A Nightingale Christmas Wish is the fifth in the Nightingale series (although it also stands alone, so you don’t have to have read the previous books to enjoy it). The story begins at Christmas 1938, when the shadow of impending war hangs over the country. The nurses and doctors of the Nightingale Hospital in East London are all doing their best to celebrate the festive season, but there’s also a fear for the future. They’re aware that over the coming months things are going to be changing, and by the time the following Christmas comes they could well be at war. The story follows three nurses at the hospital as they come to terms with their uncertain future, and how they deal with it. It’s a story about love, and friendship, and finding a ray of light and hope in the most unexpected places.
You are also a journalist, so how much has this contributed to your success as a novelist?
I think it’s helped as far as my way of working is concerned. I certainly know how to stick to a deadline! Being a freelance journalist for so many years, I’m used to the discipline of working from home (although I still sneak off to watch the odd episode of Dance Moms!). It’s also helped with understanding how to research effectively – and when to stop. I love research, and given the chance I would do it all the time and never write a word.
The book has been compared to Call the Midwife, so how does that make you feel?
Obviously, I’m not complaining because a lot of people like Call The Midwife! My first Nightingale book was published around the same time as the first series of CTM was broadcast, so I guess it’s inevitable they’ll be compared, especially as they’re both set in the East End. I like to think they share the same kind of warmth and spirit; they both show nurses hard at work, going through personal and professional dilemmas, and having lots of fun at the same time. From what I can gather, viewers really seem to identify with the characters in CTM, and I find the same thing is true of my Nightingale books. Readers talk about Dora, Helen and the other girls as if they’re friends, which is exactly how I feel, too. Someone once told me that for the few days it takes to read one of my books, she really feels as if she’s living that life on the wards, which is a great compliment for a writer.
Please tell us about your research process into 1938.
To be honest, I’m slightly obsessed about research. I now own at least a dozen medical and nursing textbooks dating from the mid-1930s (and I buy updated editions as I write each book so I can keep up to date with medical practices of the time). I also have photographs and oral accounts from the archives of various London hospitals and from the Royal College of Nursing. I like to make sure every medical detail in the book is accurate, because I feel you’re cheating the reader if you don’t. I’m always very happy when a former nurse gets in touch to say ‘That’s exactly the way it was when I was on the wards’. As for general historical research, obviously I read history books, but I also look through the local and national newspapers covering the time period, to see what would have been going on in the world around them, and what they might have been discussing. For instance, when my characters go to the pictures in 1939, I try to make sure the right film is showing at the local cinema! In A Nightingale Christmas Wish, obviously there was a lot of build-up to the Second World War. So I had to make sure I got the right dates for conscription, civil defence, etc.
Please tell us about the characters of Frannie, Helen and Kathleen.
Helen was one of the main characters in my first Nightingale book, so regular readers will have followed her from her student days. In A Christmas Wish, she’s just been promoted to Sister in the busy Casualty department. She’s starting a new chapter in her personal life, too; after mourning the death of her husband, all she wants for Christmas is to be happy again. She thinks her Christmas wish has come true when she meets a handsome merchant seaman. But is she looking for love in all the wrong places?
Frannie has also made a brief appearance in previous books, but this time she takes centre stage. As a young girl who nursed in Flanders and lost her fiancé in the Great War, the ward sister has witnessed the horrors of war first hand. Her Christmas wish is for peace. But she finds herself challenged when she falls in love with a British Army officer. Having lost one man to war, can she really bear to lose another?
And then there’s the Matron of the hospital, Kathleen Fox. Readers have taken her to their hearts because she’s warm, human, funny, and about as different from the traditional old battleaxe type Matron as you can get. But in A Christmas Wish, she’s faced with a double dilemma. Not only is the hospital threatened with closure as war approaches, but she has a secret that threatens her own future. There’s a very real possibility that neither she nor the Nightingale will see next Christmas…
What made you want to write about the war at Christmastime?
It wasn’t really a case of wanting to write about the war, it was more that I couldn’t ignore it! My publishers wanted a Christmas book because of the release date, and I knew I wanted to set it in 1938. And when I started to research, I realised that the storm clouds of war were brewing around that time, so I thought it would be interesting to contrast all the merriment of Christmas with the threat of what was to come. In spite of the title, the books actually goes from Christmas 1938 right up until September 1939, when war is declared.
What is next for you?
Another Nightingale book! There are two more planned in the series, and I’m currently writing the next, which covers the first couple of years of the war. The Nightingale hospital has undergone some huge changes, with most of its nurses now serving abroad, so there are going to be a lot of new faces, the return of some old ones and some interesting relationships developing. The war years were a very interesting time, especially for women. I found a great quote in one of my research books recently, to the effect that the war brought out a confidence and resourcefulness in women that they never knew they had. That really sums up the spirit of the Nightingales for me.