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Developing An Idea For A Novel, by Mary Nichols

That first germ of an idea, the thread or theme which will run through a novel, can come from anywhere at any time: while reading, watching television, doing the housework or gardening, listening to other people’s conversations on a train or bus, or from a story someone has told you. The trick is to recognise it when it does and grab hold of it. Some say you should write it down before it is forgotten. My theory is that if it is so easily forgotten then it wasn’t a particularly good idea. The really good ones stick.

Just after the war, my mother worked in a home for unmarried mothers.  The girls (some of them very young) were taken there a few weeks before the birth to have their babies who were then taken away for adoption.  A week or two later the mothers were sent home and expected to get on with their lives as if nothing had happened. My mother was often asked to take a newborn baby from the town where we lived to London on the train, where she would meet another social worker at the station and hand the baby over to be taken to the adopting mother. In that way, the real mother and the adoptive parent never met and never knew each other’s names, and the child grew up in ignorance of his or her roots. Unless of course, they were told they had been adopted when they grew old enough to understand. That tale stuck in my memory and only surfaced many years later when reading about someone looking for their birth mother. I could not help wondering about the poor mothers and how they must have felt. Surely you could not forget the child you had carried for nine months and held in your arms as an infant? Could that be a basis for a story?

During the Second World War, having an illegitimate baby was considered by many to be a terrible disgrace. During the First World War its impact would have been even worse. It was then I applied the ‘what if’ exercise to start the ball rolling. What if my mother-to-be was married to a serviceman away fighting in France? What if she fell in love with someone else and he too was sent to France, leaving her pregnant? How would she feel? How would she cope? What if she was forced to put her baby up for adoption? How would she react? What would the adoptive parents be like? Would they be rich or poor? Why were they adopting? Would she be cared for and loved? Would she be told the story of her birth or would it be kept from her? How would she react when she found out? If the real mother did find her daughter again, how would she feel? What would she, or could she, do about it? In answering these questions I had my story.

The idea is only the beginning. I needed to put it in its historical setting and chose to have a prologue covering the birth of the baby at the end of the First World War, then switch to WW2, when the baby is an adult herself, for the main body of the story. Prologues are a good device if you need to cover something that happened years before. Sometimes you can do this by introducing the back story in snippets as you go along, but if it is really important, telling it as it happens gives it more punch.

Having written it, I needed to find a publisher. Someone who knew about publishing suggested Allison and Busby, so I wrote to them and they were enthusiastic about it.


Mary Nichols’s author website:

Mary Nichols’s bio page


United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

Escape by MoonlightThe Girl on the BeachThe Summer HouseThe Kirilov Star     Acceptable LossA Secret AlchemyAuslander

Writing Historical Novels


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