Historical Fiction – WWI and WWII Favourites

MyBooks1So many books, so little time is a frequently heard mantra amongst readers. The same notion applies to writers crafting new stories. Reading is essential to writing. According to master storyteller Stephen King, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

My own collection of books bulges with historical fiction and historical non-fiction as well as a number of books on the craft of writing. Those concerning WWI and WWII have relegated other favourites to lesser shelves and basement hideaways.

mybooks3Some personal favourites:

BIRDSONG by Sebastian Faulks is the “story of Stephen, a young Englishman, who arrives in Amiens in 1910. Over the course of the novel he suffers a series of traumatic experiences, from the clandestine love affair that tears apart the family with whom he lives, to the unprecedented experience of the war itself.” In the introduction, Faulks declares that the theme he explored was “how far can you go?” and “what are the limits of humanity?

I have never been a student of history. Teachers presented the subject as an exercise in memorization and I never found the rhythm or rationale to glue together facts into a compelling canvas of people with competing interests. In the early days of writing a novel set in WWI, I struggled to find descriptions of battles that were not dense with jargon and the minutiae of warfare. VIMY RIDGE 1917 by Alexander Turner is a slim volume full of maps and timelines, pictures and diagrams all of which helped me understand the unfolding of that great battle and others like it.

While visiting the Vimy memorial in 2010, I purchased LETTERS OF AGAR ADAMSON. Norm Christie, the editor, writes “As a historical document the letters of Agar Adamson stands on their own. But what gives his letters even more depth is the complex and touching relationship with his wife, Mabel Cawthra.” Reading letters is not a narrative experience. Rather, it is one full of gaps, seemingly inconsequential details, occasional outbursts and names of people known only to the letter writer. But if you persist, Agar’s character shines through and you begin to appreciate the real experience of WWI.

Pierre Berton was a well-known and well-loved Canadian author and journalist who dedicated most of his writing to non-fiction tales exploring Canadian history and heritage. VIMY is his account of that famous battle, the horrific conditions of trench warfare and the intensity of preparing to take a ridge that had defeated two earlier assaults. “Drawing on unpublished personal accounts and interviews, Berton brings home what it was like for the young men … who clawed their way up the sodden, shell-torn slopes in a struggle they innocently believed would make war obsolete.” My grandfather survived Vimy Ridge which prompted my desire to incorporate this battle into two of my novels.

Anne Perry wrote a series of WWI novels, one for each year of the war. Although each novel is a self-contained story, collectively they tell the tale of the Reavley siblings, Joseph, Judith and Matthew, and an ominous character called the Peacemaker whose actions threaten the very survival of Britain. I first read AT SOME DISPUTED BARRICADE, and when I realized it was part of a series, read the rest in order: NO GRAVES AS YET, SHOULDER THE SKY, ANGELS IN THE GLOOM, WE SHALL NOT SLEEP. These absorbing stories illuminate the realities of WWI, painting pictures of those who struggled to survive, those who offered support and those who led others to small and great victories.

One day, browsing the shelves of my nearby bookstore, I found DEAFENING by Frances Itani with its story of Grania, a young deaf woman, who falls in love with Jim, a hearing man. “As the First World War explodes across Europe, Jim leaves to become a stretcher bearer on the Western Front, a place filled with unforgiving noise, violence and death. Through this long war of attrition, Jim and Grania attempt to sustain their love in a world as brutal as it is beautiful.

mybooks4WWII is rife with spy stories. Several have kept me up late at night fearing at any point the capture and torture of one or other fearless agent. Sebastian Faulks comes through with another winner, CHARLOTTE GRAY. “In 1942, Charlotte Gray, a young Scottish woman, heads for Occupied France on a dual mission – officially to run an apparently simple errand for a British special operations group and unofficially, to search for her lover, an English airman missing in action.

And who did not weep when either reading or watching THE ENGLISH PATIENT? This novel by Michael Ondaatje is a complex but moving tale of love and redemption set in North Africa and Italy during WWII.

With espionage as a theme in one of my novels, THE SECRET LIFE OF BLETCHLEY PARK by Sinclair McKay called to me immediately. I had to know what happened at Britain’s code-breaking centre and the personalities who worked there. McKay delivers, bringing “stories of the ordinary men and women who made it happen” to life while explaining the intricacies of that highly confidential work and world.

My copy of VESSEL OF SADNESS originally belonged to my stepfather. It is a story of those who fought and died in 1944 at Anzio, Italy. After the invasion of Sicily, the Allies slowly made their way into Italy, taking piece by painful piece of that country from the Germans. An assault originally imagined to be swift, played out over months and months of gruelling effort. Vessel of Sadness spares no detail of the true story to capture the Alban Hills. Based on his own experiences in the British army, William Woodruff’s tale is brutal and achingly human.

Erik Larson writes non-fiction that reads almost like fiction. The New York Times review of his book IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS said “there has been nothing quite like Mr. Larson’s story of the four Dodds [William, his wife Mattie, daughter Martha and son William Jr], characters straight out of a 1930s family drama, transporting their shortcomings to a new world full of nasty surprises.” If you seek to understand pre-WWII Germany, this is one of the best and most readable sources.

Below is a list of some other novels and non-fiction works I have on my real and electronic shelves. All have played a part to inform my writing.

