I knew in my heart of hearts after I finished writing Women of Steel, I wasn’t ready to let these feisty and wonderful wartime sisters go. I had lived and breathed the wartime Sheffield factory workers for over two years, researching, interviewing and writing up their remarkable and breath-taking stories, to ensure they would forever be immortalised in the pages of a book that would adorn shelves of homes around the country, libraries and book stores.
They had become a major part of my life, not just my work but how I now thought about women in history and how many have either been represented or – even worse – forgotten as the decades have passed.
It took nearly 70 years for this incredible generation to be fully recognised and gain that thanks they rightly deserved, so I couldn’t just write ‘The End’ and close the book on these extraordinary women.
I toyed with the idea of a PhD or another non-fiction based on other aspects of their lives, but I couldn’t nail down an idea I was completely content with. That was until I was contacted by the wonderful Katie Seaman, a commissioning editor at HQ Stories, via Hannah Weatherall at Northbank.
Katie was looking for an author to write a series of novels based on the Sheffield steelworkers. I won’t deny it, of course I was slightly apprehensive. As a journalist, specialising in ‘real life’, I’d always dealt with facts – reporting what I’d been told, turning interviewees words into print.
However, I soon realised my 25 years working for women’s magazines was more than enough grounding for creating stories that are generally written in the first person. I’d used this skill in my first ghost-writing project, A Friend For Christmas, and throughout Women of Steel, as I started the majority of chapters with a dramatised scene, giving readers a real sense of being there with the women, in the moment and sharing their experiences.
I have drawn on this skill and style when writing the first Steel Girls books, the first draft of which is now very close to being finished. It has been a lot of fun and I have thoroughly enjoyed the whole process. I have also been very lucky as Katie had already come up with characters and an initial outline of plot and story lines, which we have adapted and developed. Both Katie and Hannah have offered tremendous support, guidance and invaluable pointers, which I’m eternally grateful for.
It has been a great experience developing the characters and throwing myself into their lives, traumas, relationships, heart aches and triumphs. Although everything I am writing is embedded in fact and history, as my on-going research continues, having the benefit of poetic license and room for creativity feels quite exciting. I have so many stories from the real Women of Steel I interviewed which I have been able to adapt, but without taking away the essence and authenticity of what this formidable generation endured.
I can be out for a run or walking my dog, Mabel, and suddenly an idea will pop in my head to create a scene or a personality trait, which I have to repeat to myself over and over again so I don’t forget it. I write any ideas down as soon as I get home and then work out how I can integrate them into the storyline.
I’m only at the start of my fiction journey but I am hopeful it is something I can continue for a long time to come – these women are in my blood now and I’m not sure I can ever really say goodbye to them.
Michelle Rawlins is an international award winning freelance journalist with over 20 years’ experience working in print and digital media. She is the author of non-fiction work Women of Steel, out now from Headline.