World Building with author David Ebsworth

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.

Map of Casablanca

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 booksWomen 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.

A Betrayal of Heroes by David Ebsworth

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 USAmazon CanadaKobo, 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 AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

The Story Behind the Story

Dana Mack, author of All Things That Deserve To Perish, is an historian, journalist, and musician. She is also the author of two non-fiction books: The Assault on Parenthood: How Our Culture Undermines the Family and The Book of Marriage: The Wisest Answers to the Toughest Questions. No doubt we could all learn something from a book on marriage! However, today, Dana is here to talk about the story behind her new novel …

The idea of writing a novel about a  late nineteenth century German-Jewish woman who finds herself drawn into a fragile mixed marriage came to me nearly forty years ago, when I was a graduate student in History at Columbia University.  My German History professor, Fritz Stern, had just completed a biography of Bismarck’s banker, Gerson Bleichroeder. Reading it, I landed on a story that struck me. Apparently, Bleichroeder’s daughter, Elsa, was  a wallflower at her first court ball, not because she was unattractive, but because she was Jewish. The Prussian noblemen present cut her – this was an anti-semitic political demonstration!  

Forty years later, I incorporated that historical incident into my novel, All Things That Deserve To Perish, The reader of this article might wonder how it was that this small incident made such a profound impression upon me. After all,  I am an American Jew, and a fourth generation Californian on three sides.  Why should I care about a late nineteenth century rich girl who doesn’t get a dance? 

My family’s historical roots were in Germany, and many of my grandparents’ friends were German emigres. From my earliest childhood I understood something of the admiration German Jews had for the culture of their adopted country.  And I sensed  their profound resentment of the German people, who so cruelly rejected their sincere efforts to prove themselves loyal German citizens.  As a lifelong student of German and Jewish history, I have run across many historical incidents suggesting that long before Hitler’s rise to power,  German Jews fell victim to vicious anti-semitism;  and this, not  withstanding their significant contributions to Germany’s economic, scientific and cultural achievements. 

For these reasons, I have taken on a sort of mini-mission to try to disabuse the reading public of the widespread idea that the Holocaust was the responsibility of one man — namely, Hitler.  The Holocaust had its roots not only in the criminal dispositions of the Fuehrer and his coterie,  but in toxic attitudes of racial prejudice and distrust that were widespread not only in the lesser educated population, but even among the German elites. It’s not easy to reach people with this news.  But I determined early on that one day when I had time,  I would pen a novel that would explore this phenomenon through the prism of the most intimate of human relationships —  courtship and marital ties . 

 All Things That Deserve To Perish, in fact,  is a love story.  It is the story of a wealthy and intellectually gifted Jewish woman who falls for an impoverished Prussian nobleman despite her suspicion of his romantic motives.  The plot premise is not at all unlikely, considering the historical background.  Intermarriages between Prussian aristocrats and rich Jewesses, while not everyday occurrences, were common enough, by the end of the nineteenth century, that they were commented upon by contemporaries. And not all of these marriages were simply exchanges of a dowry for a title. Many aristocrats considered Jewish women of the “better”  classes interesting and alluring enough to be considered attractive as potential wives.  Jewish women tended to be much better educated than their Christian counterparts —  intellectually engaged, and  outspoken.  In fact, intermarried or not, German “salon Jewesses”  — Jewish hostesses who brought artists, intellectuals and aristocrats into their homes for chamber music and and discussion —  served a very special function in elite society in that they brought together thinking people from different fields of endeavor and different socio-economic backgrounds – people who would normally not have had the opportunity for social contact. 

The unhappy fact of many German intermarriages, however, was that wives of Jewish origin, despite religious conversion to Christianity,  faced social prejudices and open slights in the new circles they inhabited. And not only they suffered:  their children were looked down upon as half-breeds, sullied by what was often termed  the “black stain” of Jewish heritage.  More than this, Jewish women who intermarried very often had to deal with the knee jerk racial prejudices of their own husbands, who more often than not discouraged them from maintaining ties with their families and community of origin.   

