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.

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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.

Spotlight on Sarah Woodbury

Another author featured during the HNS North America conference was Sarah Woodbury, whose success as an indie author is amazing. Sarah spent five years seeking a publisher for her first novel and during that time of continuing to write further novels in what has now become a series. She ultimately decided to ‘go indie’ and hasn’t looked back.

During her talk, Sarah spoke of traditional publishing and the layers inserted between author and reader: specifically, the agent, the editor, the editorial board and marketing department, the publicists and production people, the bookstores, and finally the bookshelves. Sarah believes that going indie allows an author to remove all of those layers and connect directly with readers.

Sarah also laid out her view of the key differences between traditional and independent publishing.

When Sarah ultimately made the decision to become her own publisher, she gave away her first book – The Last Pendragon – for free. In fact, she gave away 10,000 copies in three months. But she had five other books ready and soon published them so that her readers could continue with the series and the characters they’d enjoyed. Her strategy has paid off. She publishes across all retailers, not just Amazon, and has established a YouTube channel focused on medieval Wales where her novels are set. She now has 40 published novels and several series. Over the last five years, she’s sold 2.5 million books and now earns a six-figure income from her writing. And she writes 1000 words a day.

Sarah believes that getting rejected was the best thing that happened to her and left the audience with her view of the keys to success in the indie world.

I don’t know about you, but I’m going to be doing a lot of thinking over the next few months.

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.

Last Century’s Pandemic by Jeffrey K. Walker

To keep all you readers of A Writer of History enthralled, author Jeffrey K. Walker has contributed several posts for which I am very grateful. Today, he shares a timely perspective on pandemics.

Many thanks, Jeff.

I’ve written three novels all set during a pandemic. Okay, I advertise these books as “First World War and 1920s,” but that includes the time of what is known as the “Spanish flu” pandemic of 1918 to 1920. This particular strain of H1NI avian influenza didn’t originate in Spain, but even incorrect labels have a tendency to stick.

I didn’t prominently feature the flu pandemic in my books, but it does get a mention in two of them. In my third novel, No Hero’s Welcome, influenza explains why a young British officer who’d only come of age to join the fight in 1918 never made it to the front:

“His mother’s family had an ancestral heap in County Tyrone where he’d been dragooned into spending summers as a boy. As a result of this unenthusiastic connection to Ulster, he’d been commissioned in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in September 1918, just in time to contract the Spanish influenza. Out of consideration for his family’s feelings, he’d decided not to die, but instead endured a six-week convalescence, finally joining his battalion in France on the 14th day of November, 1918.”

In my second book, Truly Are the Free, the flu pandemic provided a convenient deus ex machina for killing off a supporting character. This was the oldest brother of my protagonist, a strapping and popular boxer within whose shadow the protagonist had long wilted.

Here’s what Ned Tobin thought about the flu and his big brother, Bobby:

“He couldn’t bear to imagine Bobby dying the way he saw those men in France, gasping and starving for air as they drowned in their own overflowing lungs. So the great Bobby Tobin, felled by no man in the ring, was carried away on the 12th of October, 1918 in an overcrowded New Jersey Army hospital by a little bug he couldn’t see, let alone fight.”

So a useful tool to deal with inconvenient minor characters. In hindsight, I should’ve made the Spanish flu a main character, given our current unpleasantness. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.

But here’s something else I found out in my meanderings around last century’s pandemic. Besides the obvious similarities to our present coronavirus troubles, there was an eerily similar confluence of infectious disease and violence stoked by racism. 

With mass protests triggered by the on-camera murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop, white America is getting an overdue history lesson, including for many a first encounter with the deadly 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

(Flashback scenes from this horrible event feature in the first season of the popular new HBO series, Watchmen.) In just over 24 hours of violence, triggered by a dubious allegation of assault by a white woman elevator operator against a black shoeshiner, as many as 200 black and 50 white Tulsans were killed and a prosperous African-American community was burned to the ground. However, Tulsa came two years after a much more widespread and deadly horror known as the Red Summer of 1919.

Let me set the scene—it seems impossible from our vantage point a century later. When the United States declared war on Germany in March 1917, there was debate within the African-American community whether or not to support the war effort. Some considered it a white man’s war fought for white men’s interests. But the majority, led by W.E.B. Du Bois and others, chose to support the war effort. The belief among most African-Americans was “if we fight a man’s war, we’ll be treated as men when we return.” They could not have been more wrong.

