Writing the world you see around you

According to the last census, the UK is 87% white. So it’s perfectly feasible to have a number of different characters in your book and for them all to be white.

Two girls holding hands

But I write realism and The Victoria Lie is predominantly set in London, which is only 59% white (and only 44% British white). So I felt I couldn’t justify having four main female characters – as my main story needed – and not having at least one of them from a different ethic background.

I didn’t just want to plonk a black or Asian character on the page and have no reason for her being there. But at the same time, I didn’t want her race and skin colour to be the only reason for her to be in the story either. I needed a sub plot that would make her race relevant.

The main story in The Victoria Lie is of someone taking a Paracetamol dose and most of the book takes place at this person’s bedside. So I realised I need health-related stories that would tie my character into the book.

At the time I was scoping out my novel, there was a medical story in the news every day: how Albert Thompson had been refused cancer treatment because he couldn’t prove he had the right to live in the UK.

Albert Thompson was part of the Windrush generation – named after one of the boats that brought people across from Caribbean countries to help with post-war labour shortages. They were given indefinite leave to remain in the UK, but many didn’t have any paperwork to prove it.

At this point I knew my non-white character would have Caribbean parentage – and I decided to make her black so that the link between her and Albert Thompson was clearer.

I gave my character a parent who came across on one of the boats. I chose it to be her mother as mothers and daughters often have close bonds. And I also killed off her father prior to the start of the book so it would just be mother and daughter, making their relationship more important to both of them.

I knew I also needed to make this mother ill, but not in a way that would mean her illness would overshadow the main plot. So I researched chronic illnesses – genetic ones that could be passed onto the daughter and which would affect her daughter’s view of the suicide attempt.

I knew I’d found the right condition when I came across Sarcoidosis: a condition that can go into remission for years only to flare up again. The mother would be able to be well now, but still be at risk of needing (and being rejected for) NHS treatment under the Windrush issues.

And there was one other symptom that made Sarcoidosis stand out: it kills black people.

For some reason, Europeans and Asians who develop Sarcoidosis are usually able to fight the condition. Whatever damage has been done by the condition is permanent, but they often go into remission for long periods – and may never suffer another flare-up after the initial one.

Black people are not only more likely to suffer from Sarcoidosis, but they are more likely to have acute attacks. As they are less able to fight these attacks, they are more likely to die from the condition. A significant amount of research has been carried out, but so far no reason for the higher mortality rate has been found. Sarcoidosis would give my character a condition very much tied to her ethnicity.

And so my character Ruby was born.

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