Discover Christmas gifts we know they'll love

Daisy Styles on the inspiration behind her characters

Daisy Styles, author of The Bomb Girls  talks about the empowerment of women during the war years, her mother's influence and the importance of lifelong friendships

What or who was your inspiration for writing about these wonderful women who worked so hard in the munitions factories during the Second World War? Did you have any family members whose experiences you could draw on at all?

I grew up on a big new housing estate where many women had worked in munitions factories across the north-west during the war. My mother, Emily Redmond, was at the forefront of these women, and I loved listening to her stories, which were always the most riveting, the most funny, the most scary and the most personal. She described their uniforms and turbans, the food in the canteen, the music and the danger intrinsic to the work. My sister and I would sit goggle-eyed as she smoked Woodbines and drank strong dark tea and told us her stories. "We might never have been born if you’d been blown up!" I remember one of us whispering in awe. We really thought she was a hero, which she was, and which all those women were.

How much research did you have to do into the kinds of work the women undertook, and the risks and hardships they faced?

A HECK OF A LOT! And it doesn’t stop as each new book covers a different period of the war years. Well, each of the four books so far has; if they continue at the rate I’m writing them (two books a year), then the background information might start to overlap. At first I was working through history books, particularly Jacky Hyams’s paperback Bomb Girls, which is a fascinating collection of historical facts, locations and documented details about women working in munitions factories up and down the land. Their individual stories, which they’d written themselves, were tender, touching, brave and tough; these were the women, along with millions of others, who were "Churchill’s Secret Army". Now I have a lot of research material on file and I have a file for each new book. So, for example, The Bomb Girls’ Secrets has a lot of material on swing music and the popular numbers of the time. The Andrews Sisters’ "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B" was Gladys’s top favourite. One of mine too – I often played it really loud and danced around my room in between writing! Also, because of Kit’s storyline in The Bomb Girls’ Secrets, I researched quite a lot of material on adoption, which was complicated. I do my best to get things as accurate as I can, obviously.

You create wonderfully loveable characters and establish such a strong sense of camaraderie and friendship. Is this based on personal experience to a degree, and if so from what period of your life?

I’ve been lucky to have wonderful friends and my sister, Kathryn, all through my life, and thank goodness I still have them. I met my oldest friend, Ed, when I was nine years old in the back street, where we got into a fight and he hit me on the head with an empty milk bottle. I don’t know how that friendship survived! We don’t live back to back any more, but Ed and I talk a lot on the phone, especially when he’s on holiday in Blackpool, strolling down the breezy Prom, eating hot fish and chips! My relationship with my girlfriends goes back to college days when we fell in and out of love at least once a month and regularly stayed up all night, smoking cheap cigarettes and drinking cider as we discussed the joys of D. H. Lawrence and the glory of Tennyson’s "Morte d’Arthur"! (Oh, dear, I smile to think of it now.) Our friendships deepened after we had our babies, shared childcare, forged our careers, experienced heartache, and even when the demands of work separated us geographically, there was always that thread binding us in a tight circle, along with the memories, laughter and tears.

And how do you go about creating such strong characters? Where do you start when you are thinking up a new group of Bomb Girls?

I know it sounds a bit far-fetched but the girls just seem to pop out of nowhere. I’ve always been a great observer (call that nosy if you like!), fascinated by people: their lives, habits, partners, history, life-styles, even their favourite food! I think I sub-consciously draw from a stored memory bank in the back of my mind, which I dip in and out of at random. So in The Bomb Girls (my first in the series), Emily is undoubtedly my mum Emily – she has all her qualities and flair, her passion for cooking, her temper and her determination. She definitely kick-started the book, but then along came sweet, clever Alice, who is not like anybody I ever knew. Lillian’s definitely a compilation of all the naughty girls I went to school with who made me howl with laughter at their cheek and irreverence to their superiors! They were always in trouble! Agnes grew out of research I’d done on women at the Woolwich Arsenal, and darling little Elsie is based on the life of one of my aunties who lived quite a sad life in Gateshead. But having said that, once the characters are established they have a life of their own which I have no control over. I can walk out of the room to make a cup of coffee or walk the dog and when I come back my characters have moved the story on at least half a chapter. That happened so much in The Code Girls – those clever women had me running round in circles as they decoded messages and hunted down the traitor in their midst. Sometimes I was breathless with excitement trying to keep up with Maudie, Ava, Bella and Ruby. I always miss my characters when the books are finished; but I need a pause, however brief, before I can start afresh on another book. It’s like I have to let them go before I can move on, even though I really really don’t want to.

