Friday, 11 March 2016

Guest post by S.A. Laybourn

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about SA Laybourn’s excellent WW2 romance, A Kestrel Rising. This week I’m delighted to have Sue guesting on my blog to tell us how she came to write the book.

Many years ago, when I was still living in Arizona, I was driving home, across a section of tumbleweed-dotted desert. White clouds billowed to the northeast with their taunting promise of rain that would never arrive—a common occurrence during the annual monsoon. Eva Cassidy’s ‘Fields of Gold’ played on the car stereo and I was hit with a wave of homesickness so strong that I nearly cried. At the time, I thought our future in the US was secure and my job didn’t pay nearly enough for us to fly to the UK for a visit. So, I decided that, if I couldn’t go home to England, I’d write about it.

My first effort was a historical romance set in Berkshire during the Great War. I liked it, it was pretty, laden with descriptions of a glorious countryside that only a homesick Brit could write. But…and it’s a big ‘but’, it was a horrendously boring story. The heroine was a passive drip for most of the time. Needless to say, I had no success with agents. However, I’d fallen in love with the setting and with the family. I decided that the next story would be set in the same place, but during World War II. Now we were talking. I’m an utter plane nerd. The older, the better and don’t even get me started on Spitfires…I could wax lyrical about those beauties for hours. 

Anyway, the characters were easy to find. And a song, Closer to Believing by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, sparked off a scene in my head that drove the plot into place. I knew what my hero, Francis, would do and all I needed to do was make sure that he and my heroine, Ilona were able to get together in spite of the demands of serving in the RAF and the WRAF. It was tricky finding an RAF fighter squadron that hadn’t moved around too much during the war but, in the end, I did and Francis being American made it easier, once the USAAF joined the war. With the squadrons established, a little research into their history dictated the plot. It was all there and it was easy enough to make sure that Ilona’s postings brought her within a reasonable travelling distance of Francis.

Then there was the planes. Happily, there is a lot of good information about all of the planes I needed to write about—from the Blenheim bomber to the P51 Mustang, the fighter that, arguably, won the war for the Allies. In fact, my first draft was so weighted down with plane nerd technobabble that my beta reader said that, in places, it reminded her of a bunch of gearheads sitting down to talk about engines. That is the danger of having loads of good sources combined with enthusiasm, it can lead to the author wanting to share as much about their subject that they can. Needless to say, I red-lined a lot of stuff.

A Mustang. Airshows featured prominently in research for the book

Apart from the obvious information about the war, the battles, and the planes, I needed details that were harder to winkle out. By happy coincidence, my dad had a friend who runs a business restoring old warbirds. When I needed that extra bit of reality, I asked Dad, who asked his friend. I think that inside info adds a little more authenticity. But there were other things, every day realities, like ‘would Ilona be able to catch a bus from Mildenhall to deepest Norfolk’? that I needed to know. Again, my dad rode to the rescue. He happens to be a bit of a transport fanatic and he was able to find out that, yes, Ilona could have caught a bus or two.

While I wrote the first draft, I immersed myself as much as I could in the period. No, I didn’t feed my family spam fritters, mock fishcakes or eggless mayonnaise, but I did find a digital radio station that played non-stop music from the 30s and 40s. Some of the songs found their way into the story, which I hope, adds to the ‘feel’ of the era. When I’m writing, having that soundtrack helps a lot. I also attended a couple of the fly-ins at the city airport, mainly because there was always the possibility that someone would turn up in a restored warplane. The day a couple of P-51s flew in was a happy day indeed. Can I add that just touching one of those beautiful machines made me want to cry?

Speaking of crying, ‘A Kestrel Rising’ does also deal with death in combat—the loss of a loved one. When I wrote the first draft, I had to rely on my imagination and some empathy to put myself in Ilona’s place. It obviously worked, because I did manage to make my dad cry. Years later, long after I’d consigned the book to the trunk, I revived it again when my publisher, Totally Bound, added a ‘sweet romance’ category. I went through the manuscript and tidied it up, using my three years’ experience as an editor to make it better. At the time, my husband was entering the final stages of terminal cancer. I’d been grieving for ages, since the day we were told he would not survive. So, reading the sad passages came hard and I put my grieving to good use by tweaking things a little. It seems, judging from the reviews I’ve seen, that it worked.

There is no doubt in my mind, that A Kestrel Rising was a labour of love. It’s a love letter to England, to warplanes, to a time when, according to my dad, everyone pulled together.  I am proud of my story and am glad that it’s out there to be read by everyone.

About S.A. Laybourn

S.A. Laybourn lives in Wiltshire with her son and two needy cats. She works as a freelance editor and sometimes writes stories. Her alter-ego S.A. Meade writes gay romance. She loves cooking, reading, gin and tonic, and the occasional glass of wine. She is not terribly domesticated and has trouble finding things that she thought she’d put in a ‘safe’ place.

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