Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Nightingale Nurses

Donna Douglas is the author of the bestselling Nightingale novels, a series of stories set in an East End hospital in the 1930s. Her latest, The Nightingale Nurses, has just been published. London born and bred, Donna now lives in York with her husband. They have a grown up daughter. Donna started her career writing photo stories and serials for teenage magazines, which taught her everything she needed to know about creating plot twists and cliff-hangers, not to mention writing tight dialogue (it had to be tight, or the speech bubbles covered the characters’ faces – not usually a problem in novels, but a good lesson anyway). 

Who’d be a nurse in the 1930s?

I must admit, when my agent first suggested the idea of a series of novels set in an East End hospital before the War, I was a bit doubtful. Up until that point, I’d never written anything remotely historical. I loved reading history, but the idea of all that research was just too daunting.

But I gave it a try and started to read up about nursing in that period. By the time I finally emerged from the Royal College of Nursing archives, bag bulging with notebooks full of scribble, I realised I had enough material for a dozen books – and I couldn’t wait to start writing them.

A nurse’s lot in those days was harsh, to say the least. They trained for three years, during which time they ‘lived in’ under the watchful eye of a Home Sister. They were forbidden visitors, had to be in bed for lights out at ten, and were rarely allowed a day off. They would spend three months in Preliminary Training, or PTS, where they would learn the basics of nursing, including bandaging, administering medication, anatomy, nutrition – and cleaning. Lots of cleaning. Can you imagine a modern student nurse spending three hours a day learning how to sweep a floor or scrub a bedpan?

After PTS, students would be sent to the wards. For the next three years they would spend three months at a time on each ward, learning under the watchful eye of the sister in charge. And that generally meant more cleaning. The First Years, or probationers, bore the brunt of the hard work, which was why they were often nicknamed ‘dirty pros’.

It may all sound a bit grim, but all the nurses I’ve met speak fondly of their time on the wards, the fun they had (mainly behind the Home Sister’s back), and the lifelong friends they made.

It’s that friendship that is at the heart of my Nightingale novels. My three student nurses, Dora, Millie and Helen, are all from different backgrounds. Dora is a working class girl, Millie is a wealthy heiress, while Helen is a shy vicar’s daughter. Yet they’re drawn together by their experience of working at the hospital, and it’s this bond that helps pull them through as they each face their own personal battle. And they face quite a few battles in this latest episode, The Nightingale Nurses. Helen is in the last six months of her training, and finds herself torn between her overbearing mother and her working class boyfriend Charlie. But then life takes a devastating twist…Meanwhile, Dora has to watch the man she loves marrying her pregnant best friend, Ruby. She’s heartbroken, but little does she know Ruby has a dark secret of her own. And Millie is happily planning her wedding to Seb, until a fortune teller’s dire prediction casts her future into doubt.

I absolutely love losing myself in the world of the Nightingale Hospital, and luckily readers seem to feel the same. I especially love it when a former nurse takes the time to contact me and tells me, ‘That’s exactly how it was in my day.’ That’s when I know all that research has been worthwhile!

Published by Arrow, and available from supermarkets, all good bookshops and Amazon

Find out more:
Website – http://www.donnadouglas.co.uk
Twitter – @donnahay1. 

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