From guns and roses to hearts and flowers – Fiona Field

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By Fiona Field

I never intended to be a writer, I went to the sort of school (all girls) where we wrote essays on meaty subjects and any creativity was discouraged. We were, to a kid, swots; it was that sort of school. When I left school, I was completely unprepared for survival in the wild – Latin, history, English, chemistry etc don’t prepare you for looking after yourself. For some reason I really didn’t want to go to university, so I knew I needed a job that would feed, house, clothe, as well as pay me and the army ticked all the boxes. When I also discovered the ratio of men to women was 500:1, bearing in mind I’d been to an all-girls school, it was a no-brainer.♥

I was trained in admin – nothing rough or tough and, once again, absolutely no creativity was allowed. However, as well as court-martialling soldiers or working out plans to get the families out of Germany if the Communist hordes came through the Iron Curtain, I was expected to take part in all types of adventurous training; gliding, sailing, rock-climbing, skiing… it was character building apparently.

I met and fell in love with another army officer – a bomb disposal expert – married him and then, after eight years of travelling around Europe on postings and having a great deal of fun, I fell pregnant and, in those days, I was expected to leave. The army just about tolerated married women but pregnant women?! No way. We moved house a number of times, I produced more children and getting back into work looked increasingly unlikely. No employer wanted anyone with three kids under school age and the chance that they’d be moving house again in under a year.

And then I found myself living next door to the editor of the in-house magazine for the wives of the officers attending Staff College. Would I help with the admin? Frankly, after years of toddler-talk, I was desperate for any excuse to interact with adults so, of course, I said yes. However, sorting out the supply of paper and access to the photocopier, soon morphed into writing a column and I discovered that ‘making things up’ was rather fun. I wrote about life as an army wife, except I shamelessly exaggerated various aspects to make them more entertaining. After all, even I knew that you don’t want to spoil a good story with the truth. After a few months the editor, Annie, suggested I should turn my column into a book. Gulp! Let’s face it, a few hundred words every couple of weeks is one thing but a book…? Annie said she’d help. Still, no. We’d write it together. Nope. She plied me with gin. Yesh… it’sh a shplendid idea, hic.

The book did well. It was a terrific hit with army wives around the world and Annie and I wrote more stuff, published other books, almost all non-fiction, and then her husband was posted to the USA and my husband went to Northern Ireland. The internet was embryonic and no one had email, transatlantic phone calls were ruinously expensive – we couldn’t continue with the collaboration. A couple of years previously a London agent had asked if we could write a novel about army wives and we’d never got around to it, but now the children were all at school, albeit the youngest only in the mornings, my husband was insanely busy and rarely home, and it rains A Lot in the Six Counties so I was stuck indoors with nothing to do. I decided to write that novel.

I wrote about what I knew. I wrote about the trials and tribulations of being married to a soldier, of living in army quarters on a married patch, of the camaraderie of the patch wives, of the effect the constant moving has on your kids, of the endless separation when he’s on active service, of the worry when your husband is in the firing line… of the things that are so alien to people in Civvy Street. Some of my friends tell me I was so lucky to have had that life, those experiences. When I lived in that other, khaki world, when I once moved house six times in five years – the same five years in which I gave birth to three children – I didn’t feel especially lucky. Packing up, cleaning a quarter to military standard, moving, settling the kids into new schools, making new friends wasn’t fun, or exciting, it was hard work and a grind, but, as Noel Coward so brilliantly said, ‘Drama is real life with the dull bits taken out.’

We’ve all got bits of our lives that are worth writing about, that we can use to inform our fiction, it’s just a question of knowing how to pick out the best bits and lose the dross – and believe me there’s a lot of dross when you’re an army wife. But on the plus side, there are a lot of hunky men in uniform and just as many strong women – and aren’t those exactly the sort of brilliant characters you need for a book? So maybe I was lucky to have had that military experience but I think it goes to show that if you are destined to become a writer, you’ll wind up writing stories no matter how uncreative or bonkers your formative years were. And just remember, nothing that happens in your life is ever wasted.

Fiona Field, joined the army when she was just 18. At 21 she married an army bomb disposal expert and at 26 was thrown out of the army for becoming pregnant. Fiona understands life as a soldier’s wife and her own son, also a soldier, recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan. A full-time author, Fiona has written books under the names Kate Lace, Annie Jones and her real name, Catherine Jones. She was chairman of Romantic Novelists’ Association from 2007 – 2009, during which time she captained the RNA team on University Challenge to the Grand Final.

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