Anita Frank’s first novel, The Lost Ones, is shortlisted for the 2020 HWA Debut Crown Award. She tells Historia about her love of history, the inspiration for her book – including big houses, spiritualism and the First World War – and passes on some tips for new writers.
The HWA Debut Crown celebrates new voices in historical fiction. Have you always been interested in history?
Absolutely! I wanted to be a writer from a young age and the stories I came up with, even then, tended to be set in the past – the modern day never held much appeal!
Due to my ambition, I had intended to read English at university, but that changed with A-levels. I hated the detailed analysis required for English Literature, for me it killed the joy of reading. In contrast, I sat in my history lessons having my imagination fired by the events I was learning about and the time periods in which they occurred – there were stories and settings everywhere, and I loved it. I therefore chose a degree in History, but with the intention of using that knowledge to write historical fiction.
How did the initial idea for The Lost Ones come about?
I first imagined the story as a family friendly, Sunday evening television series – well it never hurts to dream big! Originally, it had a late Victorian setting and consisted of a young woman and her psychic maid having adventures and solving ghostly mysteries, aided by a dashing sidekick. Things got a little darker when I put pen to paper!
The story takes place in a country mansion, towards the end of the First World War. What attracted you to the setting and period?
I adore big old houses – I’m in my element wandering around a National Trust property – and what could be a better setting for a ghost story than a rambling mansion with cavernous rooms and gloomy corridors? It also meant I could introduce servants, and I loved the idea of an all-seeing, all-knowing retainer, the keeper of dark secrets, underestimated by the masters of the house, but wielding the real power within.
The First World War period came to me when I was looking for a way to introduce my psychic maid. I initially had the idea of her gift being exposed during a Spiritualist séance to contact a dead soldier. In the end I went for a different set-up, but I could now see the huge potential offered by a Great War backdrop.
The war provided me with the reason for having only a skeleton staff at the house, as there was a depletion in household servants at this time, with men being conscripted into the army and women seeking better paid work in factories. The period also helped contribute to the atmosphere in the novel, with grief and loss being ever-present.
Is historical research a pleasure or a chore?
Largely a pleasure, but I’m always frustrated that I don’t have more time to devote to it. There are so many things I want to explore, and I can quite happily disappear down a rabbit hole for days. Focus can become a bit of an issue, especially as I find history so inspirational. My research often goes off at a tangent and I end up being distracted by the formation of a shiny new idea…
Did your research for The Lost Ones turn up anything unexpected?
I was surprised by how prevalent stories of the supernatural were during the First World War. From the very start of the conflict, newspapers were filled with astonishing reports of angels hovering protectively over British lines; ‘white comrades’ – some allegedly bearing the mark of Christ – tending to the injured; wounded soldiers swearing blind they had been carried from the battlefield by dead stretcher bearers, and phantom cavalry units coming to the rescue of beleaguered troops.
Soldiers told of fallen comrades returning to offer a final farewell, and there were plenty of stories of lives being saved by ghostly intervention – such as that recorded by Canadian journalist, Will Bird. He claimed his dead brother roused him from his sleep, then led him from his dugout, before disappearing amongst some ruins. Convinced he was hallucinating, Bird settled down where he was and went back to sleep. He awoke in the morning to learn the dugout had taken a direct hit after his departure, killing all inside.
In my novel, Tristan Sheers – my sceptic veteran – refuses to believe his father’s claim that he was visited by Tristan’s dead brother. Such visitations – or so-called ‘crisis apparitions’ – were reported in their hundreds during the war, at home and abroad.
Harold Owen entered his cabin aboard HMS Astraea to find his brother – war poet Wilfred Owen – sitting in his chair. In his biography he wrote “…his eyes which had never left mine were alive with the familiar look of trying to make me understand; when I spoke his whole face broke into his sweetest and most endearing dark smile.” Wilfred then vanished, and Harold, overcome with exhaustion, lay down and slept. When he awoke, he knew with “absolute certainty” his brother was dead.
There are so many of these stories, and I find them fascinating.
What was your path to publication?
The ambition to write had been with me since childhood, but I had no idea how to achieve it. I attempted a couple of Mills and Boon novels in my late teens, attracted by their open submissions policy, but they were – unsurprisingly – swiftly rejected. I went to university, then into the world of work, and though I never stopped constructing plots or creating characters, I was constrained by time and a basic lack of confidence.
At the age of thirty, when I was a stay-at-home mum to three small children, I entered a competition run by my local library in conjunction with Historical Mills and Boon – much to my amazement, I won. But shortly after, my son was diagnosed with a rare form of epilepsy that was to leave him severely mentally disabled. Overnight my priorities changed, and all thoughts of writing were set aside. In the fifteen years that followed I continued to fill notebooks with story ideas, but as time went on I lost the courage to write: as long as I didn’t try, I couldn’t fail, and thus I could keep my dream alive.
All that changed in 2017 when a writer friend challenged me to produce my ghost story. Three months later I proudly presented her with my manuscript. Her honest feedback was brutal and accurate: it wasn’t good enough.
So, I ripped it up and started again, and after nine months of writing, I submitted the revised version to 12 agents. I received seven full manuscript requests and two offers of representation.
I went on submission to publishers and within a month, having received two offers, I was signed to HarperCollins imprint HQ Stories.
What advice would you give someone starting work on a first novel?
Just write. Focus on getting the story out – don’t worry about putting down beautiful words or having everything work perfectly – and when you’re left with a dire first draft, don’t panic! Go back in, redraft, reconstruct, build and improve. Be ruthless in your editing, then polish, polish, polish.
I would also say find your tribe. Writing is a solitary exercise, and little understood by those not connected with it. Having a support network of fellow writers, who can share your highs and lows and make you laugh or hold your hand when you need it, is invaluable.
Who are your favourite historical writers?
I read widely within historical fiction and enjoy lots of novels, but if I had to choose one writer, it would be Sarah Waters. Her books beautifully capture their time periods and are threaded with exquisite detail, but they never become bogged down with it. Her sense of balance in that regard is perfect. And, of course, she writes like a dream!
What do you think the historical novelist can add to the study of the past?
A historical novelist can bring history to life and offer the reader a truly immersive experience, making the past tangible and relatable, thereby encouraging empathy and understanding.
And finally, can you describe your book in five words?
No peace for the haunted.
Andrew Taylor, author of The King’s Evil, began our series of conversations with authors shortlisted for HWA Crown Awards in 2020. During November we’ll be featuring interviews with other writers who’ve made it through to the final round of judging, including Elizabeth Macneal, Jung Chang, John Larison and Tim Mohr.
See who else has been shortlisted this year.
The winners in the three Crowns categories will be announced on 25 November, 2020.
Photo of Anita Frank: supplied by publisher
Cragside, Northumberland by Robin Drayton: via Geograph
Soldier and Victory, Ashton-Under-Lyne War Memorial by David Dixon: via Geograph
Still from The Winchester Woman (1919): via Wikimedia