Romantic Novelists' Association

Bridget’s War By Shirley Mann

24 November 2023

We are delighted that you could join us to talk about your new release. Could you tell us a little more about it? ‘Bridget’s War’ is the fourth in my series of novels about the roles carried out by amazing women in WW2 inspired by real women’s stories. Young policewoman, Bridget is furious. She does not want to be sent from London back to her home on the Isle of Man, to what she calls ‘babysit’ women internees. Three thousand women were sent to live behind ‘the wire’ there as part of Churchill’s plan to contain anyone considered to be a threat to Britain’s security and that included German Jews, German Nazi supporters, prostitutes, conscientious objectors and fascists. But when she gets there, instead of dealing with petty squabbles, Bridget finds herself embroiled in a dangerous plot that could threaten the future of the war. Good job she’s got the support of those two childhood friends, the Moore brothers- one a Battle of Britain hero and the other a farmer and lifeboatman- or is it?

What was the inspiration behind your book? What prompted you to tell this story? My mum’s tales of being a WAAF in Bomber Command inspired my first novel, ‘Lily’s War’ and she and my father moved to the Isle of Man in their retirement. They’re both buried there and on a visit over to the Island, I heard about the internment camps. The fact that they made German Jews rub shoulders with Nazi supporters took my breath away and once I’d visited the Manx Heritage Museum and found out more, that was it. That story had to be told.

How did you decide on the names for your characters and the setting for your book? I wanted a name that is a Manx name and Bridget is also Breesha over there. I love that her ‘fairy doctor’ grandmother always calls her the traditional name and I hope I’ve reflected the legends and folklore that define the Isle of Man.

How long did the book take to write? How much re-writing do you normally do? Well, to be honest, this one was a bit of a nightmare because I suddenly found myself writing a bit of a detective novel and I got in a complete muddle. Fortunately, the publishers put the deadline back and I was able to go back and sort it out. I am not the best plotter in the world, in fact, I’m probably the worst, and it takes me ages to finalise the story because I change it so many times. For some reason that drives me insane, I seem to have to write a ‘wrong’ plot before I find the right one. So, generally, I need at least a year especially as I do so much research. In one instance, I took two days to find out whether they had ginger spice in 1942 to make biscuits before it occurred to me, I could make them garibaldi, so yes, I make it unnecessarily hard.

What is your writing day like? What do they say about the road to hell being paved with good intentions? I hate ironing but when I open my computer, I get a burning desire to iron. I am a brilliant procrastinator but fortunately, as a journalist, I respond well to deadlines. I make life hell for everyone around me until I finally sit down and do the bloomin’ thing. I move around the house from sofa to dining room table and back again but strangely, a train is the best place for me to write. If I just went up and down between John O’Groats and Lands End, I’d get the books written much quicker.

Without giving too much away, what was the hardest part of the book to write? With this one, it was the breadcrumbs of the detective part of the story. Did she look shifty on page 50? What about that conversation in the café; who was listening in? Thank goodness for ‘find and replace’ on the laptop. My books are all called ‘Somebody’s War’ so they all have to span the war years and I always have to constantly refer to what is happening in the wider world. I have a spreadsheet with columns in to help but it always gets a bit complicated. In ‘Lily’s War’ which is a dual story of Lily in the WAAF here and Danny, a Tommy in the 8th Army, I had loads of columns to try to keep up with all the different parts of the war. That really did test me!

What kind of research did you do before beginning the book? Oh loads, I always do, and I think it brings a real authenticity to my books and I think it’s my journalistic background that makes me determined to ensure the things I include actually could have happened. When I started these books, the women with first hand knowledge were still alive and they were wonderful and generous in sharing their stories with me but obviously as time has gone on, I have to rely on recorded memories and accounts. I was lucky enough to find the family of a policewoman at Rushen Camp and other families whose relatives had worked at the top-secret radar station, on the lifeboats and in the police. I have to take people down that street in 1942 and therefore I love finding the sort of minutiae of everyday life that can’t be found in the history books. Those little golden gems make me ridiculously excited.

Where did your research for the book take you? All over that wonderful island; down to Cregneash, Scarlett Point, into Douglas and over to Jurby. Such a hardship.

