrei Makine, Russian but living in France, and Almudena Grandes, Spanish. Really there are just too many – I could go on listing.

Are series books or stand alone books harder to write? As this book is part of a series, do you prefer writing them?
The first book of a series and a stand-alone book are pretty similar. After that, what is nice about a second or third book in a series is already knowing the backstory of the characters really well. I don’t really have a preference – both have their advantages and disadvantages.

I have written about World War 2 many times and it is endlessly interesting

How do you feel about writing about WW2 and what brought you to the decision to write about the war?
Why would you not? I have written about World War 2 many times and it is endlessly interesting. I had older parents than most of my age group, so they were adults in and participated in the War. My Dad was in the army in North Africa and Italy and Mom watched Coventry being burned down. So when I was a kid, the 16 years between the war ending and me being born seemed like an eternity – now I realise that for them it was a blink. If you write about the Twentieth Century – especially as many times as I have, the two World Wars were the greatest defining events of the first half and everyone was affected by them. It’s part of the DNA of our nation even now – and I think explains some of the nonsense fantasies about Brexit.

What was your process while writing this book?
This is never easy to answer. As it is the second of a trilogy I had already set up in Secrets of the Chocolate Girls, a complex family situation. As well as navigating the war – those facts and dates are fixed points – I had to feel my way through to how these characters would react and deal with all that was happening to them. I genuinely did not know even half way through how this was going to work out. What I did know was that I wanted it to end soon after the war, with that emerging feeling of people being able to breathe again. It’s important to know the scope of a story in terms of timescale so that all the other things happening can be written at a pace that suits the structure.

Wartime for the Chocolate Girls by Annie Murray is available to buy at: 

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