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.

The Road to Liberation – commemorating WWII

It seems fitting on the 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two to feature an author and a collection of stories commemorating WW2. Today, Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger talks about writing WWII fiction and her contribution to The Road to Liberation.

What inspires you to write about World War II?

My family are refugees of WWII and I grew up knowing that they had barely made it out of Europe alive. I grew up in a diaspora of Ukrainian-Americans, many of whom believed they would return to the “old country” as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed. Well, that did not happen right away. By that time, the first generations of Americans were deeply entrenched, married to Americans, and living a dual life between the old and the new. I, however, always knew that I would somehow return to the “old country”. That “somehow” turned into Austria, the country where my mother was born in a displaced person’s camp, and that “somehow” was by returning to war via my historical fiction.

 What is The Road to Liberation Collection about?

Author Marion Kummerow (War Girl series) is the brainchild of the project. She lives two hours from me in Munich, Germany and is a passionate champion of making sure that the lessons of WW2 are not forgotten. She approached a group of us authors in Facebook’s Second World War Club and asked whether we’d be interested in taking part in a 75th anniversary edition. At first it was supposed to be a collection of novellas. However, when you ask novelists to write a short book, you’re bound to have problems. We each wrote a full novel.

Your novel, Magda’s Mark, will debut in the collection. What is the story?

Imagine this: you are the wife of a commanding officer, who is head of a the Bohemian (Sudetenland) district. Your reputation has been built upon your selfishness, your unhidden contempt for the local “Slavs” and you are known to wield power with a strong hand; of reporting any slip of a misdeed directly to your husband. Imagine you are pregnant. You need a midwife. You give birth one night, and the midwife goes to clean up the baby. You, in the meantime, are given something to help you rest. When you awake, you find the baby has been returned to you. And he has been circumcised…at a time when Jews are being rounded up and deported to concentration camps…

That is what happened to my friend’s mother-in-law. My friend’s husband was that baby boy. And as soon as I heard that story, my jaw dropped to the floor. I needed to know who had been pushed so far and under which circumstances to take that great of a risk. Thus, the first seeds of Magda’s Mark were planted alongside those questions.

Magda’s Mark is a story about a woman who commits one courageous and rash act of rebellion. When the Nazi officer begins to hunt for her, she survives in the Underground, her plan for revenge the only thing keeping her going, and when the time comes to put her plan into action, Magda is faced with the woman she has become, and what will define her in the aftermath of the war.

Why do you think World War II fiction continues to be such a popular genre? 

WWII is also the great allegorical tale, the good vs evil was so clearly drawn and yet, and this is where it gets juicy and something I tackle in Magda’s Mark, it wasn’t really all so clear cut. We’re discovering, ever more, the three-dimensional sides to the stories. Authors are writing about different perspectives that make us stop and think, “Aha, it wasn’t all black and white. It wasn’t all about the good guys vs the bad guys.” We still have enough access to those personal stories and that’s what I think historical fiction authors of this genre try to bring to life; the individual impacts are what make these “lessons” all the more relevant.

The Road to Liberation by Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger, Marion Kummerow, Ellie Midwood, J.J. Toner, Marina Osipova, and Rachel Wesson

By 1944, the Axis powers are fiercely holding on to their quickly shrinking territories. The stakes are high—on both sides: Liberators and oppressors face off in the final battles between good and evil. Only personal bravery and self-sacrifice will tip the scales when the world needs it most.

Read about the heroic act of a long-term prisoner, an RAF squadron leader on the run in France, a Filipino family fleeing their home, a small child finding unexpected friends amidst the cruelty of the concentration camps, a shipwrecked woman captured by the enemy, and a young Jewish girl in a desperate plan to escape the Gestapo.

2020 marks 75 years since the world celebrated the end of WWII. These ten books will transport you across countries and continents during the final days, revealing the high price of freedom—and why it is still so necessary to “never forget”.

Chrystyna was on the blog two years ago with an article about her Reschen Valley Series.

Many thanks, Chrystyna, as someone who has written three novels set during the world wars, I know the challenges and the rewards of doing so. Congratulations to you and the others on producing these stories.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS 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.

The Line Between Fiction and Non-fiction

Have you ever read a novel and wondered what was fact and what was fiction? Greg Johnston, author of Sweet Bitter Cane brings that perspective to today’s blog post. Welcome, Greg.

