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Dilly Court

Q & A with Dilly Court

3 January 2017

Dilly Court is the author of 18 novels.

She started her career in television, writing scripts for commercials. Dilly grew up in North East London but now lives on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset. Her books are full of nostalgia with plucky heroines set in turn of the century London.

What inspired you to write? Where do you get your ideas from?
My mother used to write stories, but didn't make the effort to get them published. After she died I made up my mind to take up the cudgels and see if I could succeed for both of us.

According to my late grandfather, I started making up stories when I was three. I had a rag doll called Penelope, who, apparently, was a bit of a tearaway, and used to do naughty things - like kicking the wireless shop - obviously heading for an ASBO. I wrote my first novel when I was 13, very much influenced by Georgette Heyer, but life, work, marriage and children left me little time to write, although I always had stories going round in my head.

My ideas come from all kinds of sources - The Dollmaker's Daughters came to me when I saw Victorian dolls, with hand-painted china faces, on The Antiques Roadshow. Ragged Rose was inspired by the acts I had seen in the old East Ham Palace when I was very young, and, perhaps my own early ambitions to be a dancer. Inspiration for The Swan Maid came from researching my ancestors. I discovered that one of them was a soldier in the Crimean War, who survived the carnage, winning a medal in the process. That, together with the amazing history of Mary Seacole brought the whole period to life. My memory is like a ragbag filled with titbits of information which can sometimes be very useful.

Most of your books are set in turn of the century London. What draws you to this particular period and location?
I grew up in North East London, and although I lived in the suburbs I was very familiar with the East End, and I loved the old buildings and Georgian terraces, most of which are sadly razed to the ground and replaced by glass and concrete office towers. I can remember the dreadful smogs, or peasoupers, having been caught in a couple when I first started work in Kingsway, so I can relate to what it must have been like in Victorian London. The 19th century was a period of enormous social and industrial change. The railways altered the face of Britain forever, consigning the horse-drawn mail coach to history. Gas lighting, followed by the power of electricity, transformed the way people lived and worked, and the telegraph made it possible to communicate across the world. Women infiltrated the previously male dominated field of medicine, and demanded the right to vote. I could go on, but that would sound like a history lesson.

How do you research your novels?
I use the internet - where would we be without search engines? But I also back my research with books and maps. I always start a story with an exact area of London in mind, using old street maps and photographs. That way I can visualise each scene as if it were a movie, so that I can paint a picture in words to describe the sights, sounds and smells (some of them very nasty).

What, for you, is the best thing about being a writer?
The best thing about being a writer is spending time doing what I love creating different worlds and characters that, when I'm writing, are very real to me. I meet each one with an open mind - and they all have their own stories and distinctive personalities. Sometimes a character starts off as being hateful and then develops into someone not so bad after all - each story is an adventure from start to finish.

Generally, how long does it take you to write a book?
I have a contract with my publishers, so that means that each book has to be delivered in a given time. I write two or three books a year, and each novel takes on average four months. That includes editing, checking page proofs etc. There's no time for sitting around waiting for inspiration - it's a job, but a very enjoyable one.

You also write under the name Lily Baxter, are you writing any more in this series?
I am often asked this by readers and I always say "never say never" but I haven't any plans to write another Lily Baxter at present. When I wrote the WW2 books I was contracted to do two Dilly Court books and one Lily Baxter book each year, and jumping from one century to another is interesting, but it isn't particularly easy when working to a tight schedule.

Do you have any favourite characters and, if so, which?
No, I don't. I love all my characters at the time of writing, which would make it impossible to choose one over another. Each book is an experience in itself, and writing the last line is like saying goodbye to old friends, but there are always others waiting in the wings to tell their stories. It keeps me very busy.

You started your career in television, writing scripts for commercials. What were you most memorable adverts?
I got into writing scripts almost by accident. My boss at the time was looking for a script to put up to a prospective advertiser, and, on my commute home I came up with an idea. I typed it out on my aunt's old Underwood portable typewriter and left it on his desk next morning. That was the start of my short career as a copywriter. The scripts I wrote were presented to companies to give them an idea of what could be done in an advertising campaign designed specifically for them. I remember being given a grand tour of Selfridges, who were interested in a television campaign at that time, and I enjoyed that immensely. Unfortunately my career as a copywriter was cut short when my family left London and moved to North Wales. After that I had all manner of jobs, too numerous to mention.

What is the best advice anyone has ever given you?
Never give up. When things aren't working out the way you want them to - just keep going. You'll get there in the end.

The Swan Maid is out in large print in December. A full list of Dilly Court's books can be found here. Her books published under Lily Baxter are available here. Interview by Nicky Solloway at Magna Large Print Books.