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 Norm Christie, the editor, writes “As a historical document the letters of Agar Adamson stands on their own.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.


  • 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


  • 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 🙂

Blog Hop … The Next Big Thing

Judith Ridgley tagged me for a blog hop called THE NEXT BIG THING. The idea is to talk about my WIP or a recent book I’ve written, answering 10 questions, and then tagging another group of authors to do the same the following week. I’ve chosen to answer questions about UNRAVELLED, a recently completed novel.

What is the working title of your book? Unravelled is the current working title, although at one time I called the book While the Secret Sits.

Where did the idea come from for the book? I’ve been working on this book since 2006, a time when I was living in Hong Kong with my husband but unable to work full time. Originally, the book followed the lives of my grandparents with particular focus on WWI, a war in which my grandfather fought, trenches and all. After many revisions, the story bears little resemblance to my grandparents’ lives other than two world wars and one spy training organization.

What genre does your book fall under? Historical fiction. Isn’t that what everyone wants to read?

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? I’m not a particularly dedicated movie fan, however, Kevin Costner or Colin Firth might be great leads, not too pretty, capable of being the strong, silent type who endured two world wars, operating wireless machines in WWI and training spies in WWII. Perhaps Cate Blanchett or Anne Hathaway for the female lead.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? Two wars, two affairs, one marriage. I came up with this tag line a month ago and really like it.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? I’m debating that point at this very moment and leaning towards self-publishing because the 100th anniversary of WWI is less than two years away and I believe my novel should be part of commemorating the sacrifice that occurred.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? About eighteen months since I was teaching myself about writing fiction at the same time. Now, if you were to ask about the time until this latest draft is ready – the answer would be another five years. In the meantime, I’ve written two more books.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? I like to think it’s similar to Fallen Skies by Philippa Gregory, or The Postmistress by Sarah Blake, or Deafening by Frances Itani. I’ve read many books set in WWI and WWII and these come to mind because of style and subject matter.

Who or What inspired you to write this book? As mentioned, I began with my grandparents’ lives but then research took over. The more I discovered about WWI, the more I wanted to write a story to explore the affects of war on ordinary people.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? I have written a companion novel called Lies Told in Silence that explores a portion of the story from another character’s point of view. The second novel is set in France during WWI.

And now to tag some other awesome authors …

Sophie Schiller is a writer of historical fiction and spy thrillers. She’s been on my blog talking about her book called Transfer Day. Her own blog is at  http://sophieschiller.blogspot.com

Richard Sutton has written two novels, The Red Gate and Gatekeepers about the O’Deirg family and the ancient secret they are charged to protect. He blogs at  http://www.sailletales.com

Kirstie Olley lives in Australia and calls herself a speculative fiction writer. Give her a round of applause for just completing NaNoWriMo!! She blogs at http://www.storybookperfect.com/.

Geoffrey Fox is American born but lives in Spain. He has earned a living as a writer – kudos for that, Geoffrey – and has several works of non-fiction as well as a book of short stories to his credit. You can find him at www.geoffreyfox.com .