David Ebsworth, author of A Betrayal of Heroes, explores the role of world building in historical fiction and takes us on a journey from wartime Casablanca to Brazzaville, from the cauldron of Normandy to the Liberation of Paris. World building is an essential element of historical fiction and David’s examples and experiences help illuminate the challenge.
As Wendy Holden tells us: ‘For historical fiction, the world that our characters populate must believably be one that actually existed in the past, and yet one into which the modern reader enthusiastically enters.’
There’s some useful guidance for historical fiction world builders and Wendy’s Unlocking the Secrets of Historical Fiction is just one.
My own approach broadly follows the pattern set down by Gabriela Pereira, tutor of online Creative Writing courses and herself an accomplished writer. Start with the key ingredient, world building around the main protagonist. Then add the world of any major supporting characters. Third, the physical surroundings. Next, the society and culture within which the characters live. Finally, season with the historical setting.
World Building for the Main Protagonist
Jack Telford has been the principal character in two of my earlier novels. He’s been with me a long while. So, mentions of his favourite cigarette brands, his passion for good coffee, and the five things he always carries in his pockets – those flow easily enough. But now he must survive in wartime North Africa and Equatorial Africa. Cigarettes available in 1940 at Rabat, or Libreville, or Faya-Largeau? Brands of beer? Thank goodness for search engines.
Next, Telford must abandon his old life as a Sunday newspaper journalist and take up a new role as a war correspondent. I studied the Second World War’s frontline journalists, men and women, so I could “teach” Jack this new craft. From some of their writing collections I was able to draft what, I hope, are credible snatches of “Jack Telford” journalism. More than this, I realised that Jack’s journalistic pieces could help to show a different side to his character, his inner conflicts – but in the words of the period.
Jack’s big challenge, however, is adapting to life with the military, a section of Leclerc’s Free French army, to which he’s formally accredited as a correspondent. He has to live and breathe among the men and women of Leclerc’s army for four years. Naturally, there were endless non-fiction histories and autobiographies. But I learned so much more from another lucky find, a personal contact with Bob Coale, Professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Rouen, who helped to steer me through the learning curve.
The World of the Supporting Players
The secondary characters in A Betrayal of Heroes are a mix of real-life historical personalities and fictional players. The real-life examples include Josephine Baker and heart-throb Leslie Howard. But those are cameos and simply needed plenty of biography studies – though both of them, through their music and their movies, helped to build my 1940s world.
More important, the novel heavily features the women ambulance drivers (some real, some fictional) serving with Leclerc’s Division. These were the famous Rochambelles, and their remarkable world was presented to me in two fabulous books: Women of Valor, The Rochambelles on the WWII Front by Ellen Hampton (highly recommended) and Quand J’Étais Rochambelle, the first-hand account written by Suzanne Massu.
Other first-hand accounts helped me to more accurately depict the wartime difficulties of travelling from one location to another, or the price of tickets, hotel rooms, food and the rest – or simply the way the senses of combatants are assaulted in various war zones.
Creating the Scenery
I’m always cautious about this one. Scenery here isn’t simply a bunch of theatrical backdrops, it’s the stuff with which the characters must interact, making the world come to life.
It’s fairly easy to build accurate scenes of Europe during the Second World War. But Oran? Rabat? Brazzaville? The towns of Chad? It was getting to be a struggle, until I stumbled across the archive of maps in the University of Texas Libraries. These are detailed street maps produced in 1942 by the US Army Map Service. And from those maps, and from contemporary travellers’ journals, I was able to construct the realistic settings for Jack Telford and his associates to populate – the weather, the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the architecture, the flora and fauna.
A Sense of Contemporary and Geographical Culture
Harry Sidebottom, author of the Warrior of Rome series said: “The past is another country, they not only do things differently there, they think about things differently.”
Those inhabitants of the past have different language, food, lifestyle, religion, mythology, politics, trade, medicine, sexual attitudes and class structure – among a host of other things. In A Betrayal of Heroes there were three distinct collections of cultural issues with which I had to wrestle. First, Jack’s life within the 1940s Muslim world of North Africa. Second, to Equatorial Africa. Third, the cultural experiences of Spanish communities in North Africa, or the Spanish Republican refugees who survived the horrors of French internment camps and still later went on to fight for Free France.
I determined that, once again, I’d only use local writers as sources – like Oumama Aouad Lahrech in Morocco, Patrice Nganang from Cameroon, and the Spaniard Eduardo Pons Prades.
The Historical Setting
Last, but not least.
I needed a historical timeline. Basically, A Betrayal of Heroes covers the entire span of the Second World War – but I needed to make this fresh, to tell the tale from a new angle. In this case, telling it from the perspective of the Free French, of the Spaniards and Equatorial Africans fighting for Leclerc, gave me that angle.
Again, I was lucky that journalist and historian Evelyn Mesquida collected interviews with many of the Spanish Republicans who had fought for Leclerc. A rich source. And Patrice Nganang’s novels are also based on real-life experiences. Hindsight knowledge of World War Two is a wonderful thing, but for those who lived through the period, how and what and when they learned about events was often very different to the way we see them eighty years later.
Many thanks, David, for providing such an insightful look at world building.
Headstrong newspaperman Jack Telford’s weapon is his pen, but the oath he’s taken at Kufra will still bind his fate to the passions and perils of the men and women who shape his life – his personal heroes, like the exiled Spanish Republicans now fighting for Free France. But from Oran and Casablanca to the heart of Africa, then into the cauldron of Normandy and the Liberation of Paris, Jack’s fate is also bound to those who will betray them, and to the enemies who want Telford dead.
Readers should pack their bags for an epic adventure back in time through the pages of the latest Jack Telford novel, A Betrayal of Heroes, and some less frequented settings of this Second World War thriller.
DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION. FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon US, Amazon Canada, Kobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.