THE AUTHOR of a series of novels exploring life in and out of the foundry for South Yorkshire’s army of wartime female steelworkers says she’d love to get to grips with one of the towering cranes that feature heavily in the books.
Michelle Rawlins (pictured) penned Women of Steel last year to tell the stories of the wives, mothers and daughters who filled the shoes of male steelworkers called up to fight during the Second World War.
She was delighted to be contacted by a publisher who asked her to turn their tales into a saga of fiction books, starting with The Steel Girls, which turns the spotlight on flighty teenager Patty, resourceful mum Nancy and determined Betty.
The three each have their own challenges after being assigned to control the massive cranes rising towards the ceiling of their cavernous steelmaking shed but tap into a rich seam of inner strength while forging friendships with their new workmates.
Michelle admitted she would jump at the chance to follow in their footsteps up the crane ladder, saying: “I did do a guided walk round Attercliffe and am always doing research and interviewing people, but I've never had the chance to go up in one of those cranes.
“But I really want to get in touch with Forgemasters and see if they will let me!”
Michelle admitted she had not thought of turning the Women of Steel into figures of fiction, albeit fiction inspired by real women, before being contacted by publisher HQ Stories.
“I'm a journalist and deal with facts, but at the same time I realised I was not ready to let the Women of Steel go, and I had to do something more with them,” she said.
“When I was asked to do this, it was in a sense like the stars were aligning - it felt like a wonderful opportunity.
“It was quite daunting initially as the publishers commissioned three books but I knew in 1940 I would have the Sheffield Blitz to draw on and that would be a huge storyline.
“I am writing based on the facts and my research but with some poetic licence.
“I can see the potential for more books and if the opportunity arose, I'd be delighted.”
Michelle said she had decided her three main characters would be crane drivers “for the very reason that was a particularly dangerous role”, adding: “I also thought I could illustrate through these characters the world of the steelworks.
“I also thought it would be interesting for readers to have them as crane drivers as it was a role that women did well - they were often complimented for their care and precision compared to the men.”
Some of the steelworking women suffered sexual harassment and even abuse, but Steel Girls shows through the character of kindly foreman Frank how there was always someone on their side.
She said many of the women she spoke to during her research mentioned a Frank-like figure.
“There was harassment and abuse, but the foremen were on the women’s side,” she said.
“They were very fatherly figures and were protective of these women. They put the abusive men in their place.”
Despite the fictional format, Michelle said she still felt a duty to the real Women of Steel who feature in her factual account of the unsung heroes of the war.
“When you are writing people’s stories you do feel a responsibility to represent people in the right way,” she said.
“With fiction, it's different but as these books are based on fact you still want them to be as accurate as possible.
“I wanted to make sure the characters covered a different range of women. “We have Betty, who is formidable and keen to do her bit, Nancy, a mum of two whose husband is away fighting and flighty, Patty, who joins the steelworks because she wants a job and a boyfriend.
“I remember interviewing a few women who said it was ‘just so much fun’.
“I tried to remember some of the minor details I picked up during my research and pick a selection that was quite representative.
“The women are not perfect, which is realistic.
“If you look at Betty, she is amazing and she always wants to do more but she has her own insecurities as her boyfriend has gone off to do his pilot training and she’s worried about that.
“Nancy is a mother figure who feels she's not being a proper mum and Patty is a fun-loving girl who is going to have to grow up fast.
“They have to get used to a very different environment and you see life through their eyes, how it's not just a game.”
Michelle’s Steel Girls love a night out at the Sheffield City Hall, outside which stands the bronze statue unveiled in 2016 in tribute to the real-life women who inspired their creation.
The author said: “It is fitting in so many ways that the statue is there.
“That is where they'd be going on a Saturday night for a dance. It's significant historically to these women so that's the perfect place for it.”
Michelle, an experienced journalist and a lecturer at Sheffield University, said she really enjoyed writing books adding: “In general, I love it.
“I set myself a word count and am very regimented about it.
“I generally write four to five thousand words a week.
“I love developing the characters of the different ladies.
“Occasionally, I hit a bad point but I'm lucky to have a very good editor who is always on the end of a video call, and we have a great synergy, so we work really well together.
“Whenever I hit a stumbling block, she always has the answer for me.”
Steel Girls is now available through HQ Stories, while Women of Steel is published by Headline.