Every family has a story to tell, and I always knew that the roots of my tale were embedded in the 1950s. This was when my parents came to the UK from Cyprus.
My mother often spoke about what it was like to arrive in London, a twenty-six-year-old single woman from a poor, rural life, in search of something bigger and better. She knew a couple of people here, including a family friend who offered her a job in his run-down restaurant. She hated the work, left after three days and decided to try her hand as a seamstress in factory.
She had always been very good at sewing back home, and could already use a machine. The camaraderie among all the immigrant women in the workroom, and the fact that she found something she excelled at, meant that she remained a seamstress for the rest of her working life. I spent many a school holiday in the workroom because there was nowhere else to go, and watching the women during these long weeks provided some of the detail for my main character Dina, who gets a job mending costumes at the Pelican Revue.
My father’s job as a waiter helped with other scenes. He worked in greasy spoons and, later, as a wine waiter in glamorous Soho restaurants and clubs, similar to those in my book.
Long after my mother had died, I kept thinking about her courage and optimism, and this is what inspired She Came To Stay. She’d travelled thousands of miles to a foreign city, where she didn’t speak the language or understand the culture. And even though she was homesick at times, over the years she came to feel that England belonged to her, too. I tried to capture this conflict in Dina’s emotions.
My mother’s story was a happy one. A short while after arriving, she met my father through mutual friends and, after a whirlwind courtship of just a month or so, they decided to marry. But I couldn’t help wondering what would have happened if things hadn’t worked out. If she’d met Mr Wrong instead of Mr Right, or had struck up a friendship with someone who had a secret to hide. What if she’d got sucked into a group if liars and criminals and had nowhere to turn? How would she have survived in a city full of strangers?
This is what I had to write about. In Dina, I wanted to capture that risk and the leap of utter faith that many immigrants take: the blind hope that this move will be the best decision they’ve made, whilst knowing that it could also be their undoing.
I realised that my parents had provided plenty of 1950s information for me, through their stories and our old photos. Other research included reading, looking at archive photos, listening to music and watching films, none of which felt much like work!
And I think that’s the point. The usual advice is to write what you know, but I think it makes sense to write what you love. I chose my historical era according to what appealed to me – where I wanted to spend hour upon hour, when sat at my desk. If you love the setting for your novel, hopefully that will shine through in your words and, in turn, help your readers to fall in love with it too.
She Came To Stay (Hodder & Stoughton), is out now in hardback, audio and e-book.
Eleni Kyriacou is an award-winning editor and journalist. Her writing has appeared in the Guardian, the Observer, Marie Claire, Grazia and Red, among others.
Follow Eleni on Twitter/ Instagram and Facebook @elenikwriter