Researching Fiction – A Walk in the Dark

mlcastle / / CC BY-SA

Fiction Research – A Walk in the Dark

Currently, as many of you will already know, I am writing a fiction novel, based upon a family story, set just before and during the outbreak of, World War Two.

Having reached Chapter 73, the novel now finds itself approaching the introduction of blackout regulations in the UK.  This was scheduled for Friday September 1st 1939 and was, in fact, only two days before Britain declared a state of war with Germany.

Households across the UK had to ensure that no light escaped from their homes and businesses.  Blackout fabric was issued to make curtains and blinds.  Very often people pinned the fabric at the windows or used black paper.  The entire process became tiresome and many families preferred to sit in the dark, or would go to bed.

There were no exceptions to these regulations and for some businesses, particularly pubs, used to opening and closing their doors after dark, it proved to be a huge and difficult undertaking.

Many Public Houses employed a system where there was a curtained ‘lightbox’ contraption, set up around the door, that customers would ensure was carefully closed before opening the door to the street.  This was no mean feat, especially at closing time!

Factories with glass roofs were made to paint the glass if they operated, as many did, during the night.  This created problems in the daytime, as high numbers of workers suffered health issues working under artificial lighting.  Additional lighting costs for factory owners was a huge consideration in itself.

LlGC ~ NLW /

No torches were permitted until January 1940, but by then batteries were scarce in supply and the rules for use were stringent.  The Public were even warned not to light a cigarette out in the open, for fear of being seen by the enemy during an air raid.

ARP wardens were enlisted to patrol an area to enforce this blackout.  Most were volunteers and Home Guard, with a good local knowledge of a particular area.  They would be vigilant and the cry of ‘Put out that light!’ became a familiar sound, especially during the early days.  It was a serious offence to show even a chink of light and some multiple offenders could face heavy fines and even court proceedings.


For research purposes, as my story revolves around daily and family life, I realised that the effects of blackout, although well documented, had to be experienced first-hand if any level of realism was to be achieved in the book.

So, last night, at around 11.15pm, I set off, accompanied, for moral support, by my sixteen year old daughter.  Here I am lucky, as I live in the middle of the French countryside, so it is not difficult to find some dark sky in which there is no light pollution – a far cry from a few months ago, when we lived just a couple of miles outside Birmingham City Centre, where my expedition would have proved a fruitless exercise.

Even without the threat of air raid, the psychological effect of total darkness was, at first disorienting; it was a little like wearing a blindfold.  It was easy to see how dangerous such conditions could become, especially given the fact that cars were unable to use headlights during the blackout.  The numbers of accidents rose dramatically during 1940, leading to restrictions being lifted slightly, allowing limited lighting for cars, using covers with ‘slits’ cut into them to allow a little light through.

There was the element of excitement for us then, as our eyes grew accustomed to the darkness.  It became easier to make out the grass verges at the side of the lane and we were able to pick our way along, although I did wander off at a strange angle whilst staring upwards at the stars in a lovely, moonless clear sky.  It struck us that many city-dwellers must have been amazed at the night sky being suddenly visible, without the light pollution.  Some probably had never seen such skies in their lives before.

The novelty soon wore off and we made our way back, after a few rustles in the bushes freaked us out.  We had a torch with us for emergencies and we were no more than a hundred yards from the house, but the experience gave us a tiny taste of what it must have been like trying to get around during those times.

There will be a few more ‘tastes’ yet, before the research is over and I will write about those too.  Assuring everyone that I will not try driving in blackout conditions, curtains next 😉

Watch this space…


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