My background as a student of German and Jewish history was not the only inspiration for All Things That Deserve To PerishI am a partner in a mixed marriage. I married my non-Jewish husband in 1983. We met while I was researching my dissertation in Vienna, Austria. Soon after we married, we moved from Austria to Luxembourg, where my husband  worked for the European Community. As a new wife and mother living in Europe, I found that I was drifting farther and farther from my Jewish identity. I even became shy about disclosing it at all.  The reason for this was that in my interactions with Europeans I witnessed a kind of reflexive anti-semitism – a general discomfort with Jews, and a distrust of Jews and the Jewish religion.

Indeed, It was while living in Luxembourg that I originally worked up the plot of All Things That Deserve To Perish as a movie treatment.  Being involved also in other writing projects, the treatment soon fell by the wayside, to be picked up and turned into a novel only decades later.  But I am convinced that my experience as an American Jew living abroad among people who had very primitive ideas about the Jewish people laid the foundations for a lot of the situational tone of my novel. 

I have tried to fashion All Things That Deserve To Perish  as a story that engages the reader in thinking about a host of  matters that remain challenging to young couples today —  issues of  preserving ethnic identity and fighting racial prejudice being only two of these.  I hope that my novel  — as a story of a potent, if contentious love between two people from very different ideological and socio-economic backgrounds — will be relatable to the reader, whether or not he or she is interested in German-Jewish history.  In fact,  I think any one of us will recognize, in the romance of my main characters, some familiar gender power struggles, as well as what I hope is a compassionate portrait of  family formation.  

All Things That Deserve To Perish by Dana Mack ~~ The year is 1896, and Elisabeth (‘Lisi’) von Schwabacher, the gifted daughter of a Jewish banker, returns home to Berlin from three years of piano study in Vienna. Though her thoughts are far from matrimony, she is pursued by two noblemen impressed as much by her stunning wealth as by her prodigious intellect and musical talent. Awakened to sudden improvements in the opportunities open to women, Lisi balks at her mother’s expectation that she will contract a brilliant marriage and settle down to a life as a wife and mother. In a bid to emancipate herself once and for all from that unwelcome fate, she resolves to have an affair with one of her aristocratic suitors — an escapade that, given her rigid social milieu, has tragic consequences. All Things That Deserve To Perish is a novel that penetrates the constrained condition of women in Wilhelmine Germany, as well as the particular social challenges faced by German Jews, who suffered invidious discrimination long before Hitler’s seizure of power. It is also a compassionate rumination on the distractions of sexual love, and the unbearable strains of a life devoted to art.

Thank you for sharing the background to your novel, Dana. It’s an important topic and one that deserves our attention. I wish you great success with All Things That Deserve To Perish.

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 USAmazon CanadaKobo, 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 AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

The times they are a-changin’

There are many works of Roman political and military fiction, but few set in the late era like SONS OF ROME, and none with such a unique dual viewpoint as the story is told in turn by two different protagonists each voiced by a different author. Sons Of Rome, which releases today, is the creation of  Simon Turney and Gordon Doherty, who have more than 50 novels between them. I’m delighted to have Simon on the blog today.

So, in writing historical fiction, one of the prime requirements is trying to get our heads into the era. The further back our milieu, the harder it can be to connect with the people about whom we’re writing. Or can it? Can you imagine how different the world was at the end of the Third century? A world of pagan gods, of savagery and superstition, of autocracy and monsters? Let’s look a little deeper at it all.

The world into which our protagonists Maxentius and Constantine are thrown at the closing days of the third century is one in which religious strife is common. Christians might still have been persecuted under recent regimes, but they were also increasingly numerous and a strong sector of society even in the capital. Already, even before the Catholic Church exists (thank you, Mr Constantine), there are divisions and schisms arising. The Christian Church was still in flux at this stage, and there was no central set of tenets for an organised worship as there were once Constantine delineated them at Nicaea. As such there were many differing beliefs even within the Church, which often came into conflict with one another. Add to this the Lapsi (those Christians who had recanted their Faith during the persecutions and who now wanted to re-enter the Church) and you have something of a mess, with frequent conflict and persecution. I wonder what a Roman from 205 AD might think of our modern world with its settled religious state and lack of conflict?

