Friday, August 10, 2012

Interview with Donna Douglas

I’m delighted to welcome Donna Douglas to the blog today. Born in south London she now lives in York with her husband. When she’s not writing, she enjoys reading, watching TV (she’s seen so many Scandinavian crime dramas she’s now convinced she can speak Danish), and drinking cocktails with friends. She also likes visiting London, ostensibly for research, but also to go shopping with her daughter, who lives there. Tell us a little of your journey as a writer, Donna. How did it begin?

Very slowly! I’d always loved making up stories, and I really wanted to write a novel. I started several over the years, but somehow seemed to run out of steam after a few chapters. I kept telling myself not to panic, that Catherine Cookson didn’t publish her first novel until she was 40. But one day I woke up and realised I’d turned 38, so it was time to get serious! I joined the RNA New Writers Scheme, which gave me the oomph I needed to complete a novel. My RNA reader loved it, and suggested I send it to Orion, who luckily loved it too! My first novel was published two days before my 40th birthday – talk about cutting it fine!

Have you been published in any other media such as newspapers, short stories or articles?

Yes, I trained as a journalist, and my first job was writing photo love stories for teenage magazines – great training for writing pithy dialogue! My day job is as a freelance journalist, so I still write regularly for national newspapers and magazines. I’m even an agony auntie for one magazine!

You first published under the name Donna Hay, but now you are using a new name. Tell us how that came about, and what inspired you to write your latest book.

The Nightingale Girls is published under the name Donna Douglas to differentiate it from my previous contemporary romances. It’s the first in a series (hopefully!) set in a hospital in the 1930s – kind of ‘Holby City meets Downtown Abbey’, if you like! The Nightingale Girls tells the story of three girls from very different backgrounds, who sign up as student nurses in 1934, and the trials and traumas they face. Training as a nurse was very different in those days. The regime was very strict, although the enterprising students did manage to have some fun. As one retired nurse told me, “They tried to keep us like nuns, but that didn’t mean we lived like nuns!”

Do you enjoy research, and how do you set about it?

I love research – it’s knowing where to stop that’s the problem! For The Nightingale Girls, I read endless nursing biographies and spent many happy hours chatting to former nurses about life on the wards – they had some very naughty stories to tell, enough to fill any number of novels! I trawled the Royal College of Nursing archives, various hospital archives and the local history library in Bethnal Green, where the book is set. I also tracked down some original medical training manuals from the 1930s. So if anyone ever needs a linseed poultice, I know how to make one!

Do you plan character bios before you start writing, or allow them to emerge as you write?

I’m definitely a planner. I couldn’t start a novel if I didn’t know how it was going to end – to me, that would be like setting off on a car journey with no idea where you were going. But having said that, the plot does tend to take a few unexpected twists and turns once I get going and the characters take over! I write bios of all my main characters, including lots of background that might not even make it into the finished work – I find it can often spark off an idea for an interesting subplot. If you’re writing a series like Nightingales, you need all that background to keep your story straight, too.

If you were starting out afresh, what advice would you give yourself as a fledgling writer?

Never send out the first draft of anything you write. You might think it’s perfect the way it is, but it isn’t. And when you’ve put it away in a drawer for a month and read it again, you’ll see that.

Do you have any rejections lurking among your files, or do you recycle them?

I have my fair share of rejections, certainly. Like many writers, I started my career attempting a Mills & Boon – without a great deal of success, I have to say. Anyone who thinks they’re easy to write should put their money where their mouth is and have a go! But most of the plots have found a home elsewhere, either as a short story for a magazine, or as the germ of an idea for another novel.

What can you see from your office window? Does it inspire you? 

I can see absolutely nothing – and yes, it does inspire me! I used to have an office upstairs, overlooking the street, and I spent far too much time staring out of the window at all the goings-on. Now my office is converted from the back half of our garage. It has a small, narrow window that overlooks next door’s brick wall, my books are all on shelves behind me and my computer faces another wall which is completely blank. Yes, it’s a bit dark and about as cheery as a monk’s cell, but I get loads more done!

What makes you laugh the most?

Sharing embarrassing incidents with my friends, mostly. Or the vagaries of our new broadband. It’s either that, or weep over it.

In the autumn of 1934, three very different girls sign up as trainee nurses at an East End hospital. Tough working class girl Dora is hoping for a better life for herself – if she can escape the clutches of her evil stepfather. Helen was born to be a nurse – according to her overbearing mother, at least. Little does anyone know the perfect student hides a secret heartache. Rebellious Millie is desperate to be more than a wealthy aristocratic wife. But she soon finds life as a nurse tougher than she’d ever imagined. Through bedpans and broken hearts, the girls form an unlikely friendship. But which of them has what it takes to become a Nightingale Girl? 

The Nightingale Girls by Donna Douglas. Published 16th August by Arrow.

Thank you for sparing time to talk to us today, Donna. We wish you continuing success with your new name. 

Best wishes, Freda 

Find out more about Donna and her books.
Twitter - @donnahay1 

Interviews on the RNA Blog are for RNA members, although we do occasionally take guests. If you are interested in an interview, please contact


Lesley Cookman said...

Gosh, Donna - I remember when your daughter was still at school. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, my lot have grown up, too.

I am SOOO looking forward to the Nightingale Girls. It's pre-ordered for my Kindle.

Jessica Hart said...

Very impressed by how tidy your office is, Donna! The Nightingale Girls sounds fab. Your description of the research you've done made me think of Lucilla Andrews, whose books were set in the 40s and 50s. Very different stories, but the feel of hospitals in that era sounds similar. Really looking forward to reading the book now!

Jenny Haddon said...

So looking forward to reading The Nightingale Girls.

I agree with you about the seductive power of research. So wish I was a planner, like you, though.

Rosemary Morris said...

Like you I began by writing a novel for Mills and Boon. It was accepted but because I did not have a date for publication in the contract M & B shelved it. You're so right, its not easy writing for M & B. I admire authors who do because they know exactly what the readers want.

Rhoda Baxter said...

Wow. What a tidy office! I'm impressed.
You're so right about the first draft too.

Good luck with The Nightingale Girls. It sounds like a lot of fun.

Donna Douglas said...

Thanks for the lovely comments, everyone, especially about my tidy office. What you didn't see were all the papers and other assorted stuff piled up behind me - I swept it all to one end of the room for photographic purposes!

Yes, Lesley, my daughter is now 22 and living in London, having graduated from drama school as a stage manager. Doesn't time fly?

It's always been one of my big regrets I gave up on the M & B, Rosemary. It sounds as if you got a lot further than I did!

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Rosemary Morris said...


I'm one of your many fans. Sometimes I read your novels until too late at night, sometimes I play truant from my wip to read a bit more about your nurses. I'm rapping myself on the wrist and saying stick to your self-imposed office hours,

All the best,
Rosemary Rach
Writing as Rosemary Morris