Monday, 28 April 2014
JB: What inspired you to write a book based around nurses?
DONNA: I’d love to say it was all my idea, but sadly it wasn’t! Up until that point I’d written contemporary women’s fiction, but then an editor suggested I might like to have a go at writing a series set in an East End hospital. This was before Call The Midwife came out, so I had no idea about the history of nursing or whether I’d even be able to do it. But once I started my research I realised there were hundreds of fascinating stories just waiting to be told – and I really wanted to tell them.
JB: Why did you choose this particular era?
DONNA: I chose the 1930s, because it was so interesting from a medical point of view. The NHS was unheard of, so hospitals were very different places – you’d have to be seriously ill to afford to go there, especially in the poor East End. These days we take it for granted that modern medicine can sort out most ailments, but in the pre-antibiotic days, something as minor as an ear infection could kill you. So from a writer’s point of view, there was huge potential for drama.
The nurses’ lives were very different too. When they signed on for training at the age of 18, they were virtually signing their lives away for three years. After preliminary training, students would spend three months at a time on each ward, where they would learn on the job under the strict eye of the ward sisters. And most of them were pretty terrifying! Their days were long, exhausting and very hard work, and even the little time off they had was supervised by the Home Sister. But in spite of it, all the nurses I’ve met say their training was the happiest time of their life. That’s what I’ve tried to get across in the Nightingale books – the bond of friendship between the girls, and the fun they had.
JB: What sort of research did you have to do?
DONNA: As I said, I knew nothing about the subject, so I pretty much had to start from scratch. There are lots of nursing biographies around, so I started by reading those. I then got in touch with the Royal College of Nursing, who were really helpful. They have a terrific archive of first hand accounts from nurses dating right back to the beginning of the 20th century, so I spent many happy hours going through those. I also interviewed as many retired nurses as I could find, and sought out some genuine textbooks from the period. I have quite a collection now, and it’s still growing (a friend recently gave me a 1941 medical dictionary she found among her grandfather’s belongings, which included instructions on how to set up a wartime gas cleansing station – priceless information!). I get a real kick out of digging out that little fact or detail that will bring the story to life. And I especially like it when I get letters from nurses saying ‘That’s just how it was’!
I wanted to get the East End right, too. That part of London was largely destroyed during the war, so to get a feel for the way it was, I visited the British Library and went through local newspapers from that period. So when my characters go to the pictures, they’re watching a film that was really showing at that time!
JB: Do you think you could’ve ever been a nurse?
DONNA: Let me think…They got up at six, were on duty by seven, worked fourteen hour days during which time they weren’t allowed to eat, drink or sit down except on their designated breaks (which could be cancelled on the ward sister’s whim). They weren’t allowed to run, speak unless spoken to, or even make eye contact with a doctor. If they had a hairclip out of place, they could lose their half day’s holiday. And what little time off they had was either spent in lectures or studying for their exams. Oh, and the first year of their training they were mainly scrubbing out bedpans and sputum mugs (without gloves, I might add). So no, I don’t think I would have made the grade back in the 1930s! Although really, women in those days didn’t have much choice. Being a teacher, a secretary or a nurse were the only professions considered ‘respectable’ for nice middle class girls.
JB: You were 40 years old when you published your first novel. What did it feel like to see your book in print?
DONNA: Very exciting! I actually started writing when I was in my early twenties. I thought it would be a doddle to write a novel and get it published. I’d already spent my first massive advance cheque in my head when the manuscript came winging back with a rejection slip. The next 20 years were spent learning my craft, practising and getting it wrong. So by the time my book came out, I felt I’d earned it.
JB: How long did it take to complete Nightingales on Call?
DONNA: I’m contracted to write two books a year, so it should take me six months. But I like to write at least three drafts, and of course there’s other stuff like proof reading the last book and researching the next to do at the same time, so it’s nearly always a rush to the finish. My friends and family are used to me disappearing for the month before deadline so I can get it finished on time!
JB: Do you have any writing rituals?
DONNA: It’s odd, because as a former journalist I’m used to writing in busy, noisy offices. I can still put up with a lot of hustle and bustle when I’m writing a feature, but when I’m working on a novel I have to work in silence. I’ve tried writing in coffee shops a la JK Rowling, but I’m too nosey and easily distracted by what’s going on around me. My office is at the back of the garage and really quiet, with no window for me to people watch! I sit facing a blank wall, simply because it forces me to concentrate on my screen. Seriously, there are prison cells more luxurious than my office! I work best in the morning, the earlier the better. I’m pretty much useless by the afternoon, which is when I tend to read, or research (or just watch Tipping Point!).
JB: Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to write?
DONNA: Keep practising! Like any craft, writing takes a long time to master. Read as widely as you can, including books on writing and storytelling (I thoroughly recommend On Writing by Stephen King, and Save The Cat by Blake Schneider). And write, too, of course. But don’t expect to get it right first time. Even after a dozen books, I’m still learning. Remember, no matter how good you feel your first (or second) draft might be, it can always be improved. Put it away for a few weeks, then re-read it and you’ll see what I mean!