I based a pivotal scene in my second book on an actual event from the Red Summer. A main character, Chester Dawkins, returns to the United States after serving in a “colored” regiment in France.

Although the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, wouldn’t allow black troops to fight within his white infantry divisions, he did send four regiments to the French Army. And after four years of catastrophic losses, the French were ecstatic to have them. Since the rest of the American forces weren’t ready for combat when the Germans launched their final massive Spring Offensive of 1918, it was these “colored” Americans serving with the French Fourth Army who found themselves in combat longer than any other American troops.

It was with one of these regiments that my young Lieutenant Dawkins covers himself with glory, winning the Croix de guerre. When he finally returns home, he lands at the port of Norfolk, Virginia, and finds himself in a victory parade arranged by the black population of the city to welcome home their returning heroes. This hard-earned and well-deserved celebration is set upon by white Marines and sailors with clubs and rifle butts while the white police force looks on.

My young hero is rescued from this violence by a cook who pulls him into the safety of his café. He sits Chester down and pours him some coffee:

“Chester stared down into the blackness in his coffee cup. He was startled by the hot tears pushing against the back of his eyes. He’d seen men die, beat the Germans, made the world safe for democracy. And nothing had changed here. Nothing. He gave a sharp sniff, raising the coffee to his lips to camouflage his bitterness.”

The violence raged across the country from early spring to late summer. But it represented something new in the centuries-long oppression of black Americans — they fought back. With 350,000 African-American doughboys returning from France, they were in no mood to accept the subservient and servile roles assigned them previously.

In the end, more than 25 violent riots took the lives of hundreds of African-Americans and dozens of white Americans.

Just as these mass eruptions of violence were occurring, America was still struggling with an influenza pandemic. The Spanish flu ravaged America in three waves. The first hit the US from March through July 1918. This was the mildest wave, in a population of 100 million resulting in about 75,000 deaths (one of the more notable being a grandfather of the current President). The second and more deadly wave emerged in August 1918 and ran through January 1919, killing 200,000 more Americans. A third wave began two months later in March 1919 and flared into the summer, overlapping with about half the violence of the Red Summer.

There are of course significant differences between what America and the world faced during the influenza pandemic of 1918 to 1920 and what we’re facing now. By the time the Spanish flu emerged in 1918, millions had been slaughtered in the carnage of the First World War.

The widespread deaths caused by the pandemic served to export some of the mass production of death from the battlefield to the home front. All people—both soldier and civilian—were exposed to death on a colossal scale.

Historically, these rapid and widespread moments of tragic death have had significant effects on social outlook, cultural norms, and even economic systems. In the 14th century, the Black Death (as the bubonic plague was known) killed somewhere between one-quarter and one-third the population of Europe in just a few years. Colossally tragic on a scale we can hardly imagine, the plague made an end of the perniciously unequal system of land ownership and wealth distribution known as feudalism. Labor is worth much more, after all, when they’re just not as many laborers. Although it was not the sole catalyst for the Renaissance, the Black Death was certainly a necessary factor. The omnipresence and capriciousness of death led to more interest in enjoying this life rather than worrying about what came after; many surrounded themselves with beauty.

Likewise, the widespread and unpredictable death from both the carnage on the Western Front and from the Spanish flu uncorked runaway innovation and breaking of all the rules in the artistic, musical, literary, design, and fashion worlds that would characterize the Roaring Twenties.

It may sound an odd thing to say, but history suggests we might not have had jazz or Art Deco or modern literature without the suffering and death of the Great War and the Spanish flu pandemic.

It’s too soon to predict what will emerge from the suffering and death and confusion surrounding us now as we struggle with COVID-19. Certainly our short-term focus must remain flattening the curve and caring for the infected. But we can already see inklings of what may lie ahead in the Black Lives Matter protests, changing attitudes toward universal healthcare, and serious debate about income inequality in the United States.

It’s a curious thing with us humans. It often takes catastrophe to spur us into doing the right thing.

Originally posted June 28, 2020 on Jeffrey K Walker’s blog.

Check out Jeffrey’s Sweet Wine of Youth trilogy. You can find them on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

Sweet Wine of Youth Trilogy by Jeffrey K. Walker

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.