Wednesday 1 February 2017

Author’s Inspiration ~ Suzy Henderson #HistFic @Suzy_Henderson

It is with the greatest of pleasure that Historical Fiction author, Suzy Henderson, is on the blog today to tell us about the inspiration behind her debut novel…
The Beauty Shop

England,1942. After three years of WWII, Britain is showing the scars. But in this darkest of days, three lives intertwine, changing their destinies and those of many more.

Dr Archibald McIndoe, a New Zealand plastic surgeon with unorthodox methods, is on a mission to treat and rehabilitate badly burned airmen – their bodies and souls. With the camaraderie and support of the Guinea Pig Club, his boys battle to overcome disfigurement, pain, and prejudice to learn to live again.

John ‘Mac’ Mackenzie of the US Air Force is aware of the odds. He has one chance in five of surviving the war. Flying bombing missions through hell and back, he’s fighting more than the Luftwaffe. Fear and doubt stalk him on the ground and in the air, and he’s torn between his duty and his conscience.

Shy, decent and sensible Stella Charlton’s future seems certain until war breaks out. As a new recruit to the WAAF, she meets an American pilot on New Year’s Eve. After just one dance, she falls head over heels for the handsome airman. But when he survives a crash, she realises her own battle has only just begun.

Based on a true story, "The Beauty Shop" is a moving tale of love, compassion, and determination against a backdrop of wartime tragedy.
Author’s Inspiration

Thank you for the invite, Mary Anne. It’s a pleasure to be here today, and I thought I’d chat a little about the relevance of minor characters.

Minor characters have a purpose. They’re not there to merely pad out a novel; they have to be relevant and in being so, they add depth to your narrative, enriching the story. One of the most important points we are aware of as writers is the reader. Readers become attached and invested in our characters and so it’s important to establish which characters are major and which are minor. However, it’s still possible to become attached to a minor character and should that character disappear or be killed off then the reader may well be left feeling disappointed. Writing is full of such dilemmas – so what do you do? Consult the ‘writing rules’? – that delightful long list of do’s and don’ts we’re all introduced to quite early on, but like so many rules, they are there to be broken.

One of the early critiques of my book raised some questions. One of them was the relevance of a minor character, Richard Hillary. “Why was he in there? It’s nothing to do with him,” I was told. Yet beneath it all, I had this strong sense that I needed Hillary and that he had a voice to share. Richard Hillary was a real person, a young, handsome fighter pilot who flew and fought in the Battle of Britain.

2016 is the 75th anniversary of the Guinea Pig Club, an organization established in July 1941, by airmen who were severely burned or injured during the war in the air, and who were treated and cared for by the New Zealand plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe. The men in the club were known as ‘guinea pigs.’

Hillary became one of those brave heroes, or guinea pigs when on the 3rd September 1940 after his 5th kill, he was shot down by a Messerschmitt Bf 109, and landed in the Channel, badly burned. Within a few weeks, he was to find himself under the care of Archie McIndoe at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead.

During the intervals of many weeks between operations, Hillary wrote his book, The Last Enemy, a fictionalized memoir, and could be seen gripping a pencil between his bandaged hands while he attempted to write. He achieved publication success in 1942, and his book was well received. As time dragged on, a very bored and frustrated Hillary wrote to the Air Ministry and volunteered to go to America on a propaganda mission to show the US how the aircraft and factory equipment they were sending to Britain was making a difference.

Astonishingly, he was granted permission, and ten months after being shot down, he set sail, arriving in America some eleven days later. However, he did not receive the red carpet treatment. Far from it, and he was left feeling somewhat humiliated. The US officials took one look at him and feared he might terrify the mothers of America’s male youth into pacifism. President Roosevelt himself became involved and the lecture tour Hillary was supposed to begin, did not proceed.

While there, Hillary also met the film actress, Merle Oberon, who took him under her wing and invited him to stay with her. They were to embark upon a brief and passionate affair, and upon Hillary’s return to England, he would look up an old friend of Merle’s, called Mary Booker. Mary would later explain that while she was initially shocked by Richard’s disfigured face, she noticed his intense eyes upon her as he invited her out to dinner, and she found herself unable to refuse his invitation. The pair soon began a relationship which would last until his death.

The one good thing that did come from his US trip was the mention of Archie’s work and the Guinea Pig Club. It raised much interest and by the end of 1942, money began to arrive at the hospital in East Grinstead. The American public sent cheques, letters offering support and employment among other things. Archie was overwhelmed, and this was the beginning of the club as a charity. Over the years, the club became quite a force, helping its members with things such as suitable housing, adaptations and even setting up businesses. Archie’s vision was for these men to go on to lead full lives, irrespective of how disabled they were. The club helped him to achieve this, transforming his vision into reality.

And so, when I began writing some years ago, and a voice whispered in my ear and kept on whispering, I knew I had to listen, and I had to act. I’m so glad I followed my intuition and ‘stuck to my guns’ especially as I recently discovered that one of my readers happens to be his distant relative, and she wrote to say how thrilled she was at his inclusion in the book. For me, Hillary epitomised that generation of young men who bravely went to war, and he was such an interesting person on so many levels, brimming with intrigue and mystery.

I have no doubt the club would have thrived without him, but the fact is that he was there at that time and he raised the profile of the club during his US visit. He forged a friendship with Archie, and I think Hillary left a lasting impression on him, a flavour of which is in the book.

In conclusion, a critique is always subjective. It’s one person’s opinion. You have to trust your instinct above all if you are to write the story the way it’s meant to be told.

In memory of Flight Lieutenant Richard Hope Hillary (20 April 1919 – 8 January 1943).
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About the author

Suzy Henderson was born in the North of England, but a career in healthcare would eventually take her to rural Somerset. Years later, she decided to embark upon a degree in English Literature with The Open University.

That was the beginning of a new life journey, rekindling her love of writing and passion for history. With an obsession for military and aviation history, she began to write.

It was an old black and white photograph of her grandmother that caught Suzy’s imagination many years ago. Her grandmother died in 1980 as did her tales of war as she never spoke of those times. When she decided to research her grandmother’s war service in the WAAF, things spiralled from there. Stories came to light, little-known stories and tragedies and it is such discoveries that inform her writing.

Having relocated to the wilds of North Cumbria, she has the Pennines in sight and finally feels at home. Suzy is a member of the Historical Novel Society and the Romantic Novelists Association. "The Beauty Shop" is her debut novel and will be released 28th November 2016.

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See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx