Writing historical fiction with Kathryn Gauci

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Kathryn Gauci is the author of Conspiracy of Lies – a novel set in WWII – and The Embroiderer, inspired by her years working as a carpet designer in Greece. Now how’s that for a unique career? I asked her about her writing.

What compelled you to write historical fiction?

I have been interested in history for as long as I can remember. As a child, I grew up in an English village and loved to wander through churchyards and the many historical ruins in the area. My imagination ran wild and so when I did decide to write I never even considered another genre. I needed to be steeped in history. Walking with the ghosts of a bygone era is how I describe it.

When and how did you begin your writing career?

I began just over eight years ago. Until then my career had been as a textile and carpet designer. It was wonderfully satisfying and I travelled a lot but I felt a need for a sea-change. During the latter part of those years I put out trend directions for the buyers and it necessitated transporting them into another world for inspiration, motifs and colour; anything from the Baroque, Regency, Art Deco through to ethnic, tribal, and urban living. I loved doing those story boards. That was when I realised I wanted to expand my writing and turn it into a career. In a way, the mental process is similar and I haven’t really left the old life. Indeed, I have carried it through into my writing.

Conspiracy of Lies employs the ‘female as spy’ concept – what research sources did you use to make this as believable as possible?

I read biographies and history before I began writing, especially modern history. Quite a bit of the research for Conspiracy of Lies came out of the previous novel, The Embroidererspy networks and agents working for the Cairo office of the Special Operations Executive was a part of that story which was set in Athens under the German Occupation. When I came to write Conspiracy of Lies, I did further research, especially into the female agents in the field. Although the men’s stories also appealed as in the end everyone worked together and everyone’s story is unique. I also delved into code-breaking, radio transmitting and the politics pertaining to the setting. The main story of Conspiracy of Lies is set in Brittany and politics there had evolved differently to other parts of France. The Breton National Party wanted to break away from France and had reached out to Fascist Germany for support. Many were fanatics and so our protagonists not only had to deal with the Germans and Vichy France but the PNB also. And then there is daily life. It was important to know how the average person coped to help set the scene.

WWII has been a perennially popular time period. What aspect of that war are you trying to illuminate with your writing?

Conspiracy of Lies involves an emotional conflict between a genuine love affair and a woman’s duty to her country. I look at women who were either killed or ostracized by their fellow countrymen because they fraternized with the enemy and I felt that as human beings we are all vulnerable. War does not stop us loving someone, even the enemy. Circumstances throw people together in ways that we cannot imagine or comprehend. It is the contradiction and the stoicism of the human spirit that intrigues me. I wanted to bring that out and I am beginning to see that is an important element in my writing style.

What techniques do you use to make history come alive and to create a world that is authentic as possible?

I am a stickler for reading and researching the era and place. I have been to most of the places I write about. If not, I will pour over maps and read about the geography of the area. In the end it’s not what you know but how you convey that knowledge that is important to me. It’s the human spirit again; the psychology of why we do something at a particular time. To do that I have to inhabit the characters completely, even the minor ones. They are all there for a reason. I need to breathe the same air as they do, sit in the same coffee bar, etc. All the senses must be alive. And I also strive for a strong emotional pull.

Where do you get your inspiration for the strong female characters in your novels?

My inspiration is from real people, whether famous or not. In The Embroiderer, the Greek women were strong and feisty because they have had to cope with running homes and businesses alone when so many of their menfolk died in a string of wars and revolutions. In Conspiracy of Lies it was the real-life agents who were my inspiration. To volunteer and put your life on the line takes immense courage. They had to think on their feet and stay one step ahead. Many never survived. Ultimately, my female protagonists are strong because I believe that women in conflict are just as strong and capable as men.

Many thanks for your thoughtful answers, Kathryn. I’m sure readers will be intrigued at the unique settings you’ve chosen for your novels and your focus on the human spirit.

Conspiracy of Lies by Kathryn Gauci – 1940. With the Germans about to enter Paris, Claire Bouchard flees France for England. Two years later she is recruited by the Special Operations Executive and sent back into occupied France to work alongside the Resistance. Working undercover as a teacher in Brittany, Claire accidentally befriends the wife of the German Commandant of Rennes and the blossoming friendship is about to become a dangerous mission.

Knowing that thousands of lives depended on her actions, Claire begins a double life as a Gestapo Commandant’s mistress in order to retrieve vital information for the Allied Invasion of France, but ghosts from her past make the deception more painful than she could have imagined.

Part historical, part romance and part thriller, Conspiracy of Lies takes us on a journey through occupied France, from the picturesque villages of rural Brittany to the glittering dinner parties of the Nazi Elite, in a story of courage, heartbreak and secrecy.

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.

Favourite WWI Fiction – a teaser

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On a survey about WWI fiction I asked participants to name a few favourite novels set in that time. Here’s a sampling of those mentioned. I’ll be back with a more complete report when time permits.

  • To Serve Them All My Days by R.F. Delderfield
  • The Horizon by Douglas Reeman
  • All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts neues) by Erich Maria Remarque
  • For Two Cents, I’ll Go With You by Marcia Maxwell
  • The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker
  • Testament of Youth by Vera Britain
  • The Flowers of the Field by Sarah Harrison
  • In Pale Battalions by Robert Goddard
  • We Shall Not Sleep by Anne Perry
  • Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear
  • The Ambassador’s Daughter by Pam Jenoff
  • I’ll Bring You Buttercups by Elizabeth Elgin
  • At the Going Down of the Sun by Elizabeth Darrell
  • The Soldier’s Bride by Maggie Ford
  • The Fall of Giants by Ken Follett
  • The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes
  • Never Forget Me by Marguerite Kaye
  • A Pattern of Lies by Charles Todd
  • The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman (non-fiction)
  • The Absolutist by John Boyne
  • The Last Summer by Judith Kinghorn
  • A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway
  • Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek
  • Fall of Poppies – short stories by eight different authors
  • At the Edge of Summer by Jessica Brockmole
  • Time and Regret by M.K. Tod (!!!)

Well friends, definitely lots to choose from. I’ll be back with more information.

You can find other information about the WWI survey at WWI Fiction – Readers Have Their Say.

Digging Deep and Finding the Gem by Paul Feenstra

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New Zealand is one of my favourite places to visit – probably top three. Stunning landscapes, wonderful people, and a pace of life that’s less harried and more inviting. No wonder that when Paul Feenstra told me about his novels set in New Zealand that I immediately asked him to guest post. Welcome, Paul.

Digging Deep and Finding the Gem by Paul Feenstra

I’ve frequently said, “History is about the untold story, and writing historical fiction is a wonderful way to present the past in a compelling and entertaining way.” The caveat is to find that hidden gem which can develop an idea, and through research, morph into a story.

And I’ve found a few. A curious mind helps, and access to historical records is a must, as evidenced when I wrote my first published novel.

During the early stages of my research, I was poring over the manifest of the English ship ‘Tory’. This ship was used to transport the principal agent of the New Zealand Company, William Wakefield, and his associates, to New Zealand, for the express purpose of acquiring land from Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. The Tory’s manifest listed a passenger named Nayati, and his occupation as, interpreter. Very innocuous and nothing peculiar about that. Other related historical documents I found refer to the names Nayti, Neti, Nahiti and Naiti. I made the presumption they all refer to the same person and he was probably named Ngaiti. Phonetically, the names sound very comparable, and it was unlikely many Māori were in England in 1839 with similar misspelled names.

Later, I discovered that in subsequent land court hearings, William Wakefield’s interpreter was proven to have lied to Māori during the first land transactions. According to court documents, the translators name was Richard Barrett. A far cry from Ngaiti. So where was he, what happened to Ngaiti? (no, he didn’t change his name)

I obtained an original book from ‘New Zealand Archives’, titled, ‘Information Relative to New-Zealand: Compiled for the Use of Colonists’, published in 1839, and written by the New Zealand Company secretary, John Ward. He writes of a male Māori –

‘We shall be particularly anxious about the fate of Nayati. He is no longer a New Zealander in manners, habits or tastes but has acquired those of a well bred Englishman.’

As Ward never visited New Zealand, this suggested Nayati, or Ngaiti, did live in England, and he was a Māori. Secretary Ward wrote more.

‘When the New Zealand Company dispatched their preliminary expedition in May last, Naiti was selected for the office of interpreter to the expedition, which he gladly accepted, as an opportunity of returning home in an honourable station in the English service.’

According to Ward, Ngaiti was offered the position of interpreter, and he gladly accepted. Then why was Ngaiti dismissed before he could begin work? There was no mention of misbehaviour, bad conduct or poor performance. Other written accounts of him state he was well liked and respected.

I found a short article written in an old journal that stated the author had met Ngaiti in New Zealand in 1841, and he had returned to wearing native costumes. This is odd when most other Māori began wearing European clothes. I can only surmise that Ngaiti departed England on the Tory as Company interpreter, but during the voyage to New Zealand either Colonel William Wakefield changed his mind, or Ngaiti did. What happened? The logical assumption is that Ngaiti disagreed with New Zealand Company ideology and may have expressed his feelings on the subject to company officials. This conclusion led me to begin a rough plot outline on a novel I would call ‘Boundary’.

As an author, real historical events sometimes unexpectedly fall into your lap that can truly enhance a story.

I mapped out my plot on Boundary, connected historical dots and made conclusions. However, there was a gap in my timeline that required filling. It would be convenient if a particular ship carrying an important figure, and very central to my plot, were to encounter difficulties during a sea voyage. A shipwreck would be ideal.

You can imagine my delight at discovering an article in a South African newspaper, ‘The Cape Government Gazette’ that detailed a brief News story about a ship which had run aground. It happened to be the same ship, and carrying the very same passenger I was writing about in my novel. What I’d only hoped would happen, actually did happen. Many events I detailed in ‘Boundary’ are true. I wove a fictitious story through these events and researched them in excruciating detail.

The harder you dig, the greater the reward. Perhaps my biggest find happened in the year 1873, where I uncovered the biggest hoax ever perpetrated in New Zealand history. You can read about that in my third novel to be published in August 2017, titled, ‘For Want of a Shilling’.

Boundary by Paul Feenstra – July 1839, without the knowledge of the English Government, the ship Tory, stealthily departed Plymouth, determined to reach New Zealand with the utmost speed. The objective, to purchase millions of acres of lands at the lowest possible price and then build the perfect society. The New Zealand Company called the first settlement Britannia, a civilization without the shortcomings and failings of a troubled English culture. On board the Tory, a young Scottish couple indentured to the New Zealand Company are excited at the prospect of beginning a new life, Britannia is the Utopia they’ve been promised. This is the story of adversity, the struggle to survive in the hardships of a new colony, and their fight to preserve morality and integrity in the face of greed, deception and injustice.

Many thanks, Paul. So intriguing to hear how your research secured just the right snippets of information. I wish you lots of success with your novels.

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.