Bringing the Living into Historical Fiction

What do a spy for the US Army during the Cold War and a survivor of a Japanese prisoner of war camp have in common? Both worked in consultation with USA Today best-selling author Heather B. Moore to bring their true stories to life through historical fiction. Those novels are: The Slow March of Light and Under the Java Moon which has just released.

Here’s Heather to tell us about it.

~~~

As a historical fiction writer, I’m no stranger to doing research. Part of the process is also putting myself into the shoes of the characters and asking myself what their core motivations are for their choices. But I’ve never had to worry that one of the characters I’ve featured in a novel will read the book. Until recently. In early 2020, a family wrote my publisher with an incredible story about their father, Bob Inama, who’d been a spy for the US Army during the Cold War in East Germany. The publisher invited me to be the author. I remember reading the email from the family, and thinking, “Well, someone needs to write Bob’s story, but it’s outside my wheelhouse.”

The publisher sent Bob another historical novel I’d written, and he and his family said they were on board with me writing his story, so this made me feel more confident. I still felt nervous though, mostly because the character of the book would be reading it, and I wanted to be sensitive to the brutal treatment he’d received in a Soviet prison and not re-traumatize him. My first task was spending several weeks immersing myself in books and documentaries about the Cold War so that I could understand the full scope of the 45 years of Cold War politics. Then I framed the timeline to parallel Bob’s time in Germany. I’d write a chapter, then send Bob a list of questions, asking for a 1–2 day turnaround for the answers so that I didn’t get too off track while moving onto the next chapter. 

I found it quite surreal to interview and then write scenes based on Bob’s life. This book became The Slow March of Light, and the first time Bob read the manuscript was after it was fully drafted and reviewed by two Army veterans who’d served in West Germany. Bob gave me one correction in the entire manuscript, and it was to correct his father’s middle initial. 

So when my publisher again contacted me about writing another true story, I had some experience. Yet, I soon found out that Marie Vischer Elliott was resistant to the idea of her story being converted into historical fiction. She was more interested in non-fiction.

I told the publisher I’d like to meet with her before any decisions were made on either of our parts. In August 2021, I had the privilege of meeting Marie (Rita) Vischer Elliott for the first time. My husband and I visited with her for a couple of hours, and she told us stories about her remarkable life. Marie and I were both vetting each other. I wondered if I’d be able to do justice to a story that she’d kept to herself for so many decades. She wondered if she was truly ready to trust such private and difficult memories to a historical fiction format. 

Marie told me that her family never spoke of the war after it ended. Her parents had wanted to fully move on. Because of all that she’d endured, Marie never watched war movies or read books about wars. She especially stayed away from stories about concentration or prison camps and their victims and survivors. Like her parents, she kept her past firmly behind her.

During our meeting Marie told of living in Indonesia (then called the Netherlands East Indies or Dutch East Indies). Both her parents were originally from the Netherlands. Her father, George Vischer, who worked for the Royal Packet Navigation Company (KPM), was stationed on Java Island. 

During World War II, after Japan invaded, conquered, and then occupied Indonesia, Marie’s family was divided up and sent to live in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. Marie, her mother, grandmother, and younger brother Georgie were sent to the Tjideng camp, which interned women and children. Men and older boys were sent to their own camps. This began a period in Marie’s life that would shape her childhood, her future, and her beliefs. 

It wasn’t until the end of January 2022 that Marie consented to have me write her story. Although I had read dozens of books about World War II over the years, I hadn’t ever read anything about the Dutch people’s experience in Indonesia. When I searched for books or films about the subject matter, I found only self-published memoirs. I bought everything I could find and began to read and annotate. 

My first concern was Marie’s young age at the beginning of the story. I talked to her about aging her up in the book. She was four turning five when she entered Tjideng Camp, and this seemed quite young for a main character’s voice. But Marie turned down my suggestions of aging her to ten or twelve. She agreed with a year or two older and emphasized she was very intelligent at that age because war makes children grow up fast.