JB: What’s next for you?
DONNA: More Nightingales books, I hope! I’m just finishing the fifth book in the series, which is due out in November. And there are plans for at least a couple more, which will see the hospital through the Second World War. I’m just starting to research it now, and I can’t wait to find out what happens next!
Thank you for having me on your blog. Your questions really made me think!
About the Author
Donna Douglas has always loved stories. As a child, she looked forward to her weekly fix of the Bunty comic, with its dramatic tales of girls achieving their dreams against the odds. Donna wanted to be a writer, but like her favourite fictional heroines, her dream seemed to be out of reach. Girls from the back streets of south London didn’t do that kind of thing.
But like those Bunty girls before her, Donna was determined. When she was 19, she landed her dream job, writing photo love stories for a teenage magazine. She went on to train as a ‘proper’ journalist, and worked on several women’s magazines. But the longing to tell stories never left her, and when she was 40 years old she published her first novel, Waiting in the Wings, which won the Romantic Novelists Association New Writers Award.
Her first novel in the Nightingales series, The Nightingale Girls, was published in 2012. Since then there have been two more, The Nightingale Sisters and The Nightingale Nurses. The next novel in the series, Nightingales On Call, is published in April 2014. Set in a 1930s East End hospital, The Nightingale novels are heartwarming, emotional stories of girls battling against the odds – just like those Bunty heroines of old.
Donna now lives in York with her husband. They have a grown up daughter. When she isn’t writing, she likes walking, reading and watching Pointless on TV.
The spring of 1937 sees a new intake of student nurses at the Nightingale hospital in East London. Among them is Effie O’Hara, a fun-loving country girl. She’s looking forward to experiencing the bright lights of London. But with her older sisters watching over her, how can she escape the confines of hospital life?
She finds an unlikely ally in Jess Jago, the new maid at the nurses’ home. Like Effie, Jess is looking for a new start. But it isn’t long before her past catches up with her…
Meanwhile, East End girl Dora Doyle once again finds herself at odds with spoilt fellow student Lucy Lane. But as the girls face dark times, they begin to realise their worst enemy can also be their best friend...
‘Your duties will begin at five o’clock sharp, when you will lay the fires, draw the curtains and make sure the boiler is lit. You will then wake me at precisely five-thirty with a cup of tea and my breakfast. I like two boiled eggs and buttered toast. Lightly boiled, mind. I can’t abide eggs like rubber.’
The fearsome Home Sister glared at Jess as if she doubted she could ever be equal to such a task. Jess smiled back, her tongue rammed in her cheek to stop herself from speaking out of turn. She didn’t want to lose this job before she’d managed to get it.
‘At six o’clock you must wake the students,’ Sister Sutton went on. ‘Once they have gone, you will clean the bathrooms, sweep, dust and polish all the halls and stairs, and clean the students’ sitting room. The nurses are supposed to keep it tidy, but they tend to be rather careless.’ Her bulbous nose wrinkled with distaste. ‘I will carry out my room inspection at midday, so I expect everything to be in order by then.’ She stared at Jess, her eyes as tiny and dark as raisins in her doughy face. ‘You have been in service, you say?’
Jess nodded. ‘Since I was thirteen.’ Although none of the houses where she had been employed as a maid of all work were anywhere near as big as the student nurses’ home. With its grand entrance, sweeping staircase and long passages, it was like one of the country mansions she had read about in her favourite Jane Austen books. Except there were no works of art on the drab, brown-painted walls, and the floors were covered in polished lino and not Turkish rugs. But the ornate plasterwork on the high ceilings still whispered of the house’s elegant past.
As the Home Sister continued to list the maid’s duties, Jess gazed up at the twisting plaster vine leaves and carved bunches of grapes and wondered how she would ever be able to reach up there with a duster.
‘Are you listening to me, girl?’ Sister Sutton’s sharp voice interrupted her thoughts. ‘I hope you’re not daydreaming? I have no time for daydreamers.’
‘No, Miss. Sorry, Miss.’
‘Please address me as Sister.’
‘Yes, Miss – I mean, Sister.’
Jess bobbed her head. She wasn’t easily intimidated, but Sister Sutton seemed as imposing as the house she presided over. She wasn’t much taller than Jess, but at least three times as wide, her severe grey uniform stretched over her solid bulk. Wisps of wiry hair escaped from beneath her starched white bonnet, tied in a bow amid her quivering chins. A Jack Russell terrier pranced around her feet, yapping up at Jess. The din filled the echoing passageway where they stood, but Sister Sutton seemed oblivious to it.
‘It says in your references that you’re a hard worker and quick to learn.’ The Home Sister looked doubtful as she consulted the papers in her hand.
‘I am, Miss – Sister.’
‘Your previous employer seemed very satisfied with you. So why did you want to leave?’
‘I wanted a live-in job, Sister.’
‘Really?’ Sister Sutton’s brows rose. ‘Most young girls seem to want to live out these days.’
Most young girls don’t come from where I do, Jess thought. ‘I would prefer to live in,’ was all she said.
