Writing historical fiction with author Mark Ellis

Mark Ellis is a thriller writer and a former barrister and entrepreneur. He grew up in Swansea, under the shadow of his parents’ experience of the second world war. His father served in the wartime navy and his mother witnessed the bombardment of Swansea in 1941. Mark has always been fascinated by World War II and, in particular, the Home Front and the criminal activity which sprung up during wartime. Today Mark gives his take on writing historical fiction and I’m delighted to welcome him to A Writer of History.

How I Go About Writing Historical Fiction by Mark Ellis

I have written three books in my fictional mystery series set in World War Two Britain. The main protagonist of the stories, Detective Chief Inspector Frank Merlin, is a senior police officer working in Scotland Yard, London’s police headquarters of the time. I chose wartime Britain as my setting partly because of a long-held general interest in the war, and partly because of a more specific fascination with how ordinary life on the home front was lived. I also thought that the setting would be an excellent backdrop for a crime series as the years from 1939 to 1945 saw a great rise in criminal activity. Reported crime in England and Wales grew by almost sixty per cent during that period and the real policemen of the time had their hands very full.

There are three stages in my writing process – research, creation, and editing and redrafting. Before I set down a word, I spend three or four months immersing myself in the very specific period in which my book is set. For the first Merlin book, Princes Gate, that was January 1940, the period known as the ‘Phoney War.’ For Merlin 2, Stalin’s Gold, it was September 1940, when the Blitz and the Battle of Britain were under way. For my new book, Merlin At War, the setting is June 1941, just after the Battle of Crete and just before Hitler invaded Russia. I aim in my books to describe Merlin’s fictional adventures against as authentic a portrayal of the life of the time as I can. To that end I consult my own library of key reference books as well as the collections of the many excellent public libraries in London. Libraries like the Kew Public Records Office, Britain’s principal historical document facility, where I have spent many hours delving into its comprehensive stocks of old newspapers, journals and other records of interest. I draw on the huge range of pertinent history books, biographies, and diaries which have been published since the war, as well as on war fiction, particularly that written at the time or soon after. Then there is, of course, the internet which has become a brilliant research resource. One feature of my books is that every chapter is set on a specific day, and I like to be as accurate as I can about that day as well as about the general period. The internet can now provide pretty much any of the detailed information I require. If I want to know if it was sunny or raining in Central London on Tuesday June 3rd 1941, the internet can tell me. If I want to know what planes were in the air on a given day in the Battle of Britain and which airbases they flew from, the internet can tell me. If I want to find out what variety show was running in the London Palladium at the beginning of June 1941 and who was starring in it, the internet can tell me. And it will do so rapidly!

I like to know as much as I can about the places in which the action of my books takes place. London, where I have lived most of my life, is the principal location for my stories. However, there are scenes in foreign cities such as Moscow, Warsaw, Buenos Aires, Paris and New York and more. I was lucky enough to travel extensively in my business career and got to know some of these places well. However, if I haven’t been somewhere and I feel the book needs it, I travel there.

After the research comes the slog of getting the book written. There are many different ways in which authors approach this task. In my own case, I do not, as some fiction writers do, map out the whole story in outline before fleshing out the detail. When I start, I have in mind a few plot ideas which have usually been prompted by my research. I start writing and see where those ideas take me. When I am around half way through the first draft, having developed or dropped some of these plot lines and added a few more which have occurred to me along the way, I then try and work out how everything is resolved. I trust to inspiration. Some might find this way of doing things a little stressful, but it works for me, or has so far at least. Once I have a first draft, I edit and redraft many times. With my latest book I had over 20 drafts. Sometimes, but not often, I make a major plot change during a redraft.

With Merlin At War, it took me around 18 months to complete a manuscript with which I was satisfied, although I would have been a few months quicker if a computer malfunction hadn’t disconcertingly deleted a few months of edits from my working draft. I am speeding up with each book and want to continue doing so. We’ll see how I get on with Merlin 4 which I am just about to start researching. It is to be set in December 1941, the month in which Pearl Harbour precipitated America’s entry into the war. An interesting time, I think, for Frank Merlin’s next adventure.

Many thanks, Mark. My husband is a dedicated thriller reader and I plan to introduce him to your novels! 

Merlin At War by Mark Ellis – Summer 1941. Four violent deaths, French double agents, an escalating fraud case – DCI Frank Merlin sets out on his most complex case yet.

War rages across Europe. France is under the Nazi thumb. Britain has its back to the wall. In London, Scotland Yard detective Merlin investigates a series of disturbing events – a young girl killed in a botched abortion, a French emigre shot in a seedy Notting Hill flat, a mysterious letter written by a British officer, gunned down in Crete.

Chasing evidence spanning Buenos Aires, New York, Cairo and Occupied France, Merlin and his team are plunged into an international investigation of espionage, murder, love and betrayal.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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8 Responses

  1. Thank you for posting this. I was especially intrigued at how Mr. Ellis reconstructs every day’s weather and military situation, to create an authentic setting.

    1. Another think I like to do Harry is check out the radio listings for BBC programmes on the days in question, which are available. This can help again with authenticity and atmosphere.

  2. Thanks for this. There’s something so tawdry about WWII crime, and yet so logical. I remember hearing about the things that ‘fell off the back of a lorry’ from my mother – but they were so grateful for a bag of sugar. There was an almost funny side to some of that type of black marketing, though.That’s partly what got me started in WWII crime fiction, as well.

    1. Funnily enough I was talking to my brother in law about this the other day. He remembers his grandmother talking about the fine mantelpiece in their house which had been acquired during the war. When someone asked where she had got it there was an embarrassed silence. As to the funny side of the black market there is of course the famous spiv Walker in Dad’s Army.

      1. An interesting potential storyline could come out of this – the likeable spiv, who’s basically keeping out of uniform & keeping his family quiet with a few ‘extras’, begins to realise he’s got real talent for being on the wrong side of the law . . . Gets richer & gradually it takes over his life and . . . hmm – Thanks for this, I now have a new twist in my next Bob Robbins mystery. (This guy could even end up as Pres of the USA if not caught in time!)

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