What made you pick the Lancashire moors as your setting for this particular Munitions Factory?

I grew up on the north-west Lancashire moors; they were my playground. So when I read that for obvious safety reasons munitions factories were located in remote areas, the moors seemed the perfect setting. Plus my mum’s munitions factory was in an isolated location, near Bury. It’s always good to write about a terrain you know well. I can still recall the craggy outlets and boulders, the rabbit and sheep paths threading their way through the bracken and heather, and always the achingly lovely call of the skylark singing high overhead. The views from the hilltops were majestic – the glittering Irish Sea in the west, and to the east the Pennines. I’ve walked the moors in all weathers: rain, hale, snow, frost and sunshine; they’re always a joy – a place to escape.

What would be your all-time favourite piece of music from the war years?

Without a doubt, Vera Lynn’s "Yours" from 1941. It was my parents’ ‘love song’ which they sang to each other and danced to, especially on a Saturday night when they were dressed up and preparing to go out with friends. I can’t listen to it now because it makes me weep; it was the final song at my mummy’s cremation service – it just about broke my heart. But there are so many other wonderful songs from that era, from cheeky, vibrant Gracie Fields’s "Wish Me Luck (as You Wave Me Goodbye)", to really clever swing numbers. ‘In the Mood’ is iconic – there’s no way you can sit still when you hear those opening notes!

You write hauntingly of Kitty’s separation from her young son, and her struggle to be reunited with him. Is this something you found difficult to write, being a mother yourself?

No, not as a mother, but I did still find it hard to write as it is my beloved grandma’s true story. It was a family secret, which my sister and I only learnt when we were about ten years old. Our grandma, Kitty, told us herself because she wanted us to know the truth, which had a huge impact on us as little girls. She said she’d fallen in love with the handsome only son of the lady who ran the country estate in Chapelizoid in Ireland, where my grandma’s large family worked the land and lived in a tithe cottage, with a peat thatched roof. Kitty gave birth to my father at the age of twenty-four years, and was summoned to the big house to meet her employer, my father’s grandmother, who was apparently very intimidating. She offered my grandma a hundred pounds in return for the child, who she planned to bring up as her own. William (named after his father) would be acknowledged and, we can only suppose, would have eventually inherited the property, but my grandma said "NO!" She kept her son, Bill, through very hard times when she worked on the looms in the cotton mills of Lancashire, which finally caused her death from Emphysema. She loved her son just short of idolatry all her life: the last words she spoke on her deathbed were, "My son..." My father never knew his father but my grandma proudly told us he’d inherited his handsome looks: sweeping dark hair, laughing blue eyes and a charming Irish smile.

The war changed the lives of a whole generation of women. How much do you think this type of work changed women’s attitudes to their own roles in society, their futures and their hopes and dreams?