When did you realise you wanted to be an author? I knew from being a child that I HAD to write and I would make up stories every night for my sister and I where we were always the heroines and that nasty girl in the class got her comeuppance so I went into journalism. I was happy being the conduit for other people’s stories and then had the bright idea of seeing whether I could write a novel in my 60s. I went to every course, took classes and learned the craft from scratch- fiction is very different from fact but I’ve realised that the journalism is still in there and my stories have to ring true which means I need to do the research to make sure the plotline is feasible. I still find it hard to tell people I’m an author though- I always get a bit embarrassed and feel like an imposter.

What was your journey to publication? Well, this is my fourth book so it was like a well-oiled machine really, once I was finally happy with ‘Bridget’s War’ it all fell into place because Zaffre, part of Bonnier Books, are so efficient. But the beginning of my journey was a bit of a roller-coaster really because I sent off to various agents and publishers and had some lovely responses; then I met my wonderful agent, Kate Barker purely by chance at the Writing East Midlands conference and she almost immediately found me a publisher. I feel incredibly lucky but think the books fit that popular criteria of being what I call a ‘good airport read’- a page turner, well researched and I hope, well-written. That’s what I tell myself anyway.

Which fictional character(s) would like to invite to dinner? What would you like to talk about? I wasn’t sure whether you meant from my latest book or in general. If it’s ‘Bridget’s War’ then it would have to be Mona, Bridget’s granny. Oh boy, I love that woman and would love to see her in a film or TV series of the book. ( I know, I live in hope) but otherwise, there are so many, I’d have to have a buffet in a large hall to accommodate them all. It would be fun to mix Darcy with Demon Copperhead, Miss Havisham with Rupert Campbell-Black and Miss Brodie with Bridget Jones.

Who were your favourite childhood authors? I remember struggling out of the library every week with piles of books: All the classics and those curl up and read Blyton books.

What book do you wish you had written? Probably Bridget Jones… and no, it’s not because she’s another Bridget but, on second thoughts, maybe there is something in that name that makes them real characters.

If you could give your younger writing self any advice, what would it be? I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have listened. I had to find out for myself but I’m pretty pleased- and surprised- with how this long and winding road has turned out.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors? I know it’s easy to say just do it but I would never have finished ‘Lily’s War’ if I hadn’t had a foot operation and I couldn’t move for six weeks so maybe it’s just the ability to find a time in your life when you have nothing else you can do, then give it a go. Oh, and never stop learning. Read, go to classes, make mistakes and just keep going.

Can you tell us what you are working on now? I love writing about things in WW2 that people aren’t aware of- such as women pilots in ‘Bobby’s War,’ the life of a land army girl on a farm with German POWs in ‘Hannah’s War’ and of course the internment camp on the Isle of Man so my next novel looks likely to be the women who worked on the canals. They became known later as the ‘Idle Women’ because their only uniform was a small badge with IW on to denote Inland Waterways but they lived in tiny cabins with absolutely no luxuries, hauling coal, steel, wood etc around the country. Oh, and their toilets were a ‘bucket and chuck it’ arrangement. Can’t wait!

About the Author

Shirley is a journalist who has worked across newspapers, radio and television. She spent most of her career working as reporter, producer and presenter for the BBC on programmes across radio and television including Radio 4 and Countryfile. She then set up her own media company, producing short films for environmental organisations and lecturing at Derby University.

Her first book, ‘Lily’s War’ was inspired by the wartime romance of her parents. Her mother was a WAAF in Bomber Command and her father was in the 8th Army. She then raced around the country to talk to servicewomen who were already in their 90s to make sure her books were authentic and now feels she has a duty to preserve their legacy and tell their stories. Her second book, ‘Bobby’s War’ is inspired by Air Transport Auxiliary pilot, Mary Ellis and won the RNA Romantic Saga Novel of the Year in 2021. She then went on to write ‘Hannah’s War’ about a Land Army girl and a German POW and has just published ‘Bridget’s War’ which focuses on a policewoman in the internment camp in the Isle of Man where German Jews were held behind ‘the wire’ with German Nazis.

She lives on the edge of the Peak District in Derbyshire with her husband, Kevin and has two grown-up daughters, one granddaughter and another on the way. She loves reading- naturally-, cycling with her electric bike (such a good idea in Derbyshire’s vertical hills) and escaping in her campervan. She is currently learning how to get to grips with social media, interrupted by panic- stricken daughters who try to prevent her from clicking in the wrong place.