With the era of Constantine and Maxentius, we are looking at a time when a once-great empire ruled by a strong and individual leader has all-but broken up due to internal pressures, both political and economic. The Rome of Augustus, Trajan and Hadrian is but a distant memory. Just a couple of decades ago, a huge chunk of the western empire had enjoyed many years as a separate and breakaway empire until brought back into the fold by the sword, and during that time the powerful city of Palmyra had done much the same with a large swathe of the East. There have been secessions, usurpers and civil wars for a century. Recently, the powerful emperor Diocletian tried to devolve the nation into more than one piece, a system called the Tetrarchy, each with their own rulers within a grand system, all in an attempt to try and halt the decay. At least nothing like that happens now, eh? Devolution and local governments, and independence sought by constituent parts of larger conglomerates… And certainly I’m sure we don’t have to worry about the rise of autocrats unsatisfied with being part of a larger machine and forging brutally conservative nations. *Coughs nervously*

Sarcophagus

Perhaps one of the most distinct differences between the empire of the late Third century and the modern world is our modern individuality, yes? Rome sought to enfold all within its grasp, whether by peaceful annexation or by conquest. Its religious policy was inclusive. Skin colour was no issue. Cultures may be disparate, but once part of the empire they were all Roman, subject to the usual low-level grumbles of the mentally myopic. This inclusiveness, added to military conquest and political machinations led to an empire that stretched from Scotland to the Sahara and the Atlantic to the Red Sea, all with Latin as the Lingua Franca, the Roman system of coinage, and the same military, political, social, architectural and engineering systems. Imagine if you could take your cash from the west coast of Portugal, cross every national border without worry, reach the east coast of Bulgaria, and still be able to spend that money? Wow, eh? But that was what it was like to be part of the empire in the third century. And if the common use of Latin empire-wide cannot be mirrored today, that’s only because Zamenhof’s language of hope – Esperanto – never gained sufficient popularity. Could the EU be the last descendent of Rome?

But at least we can content ourselves that now we are multicultural and widely-travelled. Because the third century was a land of Romans versus Barbarians, in which only the army travelled widely, surely? Perhaps not. After all, perhaps you could tell that to Barates the Syrian merchant, who married a Briton and lived in what is now Newcastle. And even to the occupants of the fort of Arbeia (‘Place of the Arabs’) there, who in the Third century were a unit of Boatmen from the Middle East. The simple fact was that traders and individuals travelled widely, and since military units were always posted far from their homeland, different accents and skin tones would be perfectly normal all across the empire. Heck, there were even tourists on Holiday. The emperor Hadrian toured his provinces and his wife visited sites of interest, including the Colossi of Memnon in Egypt, where she went so far as to leave graffiti. So you see once again, Rome in the imperial age was in a number of ways analogous to our modern world.

Barates’ Wife

At least we don’t have gladiatorial combat today. Mind you, we have cage fighting, ultimate fighting championships and the like. And I don’t think we have to look too hard to find a sport where vehicles hurtle around a track at dangerous speeds. And horse racing? Wrestling? Ok, maybe we’re not so different in that respect. And perhaps, then, we’ll go and see a comedy or a tragedy at the theatre? Perhaps we can watch some Frankie Howerd, whose monologues in Up Pompeii were derived from the works of Apuleius?

Were there differences between then and now? Of course there were. The world of Rome was a brutal one, and we have moved away from concepts such as slavery, divine leaders, organised torture and the like (for the most part). But despite the many differences you can identify, the simple truth is that we share more with our ancient counterparts than we hold as differences with them.

Remember that as you read Roman Historical Fiction and try to get your head into the mindset.

Many thanks for taking us back to the present, Simon.

Available at Amazon, Barnes & Nobel, and Indiebound.

Sons Of Rome by Simon Turney, Gordon Doherty ~~ Four Emperors. Two Friends. One Destiny.
As twilight descends on the 3rd century AD, the Roman Empire is but a shadow of its former self. Decades of usurping emperors, splinter kingdoms and savage wars have left the people beleaguered, the armies weary and the future uncertain. And into this chaos Emperor Diocletian steps, reforming the succession to allow for not one emperor to rule the world, but four.

Meanwhile, two boys share a chance meeting in the great city of Treverorum as Diocletian’s dream is announced to the imperial court. Throughout the years that follow, they share heartbreak and glory as that dream sours and the empire endures an era of tyranny and dread. Their lives are inextricably linked, their destinies ever-converging as they rise through Rome’s savage stations, to the zenith of empire. For Constantine and Maxentius, the purple robes beckon… 

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

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 AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.