I think the Second World War was a monumental turning point in women’s lives, and ultimately their destiny. They HAD to do men’s work; here was no choice. They had to buckle down to defeat the enemy. It was a genius move on Churchill’s part to conscript women, who became a massive nationwide force: Bomb Girls, Land Girls, the Timber Corp. Women built planes, repaired trucks and drove trains, lorries and buses. Women worked in hospitals, in the war office, in the Auxiliary Territorial Service: cooking, driving, delivering post and operating radios and radar equipment. "Join the WRNS [Women’s Royal Naval Service] today and give a man a chance to join the Fleet", government posters urged. Women worked in de-coding in secret locations like Bletchley Park, and thousands of women worked underground in Special Ops, many of whom died for their country. When the war ended in 1945 and men returned home things might have appeared to return to the old status quo, but how could it ever be the same again? Women, whether they liked it or not, had been taken out of their traditional role in the home and had been empowered by their war work – which would affect generations of women to come.

The Bomb Girls are wonderfully inventive and creative in how they use their rationed foods. Are any of the dishes based on family recipes?

My mum was a brilliant cook. Her chip shop was a gold mine; I’ve never tasted fish so fresh (delivered daily from Fleetwood), deep fried in golden batter and served with potatoes that varied through the year depending on the seasonal crop. Fried new potatoes in June were the absolute best! Everything was fresh and local – and cheap. I wasn’t alive at the time of the war, but in our house wartime recipes were reinvented and embellished. My mum was a great one for soups; pea soup and ham shank, barley broth and cheap cuts of lamb were always on the go in our house. One day I nearly fainted at the sight of a sheep’s head bubbling on top of the stove in the kitchen. The stock for that soup put me off barley broth for life!

Daisy Styles

'Women, whether they liked it or not, had been taken out of their traditional role in the home and had been empowered by their war work – which would affect generations of women to come

Violet’s back story is obviously a distressing one – compulsory conscription may have been a way many women escaped unhappy homes or marriages. Is this something you researched or just imagined?

I did do some research into abusive husbands at the time. It was very depressing – in effect husbands owned their wives. Like Arthur says in The Bomb Girls’ Secrets, ‘. . . there’s nothing the law can do about a man taking his wife home’ even if he does beat her up. Many women tried to run away, but if they were found they could be dragged back to the family home where the cruelty would continue. Thank goodness the law has changed to protect innocent women like Violet.

Do you plan to stay with Pendle as your setting, or do you have any plans to ‘open’ another munitions factory elsewhere in the UK?

Pendle’s good, it has lots of history and atmosphere. It’s close to Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool, which suffered huge war damage, plus I know the terrain and regularly visit the area. However The Code Girls is set in Norfolk, a county I love passionately with its wonderful wide beaches, big skies, shrines, seaside towns, forests and long abandoned Second World War airfields. I did a huge amount of research along the north coast of Norfolk in all weathers and conditions and uncovered so much fascinating wartime history. I’d really like to write another book set there, and maybe Suffolk, too, as there was so much RAF action along the east coast. Squadrons of planes flew out daily over the sea, with loaded bomb bays heading for Berlin, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Bremen and other German strongholds. Untold numbers of heroic airmen are buried in watery graves in the dark North Sea.

What are you writing next?

Here we are at the start of spring – I’ve just seen the first snowdrops and there are buds on my cherry tree – and guess what I’m writing? Christmas with the Bomb Girls! We’re back at the Phoenix with Violet, Kit and Gladys. Violet and Kit are both happily married. Violet and Arthur have a new son called Stevie, and Ian McIvor, Kit’s lawyer husband, has adopted little Billy as his own child. Gladys has left ENSA (Entertainments National Services Association) – for reasons I cannot reveal, or I’ll ruin the plot – and she’s joined in the cowshed by a charming new girl, Rosa, an Italian Jew. Rosa and Gladys work alongside Nora and Maggie on the cordite line whilst Violet and Kit remain in the filling shed. There are unexpected twists and turns in the story, particularly concerning Edna, Malc and Myrtle, and revelations come late from Gladys and Rosa. I can promise a huge Christmas celebration with the Bomb Girls – carols, music, falling snow, ‘White Christmas’, ‘Jingle Bells’ and a wartime Christmas pudding. I just can’t wait to see the front cover!

Daisy Styles

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more