Before Sister Sutton could ask any more, Jess turned her attention to the dog. She bent to stroke it but it lunged forward, snapping at her outstretched fingers. She snatched her hand back sharply.
Jess eyed the dog. He stared straight back at her with hostile black eyes, as if he knew exactly who she was and where she had come from.
The front door opened and two students came in, chattering together. As soon as they spotted Sister Sutton they froze and fell instantly silent. They tried to slink towards the stairs, but Sister Sutton wheeled round to confront them.
‘You two! Where do you think you’re going?’ she demanded.
The girls exchanged nervous glances. They weren’t much older than Jess, one pretty and blue-eyed with dark curls, the other brown-haired and sharp-featured, her neat nose pointing skywards.
‘Please, Sister, it’s eleven o’clock,’ the dark-haired girl stammered. She had a lilting Irish accent that was as sweet as her round face.
‘I can tell the time perfectly well, thank you very much. Why aren’t you on your wards?’
‘We’ve been sent off duty until one, Sister,’ the other student explained. Her voice was clear and crisp, each syllable perfectly pronounced, like one of the lady announcers on the wireless.
‘I see. Why couldn’t you have said that, O’Hara?’ Sister Sutton swung her bulk around to face the Irish girl again.
‘I – I – sorry, Sister,’ she mumbled.
‘I should think so, too. And look at the state of you. Crumpled apron, grubby collar – and is that a pin I see sticking out of your cap?’ She drew in a sharp breath. ‘Tidy yourself up immediately or I shall cancel your half-day off.’
Jess stared at the Irish girl as she fumbled with her cap, a blush rising in her face, unable to see why Sister Sutton was making so much fuss. The girl looked immaculate to Jess, in her blue-and-white striped dress and spotless apron. But she couldn’t imagine how thick and itchy that heavy fabric and those woollen stockings must feel on such a warm April afternoon.
Jess caught the brown-haired girl’s eye and gave her a sympathetic smile. The girl tossed her head, stuck her turned-up nose even further in the air and stalked straight past her towards the stairs, the Irish girl hurrying behind with her head down.
Charming, Jess thought. She pulled a face at the girl’s retreating back, then quickly stopped when she realised the Home Sister was glaring at her.
‘Are you sure you’re capable of this kind of work?’ she said. ‘You don’t look as if you could lift a broom.’
Jess knew what Sister Sutton was thinking. At seventeen years old, she was still as slight as a child.
‘I’m stronger than I look,’ she promised, squaring her shoulders. ‘Just give me a chance, and you’ll soon see what I can do.’
Sister Sutton pursed her mouth. ‘You’re certainly good at speaking up for yourself, I can see that.’
‘Sorry, Sister.’ Jess pressed her lips together. And she’d tried to be so careful not to put a foot wrong.
But then Sister Sutton heaved a sigh that shook all her chins and said, ‘Very well, you may have a trial. One month and then I shall decide whether you’re up to the job or not.’
Jess let out the breath she had been holding since she arrived on the doorstep of the nurses’ home. Her fingers ached where she’d kept them twisted together for so long. ‘Thank you,’ she said.
‘Thank you, Sister,’ Sister Sutton corrected her. ‘You must refer to me and the other nursing sisters correctly at all times. You must also remember not to speak to anyone unless they speak to you first, and to stand up whenever a sister enters the room. And you must keep your distance from the other girls here. They are student nurses at the Nightingale Hospital, and as such they are your social superiors. They must be treated with due deference.’
Jess thought about the sharp-featured girl, tossing her head so haughtily and walking past Jess as if she didn’t exist. But after four years in service, she was used to being treated like part of the furniture.
And if that was what it took to escape from the hatcheries, then she would willingly become invisible.
‘Now,’ Sister Sutton went on, ‘I will show you to your room.’ She bustled off down the passageway, a bunch of keys jingling from her belt. Reaching the door at the farthest end of the passage, she took the keys in her hand and held them close to her face, squinting at each in turn until she selected the right one.
‘Here we are,’ she said, unlocking the door and throwing it open. ‘The room’s small, but perfectly adequate for your needs.’
Jess stepped inside. Sister Sutton was right, it was small. Scarcely bigger than a cupboard, with just enough room for a narrow bed and a chest of drawers. But to Jess, it seemed like a palace. There was even a small shelf above the bed where she could keep her books.
She stepped inside, breathing in the clean smell of furniture polish and fresh linen. Spring sunshine flooded the room, making everything bright and cheerful.
Jess went over to the window and gazed out over the garden. It couldn’t be more different from the hatcheries. Living here would be like living in Victoria Park, waking up surrounded by grass and trees and flowers every day.
‘It’s beautiful,’ she breathed.
Sister Sutton huffed. ‘Well, I don’t know about that,’ she said. ‘But as I said, it’s perfectly adequate for a maid’s needs.’
Jess looked around her again. Whatever the Home Sister might think, to her it was perfect. Almost too perfect. Girls like Jess Jago didn’t get that kind of luck.
Perhaps 1937 was going to be the year everything changed for her, she thought.
The overall giveaway on tour is three paperback copies of Nightingales on Call and is open Internationally.