Because I’d be keeping Marie’s point of view as a young child, I knew I needed to flesh out the internment camp experiences. I decided to add in her father’s point of view since he spent the war years in a men’s prison camp, and her mother’s point of view so that we’d have another perspective of the women’s camp. 

Before I started drafting, we met again in person, and by then Marie had read some of my other books that held romance threads. She said she specifically didn’t want any romance in the story. I told her that I’d be sticking very close to the true events, and the only romance would be between her parents—in flashback scenes to their early courtship. She felt okay with that and seemed relieved. 

Because I sensed her nervousness about trusting difficult memories to my interpretation on the written page, I decided to send her 50 pages at a time as I drafted. This process was different than working with Bob Inama (who didn’t see the manuscript until it was fully drafted), but I sensed Marie needed a more hands-on involvement. Reading the story as it developed would not only help alleviate her concerns, but help me not detour where she wasn’t comfortable. Since I’m a pantser writer, which means that although I have a historical framework, I don’t outline and ideas come as I’m typing, it’s daunting to have someone giving me feedback when I’m actively drafting. To help balance this, I emailed questions as I was writing each scene, so that by the time I sent her the chapters, I felt fairly confident I was going in the right direction. 

The process of writing Under the Java Moon was completely different than the process I had with Bob—who read the book the first time after it was fully drafted. But for Marie, I found that sending her chapters every few weeks was helpful to her. It became more a collaboration in a sense—so that she could correct details that are always highly important to a historical work. 

Remarkably, as she read the chapters, more memories surfaced. We even had a few extraordinary moments when I had added names of real people into the story from memoirs I’d read, and she realized she’d known some of those people. Also, she remembered full incidents that she hadn’t before when I found research tidbits. 

Once the book went into editorial, I sent Marie the full manuscript so that she could read it straight through while seeing the editor’s corrections. When we reached the final galley stage, Marie read the final version more than once, finetuning a few things that made her feel more confident in releasing her untold story to the world. It was truly an honor to bring Marie’s story to light.

Many thanks for sharing the stories behind these novels, Heather. Your experience is unique and must have been truly gratifying.

Under the Java Moon by Heather B. Moore ~~ Based on a true story, this gripping WWII novel captures the resilience, hope, and courage of a Dutch family who is separated during the war when the Japanese occupy the Dutch East Indies.

Java Island, 1941

Six-year-old Rita Vischer cowers in her family’s dug-out bomb shelter, listening to the sirens and waiting for a bomb to fall. Her charmed life on Java—living with other Dutch families—had always been peaceful, but when Holland declares war on Japan and the Japanese army invades Indonesia, Rita’s family is forced to relocate to a POW camp, and Rita must help care for her little brother, Georgie.

Mary Vischer is three months pregnant when she enters the Tjideng women’s camp with thousands of other women and children. Her husband, George, is somewhere on the Java Sea with the Dutch Navy, so she must care alone for her young children, Rita and Georgie, and her frail mother-in-law. The brutal conditions of the overcrowded camp make starvation, malaria, and dysentery a grim reality. Mary must do everything she can to keep her family alive.

George Vischer survives the bombing of his minesweeper but feels little hope floating on a small dinghy in the Java Sea. Reaching the northern tip of the Thousand Islands would be a miracle. Focusing on of the love of his life, Mary, and his two children, he battles against the sea and merciless sun. He’ll do whatever it takes to close the divide between him and his family, even if it means risking being captured by the Japanese.

Under the Java Moon highlights a little-known part of WWII history and the impact of war on Indonesia, its people, and the more than 100,000 Dutch men, women, and children who were funneled into prison camps and faced with the ultimate fight for survival.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY 

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Share this post

About the Author

Picture of Meet M.K.Tod

Meet M.K.Tod

The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

All Categories

Subscribe to the Blog

Receive the latest posts on writing and reading historical fiction via email.

Join 2,205 other subscribers

Leave a Reply