When I was a teenager I lived and breathed variety theatre – in fact, any kind of live entertainment. Before and during the war was a golden age of variety and there was so much to draw on – all the wonderful theatre, and the end of the pier shows. When I was sixteen I got a job working backstage at the local theatre on Cleethorpes pier and from that time I was hooked. It was an absolute joy to revisit variety when it meant so much to morale during WW2.
What were the challenges when writing The Variety Girls?
A deadline, although that was really a God send as it turned out. It kept me at my desk, so I had to learn to overcome the distractions and self-doubt that normally plague me. Sometimes what you fear most is the driving force to success.
What’s your writing day like? Do you have any writing rituals?
I write for about three or four hours a day, but I’ll be thinking about the book all the time and I’ll have thought a lot about it before I start writing at all. There’s always research to do, but it has to be balanced with spending time with family and friends. It would be no joy to spend all day writing, not to me.
I don’t have any rituals other than playing music in the background and sometimes lighting a scented candle. Anything that helps me relax and settle to work.
I started with articles and then short stories. I wanted to write a novel but our life was very unsettled and so I never had the mental headspace to invest in a longer work. I went to classes and conferences and kept myself connected with other writers – and the short stories were excellent for learning to write tightly. A couple of years ago I decided that it was now or never and got stuck into a novel. It was the right time for me.
What’s your favourite word and why?
Balance. It always has been. I am forever in search of it, but I really don’t think such a thing exists. However, it’s something to aim for.
I would never want to be in a show – the thought terrifies me. I’d far sooner be in the background observing it all. I’d like to hover about backstage watching The Good Companions by J B Priestly. It’s such a wonderful novel, so rich in story and characters. I’d be happy with that.
What’s your writing process like in terms of planning, approaching a first draft, research and editing? What do you feel are the benefits of your approach to these?
Once I have an idea, I think about it for a long time, keeping the character or characters in my head and trying to find out more about them. I figure out what is most important to them, what they want and why. I keep asking questions about the characters until I feel the energy that means I’m ready to start writing. I make notes, mind map ideas, draw up a rough plan, then write a synopsis.
I power through the first draft, editing a little as I go, but really trying to get a feel for the story. I then go back and add notes in places where I know I need to dig deeper. After that I rest it for as long as I can, depending on my deadlines, then go through it again – and again.
This process works for me, it makes me feel more confident to dive in and let the characters tell me the story.
Which book made the most impact to you as a child?
Heidi by Johanna Spyri. It was the first book that made me cry and feel an emotional connection to a character. How would I feel if I were an orphan, taken to live in the mountains with an unfamiliar grandfather, find happiness and have it snatched away again? I loved that the grandfather made her a small stool, that she drank the goat’s milk, had a bedroom with a small window so she could look up to the stars. The pictures it painted was all so vivid; it still is.
Do you think strong characters or plot is more important?
Most definitely characters. Stories are about people, what they do and why, how they react in given circumstances. Good novels and characters make you laugh and cry, and root for, but most all to have compassion for people’s failings, for making the wrong choices and trying to put it right. I have been Heidi and Anne of Green Gables, I have been Scarlett O’ Hara and Emma Harte and all from the safety of my sofa.
Do you have any other advice to aspiring writers?
Read a lot, write a lot. Find other writers to connect with. Writing can be lonely and it’s good to get out and share ideas.
What’s next for you?
Christmas with the Variety Girls will be published in October and I’m working on another book set on the east coast. It’s an area I know and love.
From the age of sixteen, Tracy Baines worked summer seasons, pantomimes and everything else in-between at the local end of the pier show. She met her husband when he was appearing with the Nolan Sisters and she was Assistant Stage Manager.
Her knowledge of the theatre world from both sides of the stage and the hierarchy that keeps the show running really bring this saga to life. She’s also written articles and short stories for key publications for this audience including Woman’s Weekly, Take a Break, The People’s Friend and My Weekly.
The Variety Girls was released by Ebury Press own 20th February. Click to view on Amazon UK.
About The Variety Girls…
After the tragic death of her father, aspiring singer Jessie Delaney has been forced to live with her bullying aunt and dreams of getting the break of a lifetime to escape. When she’s cast as one of the Variety Girls in a new show at the Empire Theatre, Jessie hopes this is the new beginning she’s been longing for. But following her dreams on stage will mean being separated from sweetheart Harry.
As she starts her new job, it’s not long before she forms a close-knit friendship with Frances and Dolly, although the girls soon find that life in the theatre isn’t always glamorous. And with the country on the brink of war, everyone is facing an uncertain future. Can friendship help Jessie through the challenges ahead?