Even as a young girl, Jacqueline Winspear longed to understand World War I. She remembers her grandfather, who had fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and been badly wounded.
"I would ask, 'Why does Granddad breathe like that?' " says Winspear. "Every question I had came back to the same answer -- that he was wounded in the Great War. I didn't always understand the words, but I understood the tone that accompanied that word, 'wounded.' "
As a novelist, Winspear has never strayed far from the era. She's best known for her "Maisie Dobbs" mystery series, about an English nurse in the years just after the so-called "war to end all wars." Her new novel, "The Care and Management of Lies," begins at the start of the Great War. It's the story of two women -- Kezia, a vicar's daughter, who marries a young farmer named Tom; and Thea, Tom's sister, a single woman who gets involved in the suffragette and pacifist movements of the era. A moving drama of life in wartime, the book is set for much of the narrative in Kent, southeast of London, where Winspear was born and raised.
Winspear says the book began with Kezia, who barely has time to adjust to being a farm wife before Tom enlists and goes off to fight, leaving her to keep the home fires burning.
But Thea -- passionate, political and fiercely independent -- came on strong for Winspear, who says that the two characters grew to represent different aspects of women's experience in the early years of the 20th century.
"There was this emergence from the 1800s onward of 'the New Woman,' " explains the author. "The British suffragettes were incredibly vehement, and American politicians feared that suffrage in America would become as violent as it had in Britain."
At the start of the book, Thea gives Kezia a copy of "The Woman's Book" -- a 1911 guide for women -- and Winspear includes excerpts from it in her chapter headings.
" 'The Woman's Book' reflected that New Woman," she says. "It's not just about household management. It has sections on politics, how to be an activist, how to represent yourself as a citizen, as well as how to black a stove or arrange your flowers." There was a backlash against suffragettes during the war years, and Thea, partly out of fear of arrest for her political work, eventually joins the war effort as an ambulance driver on the front lines. The story alternates between scenes of the women's lives and Tom's experiences as a soldier.
Winspear did extensive research for the book, visiting World War I battle sites -- including the Somme, where her grandfather fought -- and reading war accounts, such as Frederic Manning's harrowing 1930 novel, "Her Privates We." Manning's book "was very controversial in its time," says Winspear. "It's incredibly raw. Ernest Hemingway said he read it every year to remind him what it was like to go to war."
In the letters between Tom and Kezia, food assumes great importance. Privation is always an issue during wartime, notes Winspear, recalling a recent visit to a friend whose son was on his third tour of duty in Afghanistan: "He called while we were sitting around the table, and his first question was 'What are you making for dinner?' "
Winspear, who came to California in 1990 -- an avid horsewoman, she lives in San Anselmo with her husband, two horses and a dog -- remembers studying British war poets in college and being haunted by their writing. Still, she found history frustrating. "It was famous people," she says. "For me, history is about ordinary people in extraordinary times." She started her career in marketing and academic publishing. That led to a stint writing nonfiction articles on international education for a London publishing house. But writing fiction was always a goal.
A riding accident intervened. Laid up for months, Winspear decided to write her first novel. To her surprise, the book was published, and Maisie Dobbs became an instant hit: To date, Winspear has written 10 books about the resourceful nurse.
With "The Care and Management of Lies," she's expanded her fictional response to war. But she isn't finished with Maisie -- she's written another book in the "Dobbs" series, scheduled for release in 2015.
Nor is Winspear ready to move on from World War I. It's still an era that is central to her imagination.
"My grandad was 77 when he died, and to the day he died, he was still removing shards of shrapnel from his legs from a war that happened decades earlier," she says. "It's never over when it's over. It lives on in the people who were there."