Class- an ingredient of Sagas

We may be living in a classless society now, but Class was once vitally important and is a favourite ingredient of the saga. Your heroine is often aspiring to break out of her class and better herself. Seek out stories of the social underclasses, the rural backwaters, the ordinary farmers and folk of the hills and the dales. That, to me, is what history is all about. How ordinary people cope with the difficulties of life.

Does your character know her place? Is she content with it? What can she do to change it? Find out what problems people faced in the area at that time. Some people are victims of their class. Others thrive on it, rise above it, or slip further down the ladder, either because of marriage or fate. Some develop a chip on their shoulders or become inverted snobs. How does it affect your character?

Every aspect of any particular class is ripe for fictional exploration. But don’t get it wrong. E.g: Most poor families needed their young to go out to work as soon as possible, no matter how bright they were. That was true even in my youth in some families. Buying them a school uniform could be beyond them.

Decide if yours is to be a working class saga, lower or upper middle class, upper class or a combination of all. Know and understand each class thoroughly before you write about it, either through personal experience or careful research such as interviews and autobiographies.

Class is influenced both by character and region. Remember that everyone feels themselves above someone else, no matter how hard up they are. Whether above or below stairs in an Edwardian household. There’s no such thing as an amorphous mass. Every section of society has its own hierarchy.

It’s not just the upper classes being snobby about the middle classes. Take into account that there are divisions within the working classes too. A skilled man, shopkeeper, carpenter, engineer etc. could be considered quite well off by a factory labourer or apprentice. Street cleaners and refuse men were considered the lowest, no matter how justified their reason for being there.

Moral standards and prejudices among the working classes are every bit as condemning as among the middle or upper, on certain matters. Pregnant girls in Ancoats frequently killed themselves, rather than confess to their parents. Do not assume that the very poor are all feckless, or that they have no morals, are dirty and have coal in their baths. Study the reality, not nonsensical assumptions.


Writing about Strong Women in Sagas

The saga usually has a strong woman as the main character - who must succeed against all the odds. She can be found fighting to deal with the issue in question, and possibly also the poverty of her surroundings. She may aspire to break out of the lower class in order to better herself, or she might be battling against the restrictions and prejudices of the time, as well as the conflict brought about by her antagonist or her own inner flaws.

Her heroic achievement must pit good against evil and, unlike in real life, she must win through in the end, no matter what she has suffered or lost along the way. She needs to be a woman of her time, confined by the moral mores, the traditions, and tenets of her upbringing. Yet she must also have the strength and courage to appeal to a modern readership. It’s a fine balance and if you read Catherine Cookson, you will see that the females in her books managed to do both rather splendidly.

Whatever her problem, she must have the core of strength necessary to allow her to resolve it, whether she is ahead of her time, a rebel, or simply has grit. She must suffer, sink all the way down, be beaten by the prejudices and restrictions of the time, her antagonists, fate, and whatever conflicts you can throw at her. Then she must bring herself back up again and win through, thus making a stand for all women. Your heroine must grow stronger in spirit than she was at the start of the story.

We know that in today’s world we must not attempt to radicalise or be politically incorrect. Being set in the past, you need to reveal that attitudes were very different. Obviously, some issues, such as murder, rape, child abuse, etc., cannot be justified on any account. But it is sometimes necessary to give a slightly modern twang to the problem, or to your main character.

E,g: Illegitimacy, as Cookson made clear, was considered wrong at one time, but not any more. A mixed marriage was also looked upon as wrong in certain areas, even back in WWII. The issue can be objected to by some people in your story, while others consider it to be perfectly fine. You need to be politically correct by showing points of view from both sides. Where possible look for a balance.

An element of your character can be a modern woman, forward thinking for her time so that your readers can empathise with her. In a way, women have always been a bit modern in their way of thinking. They’ve always fought for what they believe in, battled against hard times, done several jobs at once, held their families together and aspired for a better future for their children. Take care though, not to overdo it. Make sure you do not allow your heroine to become an anachronism. Don’t have her knowing or understanding things she couldn’t possibly have known in the period in which she lives.

Women’s rights have always been vital ingredients of the saga. Write with your heart and passion and make her real.



Everyone loves to talk about themselves and the things that matter to them.
To be sure of a good interview here is a list of points to bear in mind.

1. Research the subject well beforehand. Decide your angle or approach.
2. Track down suitable interviewees through organisations, libraries and industries, agents etc. Politely approach your subject with your request. Phone to say who you are, why you would like to write about them.
3. Think through what you need to know and make a list of questions. But avoid asking questions that elicit only a no or yes. Be open-ended.
4. Start with an easy one. ‘Tell me how you got started at . . .’ Once you get them talking, don’t interrupt, simply encourage and jog their memories or slip in your next question when they pause, or if they stray too far from what you want.
5. Don’t make prolific notes as your subject talks. It can be very off-putting for them. Either write it up afterwards, or better still use a dictaphone. Be friendly and get them talking, then slip it out when your interviewee is in full flow and say, ‘This is interesting, you don’t mind if I use this, do you?’
6. If they start sharing personal matters with you, you may need to turn off your recorder.
7. Save your most important questions till last. By then they will be in full flow and probably tell you more than you need.
8. If you wish to take a photograph of your interviewee, do ask if they will be happy with that.
9. If you need more info, ask them to suggest someone else who could tell you more, or talk about another subject of interest.
10. Write up the material as soon as possible after the interview. Remember that transcribing can take a long time. Keep the odd quote, the rest can be your interpretation of what was said. Finally, write and thank your interviewee and you can always ask them to check the info they’ve given you when you write it in your novel.

I often interview people when I'm working on a book, and they readily find time to share their memories with me of the work they used to do whether in the mill or munitions, farming or forestry, war or peace. One was wonderful Betty, an elderly lady I interviewed for Gracie’s Sin. Betty joined the Women's Timber Corps, a branch of the Land Army, at just 17 in 1942, being too young to join the WRNS. Here she is standing at the front of this line.

The girls were trained by foresters too old to fight, and were allowed only a matter of weeks to learn how to do the job. Betty worked most of the war in Grizedale Forest close to the German POW Camp, which was strictly for officers. She remembers that she had to show her pass to allow her to walk through the camp gates to reach the forest to work. There was a sentry on guard who would say: ‘Halt, who goes there? Friend or Foe?’
‘Friend,’ she would say.
‘Advance friend to be recognised.’
So Betty would show her pass and be allowed through.

The POWs used to march up and down the road for exercise. They’d make comments to the girls and the guard would shout at them, ‘Eyes front.’

There was a machine gun trained on them the whole time. ‘We are German Officers and if we say we will not escape, we will keep our word.’

Of course, escape attempts were common, particularly when they were out working in the forest. If they could reach the coast they could get to Ireland, but none succeeded. They would all be caught later on the fells in a sorry state. Trouble-makers were taken up to London in a blacked out car for interrogation. I found out a great deal more from Betty than I’d hoped for. It was definitely worth the hours we spent chatting.