FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Q: Why do you have two names? A: In fact I have three! I started my novel writing career as a Mills & Boon (Harlequin) writer, and chose the name Nicola West just because I liked the two names and thought they went well together. I wrote around 25 novels under that name before moving on to the longer, more gritty historical novels published by Headline, which were written under the name Donna Baker. Later, I was asked by my present publisher, Orion, to write a series of books set in a street in Portsmouth, under a new name. I wasn’t all that keen at first, but am very happy now being Lilian Harry.
Q: So where did Lilian Harry come from? A: My parents! Where else do good names come from? Lilian was my mother’s Christian name, and Harry my father’s. Since I was using my own family as a starting-point, it seemed appropriate, it went well with the period – and it was a nice way to remember them.
Q: Do you ever give talks or do signings? A: Yes, quite often. I give talks at libraries and writers’ groups and conferences, and nearly always have several signing sessions in the bookshops around Portsmouth, Gosport and Fareham when a new book comes out. For A Girl Called Thursday, I was delighted to have a real book launch at Haslar Hospital itself, hosted by the Captain. Haslar Hospital, which is in Gosport, is under threat of closure at the moment despite a desperate local need for it, and it would be nice to think that ‘Thursday’ might bring its existence to the notice of a wider public.
Q: Where and how do you do your Research? A: Everywhere and anywhere! For the war background I have numerous books – many of them obtained through the World War Two Books online bookshop, others acquired locally around Portsmouth, in museum bookshops and even from market bookstalls. Local histories and WEA booklets are invaluable too, plus newsreel videos and TV programmes. I’ve also spent many hours (assisted by helpful friends) combing through the local newspapers on microfiche at Portsmouth library, which tells me what was going on locally, even down to what films were being shown at the cinemas and what was on the radio on any particular day. I’ve visited the Imperial War Museum several times, as well as other war museums such as the excellent D-Day Museum in Southsea, and I’ve consulted experts on such subjects as bomb disposal. For the Corner House trilogy I made several visits to the London Metropolitan Archives who hold the historical archives of J Lyons. One of my most useful references has been, oddly enough, a book which contains the Records of the Corporation of the City of Portsmouth, 1936-45, which I bought for £2 in the local museum. It gives all kinds of fascinating information about how Portsmouth was run during the war, including details of all the air raids. I try very hard to get everything right!
Q: So have you ever made any mistakes? A: Yes – three that I know of! In Goodbye Sweetheart, I had two characters walking along Southsea front and looking over at Shanklin on the Isle of Wight. Now, I know as well as everyone else who’s ever done that, that you just can’t see Shanklin from there – it’s Seaview! It’s one of those mistakes that you make because you know the answer so well you don’t even bother to check it, but ought to because the memory plays such tricks. However, this has been corrected in later editions.
The second was to state in Love and Laughter that Lady Astor was the first woman Member of Parliament. In fact, she wasn’t – the first was Constance, Countess Markievicz, who was returned as Sinn Fein Member for St Patrick’s, Dublin in 1918. However, she never took her seat so the first woman actually to sit in Parliament was… Nancy, Viscountess Astor, member for the Sutton division of Plymouth. A mistake that was easy enough to make – but ought still to have been checked.
The third was the most annoying of all, when it is stated in the very second sentence of Corner House Girls that the coronation of King George the Sixth was on 11 May 1937 – when in fact it was the 12th! Now, I knew this perfectly well, every reference book I possess gives this fact, and I can only think that at some point – whether in my original manuscript or at some later stage I have no idea – my or someone’s finger slipped and the result was a typing error. I think it must have been quite late, or it would have been picked up by the copy-editors whose task it is to check on all these facts, but whatever the reason it’s infuriating, partly because I like to get my facts right and partly because it can put a reader right off. One lady wrote to take me to task (quite severely) for this and asked me to ‘please consult the historians in future’! I don’t blame her at all – but when I look at the piles of books and papers I’ve amassed and think of the hours of research I’ve done, I think – if only she knew….! However, it’s good to have this opportunity to set the record straight and apologise for these and any other mistakes I might have made. And I’ve only had one other letter pointing out a mistake (from the lady in Dublin who told me about Countess Markievicz) whereas I’ve had many, many letters expressing pleasure and thanks from other readers.
Q: Do you have a literary agent? A: Yes, I do and she’s worth her weight in gold. I’ve been with her ever since I started to think about writing something more substantial and gritty than the Mills & Boon (Harlequin) romances – around 16 years now – and she has steered me through several changes. Always ready to listen and discuss my problems, she gives me a consideration and continuity that no one else can give. Another writer said to me that every writer needs a ‘special friend’ who understands the procedure and problems of writing, and this will usually be either an agent or editor. A good agent can do so much for a writer – he/she knows the publishers and editors, has an ear to the ground so knows quickly when a new publisher is setting up, and understands how to market a book in other areas, such as audio, large print (useful extra sources of income) and even (I live in hope!) film or TV. An agent negotiates a fair contract, invoices the publisher when payment is due and mine has the rare knack of making each of her clients feel that they are the only one on her list – except when she throws a party and we all get to meet each other! I wouldn’t be without her, nor would I be where I am now without her.
Q: So if I want to write and get published, should I get an agent first? A: Chicken and egg question! The saying is these days that if you want to get published you must have an agent, and if you want to get an agent you need to be already published! It’s not quite true – but sadly, it isn’t far off the truth either. I think the only answer is to keep plugging away, keep writing and keep trying both avenues. And don’t be too ambitious – there’s a lot to be said for serving an ‘apprenticeship’. I began with short articles in the local newspaper (walking articles and ‘places of interest’) and then built up with a regular page in the local county magazine, then short stories in women’s and teenage magazines and finally to romantic novels. So by the time I began to think about an agent, I did have a track record, and I am sure that helped.
Q: So do you see yourself ever retiring from writing? A: With pensions the way they are just now? Ho ho! But I think I am probably coming to the end of the wartime books. I have another two in my mind – both April Grove stories – and then, as I’ve already said, hope to come forward a few years. Quite possibly with the same characters – but then there’s also that new series to think about, with a whole new cast… And maybe one day I’ll even turn to crime! I think (and hope) that I’ll be appearing on your shelves for quite a while yet.