Nancy Revell is the author of the Shipyard series, a saga set in Sutherland during the Second World War.
She worked as a newspaper reporter for two decades before becoming a novelist. Originally from the Tyne and Wear, she recently returned and now lives a few streets away from where the stories are set.
You worked as a newspaper reporter and journalist for many years before turning to fiction. Was it difficult to make the switch?
I wouldn’t say I found the transition difficult – but it has been a massive learning curve, that’s for sure!
How does writing fiction compare to writing news stories?
That’s a huge question and a subject I now do talks on. In a nutshell, I believe journalism and writing fiction are incredibly similar, and at the same time polar opposites. As a journalist you’re writing 1,200 words per feature (maximum) while a novel is roughly 120,000 words in length. But the skills you learn as a journalist are akin to those of a storyteller – with both you have to know how to engage your reader and draw them in within the first couple of paragraphs. Grab them from the off and don’t let them go until the last page!
Why did you decide to write historical fiction and family sagas rather than contemporary fiction?
The decision was made for me by my agent/ publisher, who asked if I’d like to put together an idea for a new saga series set in the Second World War. I have always loved family sagas set in any period in history and I was fascinated by the Second World War from a young age. I had a natural yearning to learn more and a genuine enthusiasm for immersing myself in that period.
Where do you get the ideas for your books? You descend from a long line of shipbuilders so are the books based on family history?
I only discovered that I came from such a long line of shipbuilders (platers on my maternal side) after I started putting together the proposal for book one in the Shipyard Girls series. I suppose it all happened rather back to front. I decided to write the saga series on women shipbuilders in the Second World War in Sunderland, only to then find how deeply enmeshed my own family was in the industry.
You relocated to Sunderland and now live a short distance away from where the books are set, how important is it to live in the location?
Very! I knew as soon as I signed the publishing deal for the first three books that I had to move back up north. There was no hesitation. If I were to write a novel that was set in Sunderland – regardless of the period or subject matter – I had to be here. The language, the landscape, the weather, the dialogue and the culture are things you can’t just look up on Google!
Had you always wanted to work as a novelist? What do you enjoy about it?
I always wanted to be a novelist. It has been my dream for as long as I can remember. If I’m honest I think I enjoy the escapism of it all the most – losing myself in another world, in character’s minds and lives. I also enjoy the cathartic experience of writing, as well as mulling over what’s going to happen next, and thinking through the intricacies of the plot.
What about your working day, do you have a favourite time to write?
I start writing from 8am onwards. If I could push my husband out to work sooner I would probably start earlier!
How do you come up with storylines for your books? Do you know the ending of a book before you start writing?
When I first started The Shipyard Girls I didn’t really have an ending in mind – perhaps just a vague one. I wrote and hoped for the best! Now that I’m writing book five my characters are so well formed in my head that it feels like they are dictating to me what should happen, so I’d say that nowadays I have a pretty good vision of each ending, although sometimes something can come along and take me by surprise and change everything completely!
You had your own weekly column in that’s life! Magazine, where you wrote about IVF treatment as well as your husband’s battle with head and neck cancer. Do you think these experiences have influenced your storytelling?
Yes, probably in the way I endeavour to give my characters emotional depth. I think most people these days – and certainly most people I’ve known, or have met, or have interviewed during my years as a journalist – have been through something that has caused them great heartache or sadness. It’s what makes us human, and I want my characters to be as human and as multi-faceted as possible.
Are you going to use these themes in future books?
I don’t know if I would use either as themes as such but I think it’s inevitable that they will both feature in the books in some shape or form, and will touch the lives of some of the characters. Both cancer and infertility are far from uncommon, not just nowadays, but also back in the 1940s.
What’s the best writing advice anyone’s ever given you?
Just do it!
What are you planning to do next?
I’m presently writing book five in the Shipyard Girls series and have just signed another deal with Arrow to write book six and seven – with more on the horizon…
The Shipyward Girls is now available in large print.
Interview by Nicky Solloway at Magna.