So many books, so little time is a frequently heard mantra amongst readers. The same notion applies to writers crafting new stories. Reading is essential to writing. According to master storyteller Stephen King, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
My own collection of books bulges with historical fiction and historical non-fiction as well as a number of books on the craft of writing. Those concerning WWI and WWII have relegated other favourites to lesser shelves and basement hideaways.
BIRDSONG by Sebastian Faulks is the “story of Stephen, a young Englishman, who arrives in Amiens in 1910. Over the course of the novel he suffers a series of traumatic experiences, from the clandestine love affair that tears apart the family with whom he lives, to the unprecedented experience of the war itself.” In the introduction, Faulks declares that the theme he explored was “how far can you go?” and “what are the limits of humanity?”
I have never been a student of history. Teachers presented the subject as an exercise in memorization and I never found the rhythm or rationale to glue together facts into a compelling canvas of people with competing interests. In the early days of writing a novel set in WWI, I struggled to find descriptions of battles that were not dense with jargon and the minutiae of warfare. VIMY RIDGE 1917 by Alexander Turner is a slim volume full of maps and timelines, pictures and diagrams all of which helped me understand the unfolding of that great battle and others like it.
While visiting the Vimy memorial in 2010, I purchased LETTERS OF AGAR ADAMSON. Norm Christie, the editor, writes “As a historical document the letters of Agar Adamson stands on their own. But what gives his letters even more depth is the complex and touching relationship with his wife, Mabel Cawthra.” Reading letters is not a narrative experience. Rather, it is one full of gaps, seemingly inconsequential details, occasional outbursts and names of people known only to the letter writer. But if you persist, Agar’s character shines through and you begin to appreciate the real experience of WWI.
Pierre Berton was a well-known and well-loved Canadian author and journalist who dedicated most of his writing to non-fiction tales exploring Canadian history and heritage. VIMY is his account of that famous battle, the horrific conditions of trench warfare and the intensity of preparing to take a ridge that had defeated two earlier assaults. “Drawing on unpublished personal accounts and interviews, Berton brings home what it was like for the young men … who clawed their way up the sodden, shell-torn slopes in a struggle they innocently believed would make war obsolete.” My grandfather survived Vimy Ridge which prompted my desire to incorporate this battle into two of my novels.
Anne Perry wrote a series of WWI novels, one for each year of the war. Although each novel is a self-contained story, collectively they tell the tale of the Reavley siblings, Joseph, Judith and Matthew, and an ominous character called the Peacemaker whose actions threaten the very survival of Britain. I first read AT SOME DISPUTED BARRICADE, and when I realized it was part of a series, read the rest in order: NO GRAVES AS YET, SHOULDER THE SKY, ANGELS IN THE GLOOM, WE SHALL NOT SLEEP. These absorbing stories illuminate the realities of WWI, painting pictures of those who struggled to survive, those who offered support and those who led others to small and great victories.
One day, browsing the shelves of my nearby bookstore, I found DEAFENING by Frances Itani with its story of Grania, a young deaf woman, who falls in love with Jim, a hearing man. “As the First World War explodes across Europe, Jim leaves to become a stretcher bearer on the Western Front, a place filled with unforgiving noise, violence and death. Through this long war of attrition, Jim and Grania attempt to sustain their love in a world as brutal as it is beautiful.”
WWII is rife with spy stories. Several have kept me up late at night fearing at any point the capture and torture of one or other fearless agent. Sebastian Faulks comes through with another winner, CHARLOTTE GRAY. “In 1942, Charlotte Gray, a young Scottish woman, heads for Occupied France on a dual mission – officially to run an apparently simple errand for a British special operations group and unofficially, to search for her lover, an English airman missing in action.”
And who did not weep when either reading or watching THE ENGLISH PATIENT? This novel by Michael Ondaatje is a complex but moving tale of love and redemption set in North Africa and Italy during WWII.
With espionage as a theme in one of my novels, THE SECRET LIFE OF BLETCHLEY PARK by Sinclair McKay called to me immediately. I had to know what happened at Britain’s code-breaking centre and the personalities who worked there. McKay delivers, bringing “stories of the ordinary men and women who made it happen” to life while explaining the intricacies of that highly confidential work and world.
My copy of VESSEL OF SADNESS originally belonged to my stepfather. It is a story of those who fought and died in 1944 at Anzio, Italy. After the invasion of Sicily, the Allies slowly made their way into Italy, taking piece by painful piece of that country from the Germans. An assault originally imagined to be swift, played out over months and months of gruelling effort. Vessel of Sadness spares no detail of the true story to capture the Alban Hills. Based on his own experiences in the British army, William Woodruff’s tale is brutal and achingly human.
Erik Larson writes non-fiction that reads almost like fiction. The New York Times review of his book IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS said “there has been nothing quite like Mr. Larson’s story of the four Dodds [William, his wife Mattie, daughter Martha and son William Jr], characters straight out of a 1930s family drama, transporting their shortcomings to a new world full of nasty surprises.” If you seek to understand pre-WWII Germany, this is one of the best and most readable sources.
Below is a list of some other novels and non-fiction works I have on my real and electronic shelves. All have played a part to inform my writing.
- Marching as to War – Pierre Berton
- The Serpent’s Tooth – Michelle Paver
- The First Casualty – Ben Elton
- Three Day Road – Joseph Boyden
- A Soldier of the Great War – Mark Halprin
- Life Class – Pat Barker
- Maisie Dobbs – Jacqueline Winspear
- Fall of Giants – Ken Follett
- Elsie and Mairi Go to War – Diane Atkinson
- Resistance – Anita Shreve
- Hornet Flight – Ken Follett
- The Good German – Joseph Kanon
- The Spy Who Spent the War in Bed – William B. Breuer
- Unlikely Soldiers – Jonathan Vance
- Inside Camp X – Lynn Hodgson
- Restless – William Boyd
- Fallen Skies – Philippa Gregory
- Operation Mincemeat – Ben Macintyre
I’m sure I’ll find and read more, unless, of course, I decide to write stories of another era 🙂