WWI

  • Marching as to War – Pierre Berton
  • The Serpent’s Tooth – Michelle Paver
  • The First Casualty – Ben Elton
  • Three Day Road – Joseph Boyden
  • A Soldier of the Great War – Mark Halprin
  • Life Class – Pat Barker
  • Maisie Dobbs – Jacqueline Winspear
  • Fall of Giants – Ken Follett
  • Elsie and Mairi Go to War – Diane Atkinson

WWII

  • Resistance – Anita Shreve
  • Hornet Flight – Ken Follett
  • The Good German – Joseph Kanon
  • The Spy Who Spent the War in Bed – William B. Breuer
  • Unlikely Soldiers – Jonathan Vance
  • Inside Camp X – Lynn Hodgson
  • Restless – William Boyd
  • Fallen Skies – Philippa Gregory
  • Operation Mincemeat – Ben Macintyre

I’m sure I’ll find and read more, unless, of course, I decide to write stories of another era 🙂

WWI – Working the Mines

Researching WWI has occupied many, many hours in the past five years. At times I wanted to weep, at other times rage overwhelmed me. At all times I felt the oozing weariness of lives lived in that dreadful war.

Miners were essential to WWI. If you’ve ever read Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, you will know the intimate details of how sappers (most had trained to be miners) lived and worked. Brutal.

Sapper – a military specialist in field fortification work

Sap – the extension of a trench to a point between an enemy’s fortifications

Here’s a fact BBC News reported about sappers:

One of the most notable episodes [of sapping] was at the Battle of Messines in 1917 where 455 tons of explosive placed in 21 tunnels that had taken more than a year to prepare created a huge explosion that killed an estimated 10,000 Germans.

Ypres and the Battles of Ypres is a Project Guterberg ebook. The book describes the opening event of the Battle of Messines.

On June 7, about an hour before dawn, at 3.10 a.m., the sky was lit up by an intense light, while a series of terrific explosions were heard; nineteen mines, some of whose galleries had taken more than a year to bore, exploded along the enemy positions.

The website firstworldwar.com describes the explosion: “Audible in Dublin and by Lloyd George in his Downing Street study, the combined sound of the simultaneous mine explosions comprised the loudest man-made explosion until that point.  The lighting up of the sky as the detonations ran across the ridge was likened to a ‘pillar of fire’.

Battle of Messines RidgeTake more than a moment to reflect. Audible in Dublin … pillar of fire. If you had been a soldier waiting to attack, how would you have felt? Would you have been able to keep your footing? Might you have thought that hell could be no worse? Those explosions led to rapid advances for British forces taking the ridge.

Photo Source: Wikipedia Commons

The one ever-present concern for those working underground was being blown up by enemy sappers doing exactly the same work. These men heard one another tap, tap tapping away and even heard the sound of enemy voices.

In letters to his wife Mabel, Agar Adamson includes a document titled ACTION TO BE TAKEN IF MINING NOISES ARE HEARD attributed to 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade and dated 2nd January 1916. Armies are notorious for having detailed instructions and regulations concerning even the smallest aspect of military life. One section of that document caught my eye – Noises alleged to be German Mining on this Corps Front have been actually tracked to:

  • revetting
  • sentries stamping their feet
  • rats working on a parapet
  • a loose beam or branch tapping when blowing by the wind
  • running water
  • beat of a man’s own heart
  • a half dead fly buzzing at the bottom of a hole. N.B. this was mistaken for a machine drill
  • actual mining, sometimes our own

Sapping was a nerve-wracking business.

Favourite Historical Fiction

Downith, a blogging friend and fellow Canadian, tagged me to write a post on The Alternative Booker Award sharing my five personal favourite books and asking five more bloggers to share theirs.

The notion of ‘favourite’ is difficult for me and I am prone to forget past novels as more recent reads push them aside like a surging crowd. And then, of course, there’s the tricky aspect of genre. A favourite non-fiction is difficult to compare with a favourite historical or mystery – I read them for different reasons and they prompt different pleasures. Stop dithering, Mary, and get on with your list.

Not surprisingly, my list concentrates on historical works.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje still lingers in my memory and I often dip into it for inspiration as I struggle to create a scene. Who can forget the author’s lyrical writing and the anguish of lost love amidst the certainty of death?

Here be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman transported me into the medieval times of the 13th Century, telling the story of King John, Llewelyn the Great of Wales and Joanna, “daughter to one, wife to the other”. It is no wonder that Penman was listed the number one favourite historical fiction author in my 2012 survey of readers.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel was an exhilarating read. To me, Mantel probed the depths of Thomas Cromwell’s mind in a way that was compellingly insightful. She deserves all the accolades received for this work.

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson is historical non-fiction at its best. Truth is preserved but the telling is like a marvellous story that facilitates both enjoyment – if such a word can be applied to a time when Hitler’s grip tightens into a stranglehold – and learning.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks is a celebrated story of WWI. My copy is heavily underlined not only with historical facts but also with examples of Faulks’ wonderful writing style. This novel is often cited as an important work for its descriptions of the Battle of the Somme and life in the trenches.

Selecting five books seems an impossible task in the realm of historical fiction and non-fiction, but I believe these will still be remembered years and years from now.

Tagging others for their picks – as a proud breaker of rules, I’ve decided not to restrict myself to five 🙂

Jenny Quinlan of Historical Editorial

Evangeline Holland of Edwardian Promenade

Sophie Schiller author of Transfer Day who writes a blog under her name

Dianna Rostad who posts on Facebook and tweets and pins

Theresa Hupp who blogs at Story & History

Judith Schara who actively comments on my blog and writes historical fiction

Jack Durish who blogs under his own name

Kirstie Olley who blogs at Storybook Perfect

Debbie Robson who blogs under her own name

Char Simser who used to blog at A Librarian’s Life and now tweets and is very active on Facebook

Anyone who wishes to participate and does not maintain their own blog, is welcome to guest post on mine.