A Family Affair: Love in a Time of War by Adrienne Chinn
BY TRISH MACENULTY
Adrienne Chinn’s novel, Love in a Time of War (Harper360, 2022), is the first in a series revolving around three sisters. The story begins in 1913 in London, but travels back in time to Capri, and forward in time to Egypt with stops in Germany and the Mediterranean. Throughout we follow the Fry sisters as they come of age and search for their place in the world. All the while, their mother tries to protect them from the harsh realities of a war-torn time as well as from the secrets of her own past.
Chinn’s inspiration for the series comes from the closest of sources.
“The Fry family in Love in a Time of War, and the subsequent three books in the Fry Sisters series, is very much inspired by my grandmother, Edith Fry Chinn, and my two great-aunts, Jessie and Ettie Chinn,” Chinn said.
Chinn’s grandfather, Frederick Fry, was a professional London photographer in the early 20th century and, luckily, Chinn has many of the family portraits he took at that time. She used the photos as inspiration for her characters and created back stories for each of them.
“I include everything from their birthdates, to their physical appearance, their family and friend relationships, where they study, what they like to read, and so forth,” she said. “Then I created a detailed chapter breakdown, giving each character a different font colour, and literally did weave the stories into a tapestry, ensuring that all the stories had time to develop.”
At the end of the book, one of the sisters moves to Canada, just as Chinn’s family did. Although Chinn grew up in Canada, she later made the move back to England.
“Being Canadian in a foreign country brings a different perspective – I’m here but not of here. I identify as Canadian, but I like the energy of being an outsider here in Britain. It’s probably why I like travelling so much!” she said. “The theme of being an outsider in a situation that is outside of one’s comfort zone is one I continually explore in my novels.”
Love in a Time of War covers a lot of ground. Not only do the characters travel to a variety of places, they also have wide-ranging interests and experiences.
“I read a lot of books and research specific things online as a I write,” she said. “For instance, when I was writing about Gerald and Celie in the photography studio, I read everything I could find on turn-of-the-century photography, including the photography process, pictures of the cameras of the time and photography studios of the time, etc. When I had Etta visit the opening of the Omega Workshops in London, I researched everything I could find about that, including who was likely to have attended, and pictures of the interior of the workshops.”
That may sound daunting, but Chinn says she did the research in “bite-size pieces,” concentrating on what she needed to know as she was writing about it. In order to corral all that data, Chinn said she creates a detailed “notes” file where she copies the research links into relevant categories, including photos which stimulate her imagination and help her build details into the world she is creating.
“The interesting thing about research is that the more you look, the more you find. I was always on the lookout for little details in personal accounts — the smell of something, the way the water of the Mediterranean was a clear calm blue-green as the hospital ship steamed to the battlefield of Gallipoli — these all add verisimilitude to the story,” she said.
Chinn wrote Love in a Time of War during the Covid lockdown of 2020, so although she was unable to revisit the places she writes about in the book, she relied on photographs she had taken and online research.
“I searched out pictures of these places from the 1910s as well as from the 1890s when Christina was a young woman,” she said. “I read about Heidelberg University and the Philosophensweg, and the favourite plum cake they like to eat there. Food is important! I’m always researching what people eat.”
You Tube proved to be a great resource. She found videos of people walking through Capri which helped her know the roads her characters walked on and the details of Piazzetta.
“I also have a good memory for colours, smells, and the feeling of places, which I try to bring into my books,” she said.
Chinn’s characters grow and change throughout the book, which means that some of the main characters may have opinions or views that are narrow-minded in the beginning.
“I like to make my characters as real as possible, and that means flaws and all. Often narrowmindedness and prejudice is based on fear of the outsider and the unknown,” she said. “I want the reader to see my characters grow (or choose not to), and, hopefully, nudge the reader to reflect on their own prejudices. We are all of us humans, and opening ourselves to the ‘otherness’ of others often leads us to understand how much we have in common. I don’t believe there are strangers, only people who do not yet know each other.”
In addition to basing her characters on family members, Chinn incorporates real-life figures in her fiction.
“Bringing real people into the story in these cameo roles helps to build the world I am creating by giving the reader touchstones to that period,” she said. “If you mention suffragettes, you imagine the women parading through the streets in their Edwardian clothes; if you mention Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group, you imagine bohemian London writers of the early 20th century. Also, it’s fun! I like having my characters interact with the historical characters. Hopefully, it shows the humanity of these historical figures, which is what I am striving for.”
Chinn is not only a writer; she’s also an interior designer, and that passion finds its way into her fiction. She shared how interior decoration can help writing come alive.
“I like researching the interiors of houses in the periods I write about and including relevant details in the scene descriptions,” she said. “I’m big into world-building! I want the reader to feel they are experiencing a real scene, knowing what kind of sofa a character is sitting on, or that the curtains have blue roses and are hand-me-downs from someone. I believe the environments in which people live are a reflection of themselves.”
She noted that she tries to include key decorative details in her descriptions of interiors. For example, where the windows are, what kind of light is hanging from the ceiling, whether there is a lace tablecloth on a dining table, or a bowl of fruit – and what kind of fruit.
“I often have the same room appear several times in a book, often over several years, and I like to update the furnishings accordingly, or check that people are moving around the room correctly,” she said.
“The class system was very much in place in Britain in the early 20th century, and how people furnished their homes was a reflection of their class. … Ultimately, everything is about painting a picture so that the reader can immerse themselves fully into the story.”
The second book in the series, The Paris Sister, follows the sisters and their mother Christina through the years of the 1920s. It will be published in February 2023. And Chinn says she’s currently halfway through writing the third book in the series, set between 1932 and 1939.
“The final book will follow the sisters and their three daughters through the war years of 1939-1945,” she said.
About the contributor: Trish MacEnulty is the author of the historical mystery series, Delafield & Malloy Investigations. Visit her website for more information.