Orphan’s Secrets: Shirley Dickson Interview

Shirley Dickson

The novelist talks Lumberjills, history and her research methods.
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Shirley Dickson, your story has its main protagonist, Lily Armstrong, join the Lumberjills, what were they?

Lumberjills (known as the forgotten army) were women who ‘did their bit’ during WW2 by recruiting to The Women’s Timber Corps and working in Forestry. With men called away to fight in the war and a shortage of imported timber, it was up to Lumberjills to fell trees, operate sawmills, load lorries, and run forestry sites.

Leaving the security and comforts of home to do gruelling and arduous work in wintry elements, Lumberjills often lived in appalling conditions in billets. Though, Lily, in the story was billeted in relative comfort of an army hut in the grounds of a large country estate.

How did you find out about them?

While researching the Women’s Land Army for book three, I discovered the Women’s Timber Corps. In 1942 the WTC separated from the WLA and became an official organisation. I realised that I had to find out more about these women forestry workers (known as Lumberjills) who did such vital work for the war effort.

The killing of civilians through bombing was a horrific aspect of the Second World War, was that difficult to write about?

Writing a scene where civilians were killed during bombing, especially a character I have lived with through the course of the book, is most upsetting. (I have been known to cry.) As I write a scene involving a raid – bombs raining down, deafening explosions, the sickening fear you mightn’t live to see another day – the horrors of war are brought home to me.

This is your fifth novel set during the Second World War set on the Home Front. What is it about this period that interests you?

While researching my hometown during the war years for my debut book, I was flabbergasted to learn of the terrifying raids, shortages, the fear of possible invasion by the enemy, that my parents must have endured – which they never spoke about. I was hooked and wanted to find out more about family life and community spirit during the war years on the Homefront.

How do you carry out the research for your novels?

Research for me means seeing first hand locations, the sights and smells, and interviewing the people whose professions I am writing about, wherever possible. They include, a farmer, a kindly clergyman, a friend who suffered eclampsia during childbirth, someone from the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps.) I find people are most generous with their time and eager to impart their knowledge.

The local and national newspapers from the war years are a great source of information. There were times when seeking the details I needed first hand, especially during Covid when travel was forbidden, was impossible. I then turned to google maps, and relied on books and the internet. One such mine of information was Lumberjills by Joanna Foat.

Are there any historians that you’ve used for your novels?

I haven’t as yet turned to historians for my novels. I am fortunate in that I was born at the end of the second world war and during my childhood in the early fifies nothing much had changed since the war years, bomb sites, attitudes, hardship, social values. For me as a child it was sweet rationing that continued which was the most upsetting.

Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists out there?

My experience was I learnt the craft by going to conferences and workshops, joined a local writing group, read numerous ‘How to books.’

It helps to believe in yourself as an author with a deadline for a book. Set a convenient time, daily, weekly, whichever suits and set yourself a number of words that is reachable. Keep to this regime. Get the first draft down however terrible you may think it is (I would never allow anyone see my rambling first draft) You have now a manuscript to work on and edit. This, for me, is when a book comes to life.

What are you working on next?

My next book will again be during WW2. The novel will be set in Scotland on Teviot Hall Estate with the Lumberjills. The story will concentrate on children from an orphanage in a war-torn town being evacuated to Teviot Hall.

Shirley Dickson is a bestselling novelist, and author of The Orphan’s Secretwhich is out now and published by Bookouture.