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I remember my primary school library, a large room in the middle of a railway carriage of cold classrooms.  The non-fiction was on the left-handside of the room and the fiction on the right.  The twain met on the reading mat in the middle of the room.  I think I’ve always kept this line in my head between fiction and non-fiction.

Real life is rarely a novel.  Despite all the puffed-up grandeur we ascribe to our own circumstance, it rarely follows precisely the neat structural dictates of a novel, with all its demands to satisfy the well-hewed expectations of a reader.  I liken it to making bread.  The stories are mixed, allowed to prove, punched down, re-kneaded, baked and finally eaten.

Recently, a pleased reader emailed me saying she wished she’d known Sweet Bitter Cane was based in fact.  Although she enjoyed it, this would have helped her connect more to the story.  While I was grateful for her praise, it was an odd experience, cast back to my primary school library and its division of fact and fiction.

I couldn’t have drummed up the events of Sweet Bitter Cane; a young, Italian woman fleeing physically and fiscally destroyed post-WWI Northern Italy, hoping to find a better life on the sugarcane fields in the Far North of Queensland in Australia.  But all that hope became mired in relentless racism, envy and resentment, resulting in her being accused of supporting fascism and imprisoned for a significant part of WWII.

These were the facts I’d gathered together over decades of interest, not one story but a repeated story of many Italian migrants to Australia.  But when a neighbor, Gloria, gave me a folder of archived documents about her mother, Gina, her arrest and imprisonment, the bones of the story started accruing flesh and blood.

The documents I had about the “real” woman were scant and fractured. In a way, she was unremarkable.  And, as a woman of that epoch, her accounts of life were rarely recorded.  But as a writer, I was in an incredibly privileged position – my neighborwas the “real” woman’s daughter.  How easy was it for me to pop next door and mine Gloria’s memories of the house, the farm, the town, the concentration camp and life after their release.  But even this had limits.  Gloria, so young when she was forced to go with her mother to the camp, only had one memory; of being put in a car and taken away from her mother. 

I commenced more research, found more details, corroborated other facts.  But I still didn’t have a story adhering to the genre expectations of my reader.  I began to knead what I possessed and often with surprising results.  I noticed amongst the documents, the “real” woman’s husband had written many letters. They were always in different handwriting, but the signature was the same.  I thought, he couldn’t read or write. And when I asked Gloria, she blushed and asked how I knew?  I realised she wasn’t telling me the whole “real” story and that there were private details she found either embarrassing or had forgotten.

At this point, I felt a justified sense of liberation. I had these bare bones I could perhaps bend but not break, but the story’s flesh was mine.  I had to fill the cracks between the documents with imagination.  The “un-real” woman had to have thoughts, imaginings, desires and disappointments.  These were never written, probably never spoken, perhaps embarrassing, never entirely clear to anyone but her.  And this is the stuff of a novel’s pages.

But this reader’s well-intentioned email left me in a bit of a quandary.  In the run-up to the publication of Sweet Bitter Cane, I’d considered bannering in fluorescent pink across the cover – BASED ON A TRUE STORY. And the novel is, at least in part, but then … it seemed a cheap lunge at credibility.

I swooned and still do to Byatt’s Possession, where the whole thing was made up, securely positing Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel La Motte amongst their canonical contemporaries.  But I still read Eco’s The Name of the Rose as fiction which inspired me to cross the reading mat and read some non-fiction about medieval monks.  Should we colour a novel’s text, like the original imprint of Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish, with a rainbow of colours to signify the real, the not-so-real, the un-real, and the lies? Footnotes – there’s a thought.  And a mess.  This all forces an historical fiction writer into a rather obtuse corner.

But rather than the lines between the two extremes being as demarcated as my primary school library, isn’t this reading mat between the two extremes the arena where the reader’s imagination comes into play?  Reading is far from a passive experience, and perhaps an historical novel should tweak a reader’s imagination to find more information, go to the left-hand side of the reading mat, if they so desire. 

An historical novel churns all this “real” and “un-real” to rich butter, much more than a cheap blended Rosé. But they are un-real novels and should be exalted as such.  It reminds me of a late twentieth-century popular song.

It takes courage to enjoy it

The hardcore and the gentle

Big time sensuality

Many thanks, Greg. I’ll be thinking of this dividing line and the reading mat when I read my next historical novel.

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.