Historical non-fiction – The Secret Rooms & Churchill’s First War

Two reviews of non-fiction books by yours truly are included in this month’s Historical Novels Review, a publication of the Historical Novel Society. One is The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey, the other is Churchill’s First War by Con Coughlin. I enjoyed them both for different reasons.

The Secret Rooms THE SECRET ROOMS – A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess, and a Family Secret

Catherine Bailey, the author of The Secret Rooms, went to Belvoir Castle on the Rutland family estate to “research a book about this small corner of England in the years of the First World War.” Immediately struck by an air of secrecy shrouding the castle, she instead plunged into detective work to solve a mystery involving one of England’s richest families.

Over the centuries, Belvoir had become a repository for the nation’s most important documents “stamped with the seals and signatures of every monarch since William the Conqueror.” John Henry Montagu Manners, the 9th Duke of Rutland, had been a dedicated steward of these documents so Bailey finds it particularly puzzling to find significant gaps in the family’s carefully catalogued personal documents; gaps no one can explain.

The Secret Rooms reads like a novel with exciting twists and turns and carefully doled out clues. Characters come alive: John’s manipulative mother and domineering father; Charlie, the uncle who looked after John for much of his life; Diana, John’s sister, a renowned and high-spirited beauty; and John himself. The result is narrative non-fiction that grips a reader’s attention, while at the same time providing a meticulously researched perspective on British high society and historical events from the 1880s to WWI.


Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 3.08.57 PMCHURCHILL’S FIRST WAR

What many people know about Winston Churchill centers on his stirring leadership during WWII as Britain’s Prime Minister. In Churchill’s First War, Con Coughlin gives us a young Churchill, a man of aristocratic upbringing whose father left the family impoverished and with a “somewhat tarnished reputation”.

After successfully graduating from Sandhurst, Winston sets out to gain “personal and political advancement”. His objective is to distinguish himself in battle. With ongoing struggles on the North-West Frontier, India is the logical choice and Winston pulls many strings to secure himself a role with the Malakand Field Force.

As Coughlin relates Churchill’s military exploits, he provides great insights into Britain’s colonial past and its troublesome relationship with the Afghan tribes, notably the Pashtuns. He then enriches the story by drawing parallels to recent events involving Britain, the US and other NATO countries in Afghanistan. Churchill’s experiences “gave him a deep awareness of the human cost of conflict.” During WWI and WWII, he remained “in close contact with soldiers fighting on the front line to make sure he kept its horror clear before his eyes.”

Churchill’s First War is a deeply researched novel. Weaving narrative with quoted materials from an extensive collection of books, articles, journals and letters, Con Coughlin explains the failures of the campaigns to quell the Afghans in the late 19th and early 21st centuries.

These two books illustrate that reading non-fiction can be just as engrossing as fiction!


Writing Military Fiction … an interview with Judith Sanders

In His SteadAs readers of A Writer of History know, this blog is focused on historical fiction. And yet, Judith Sanders’ novels about war resonated with my own interest in WWI and WWII and the men and women affected by those shattering events, so I asked her to talk about her passion for military stories.

Why did you choose to write stories about war?    First, the idea for this story came from my nephew.  He was concerned about his son who was thinking of joining the military. Second, there’s a long history of military service in my family and I was a civilian nurse. In all of that I saw the hard, sometimes thankless, work our soldiers perform every day in keeping our country safe. Third, less than 1% of Americans today are connected to the military compared to 9% after World War II. And, today there are fewer leaders in government with a military background. So, I worry about troops being improperly respected by those who don’t know what sacrifices our soldiers and their families make for a government that leads from the rear.

Why this particular book ­ In His Stead?    I was in the middle of writing the sequel to my first novel Crescent Veil when my nephew came to me. His son wanted to join the Army right out of high school. He was concerned about his son’s safety. This was particularly alarming to him since just a few years earlier his daughter was involved in a near fatal car crash. He had been losing sleep.

His worry touched my heart. Especially when he said he would do anything to protect his children even if it meant taking their place. He had a point. After all isn’t it our job as parents to protect our children? Isn’t that what we do? We discussed this scenario. Once I validated that the premise was possible, I began writing.

What do you think attracts readers to In His Stead?    Readers have told me that the reality in my novel attracts them; the action, the accuracy of the scenes, the down-to-earth characters they can relate to and the ability to feel and see the scenes unfold in my writing made it hard to put the book down. Some wonder could this novel’s scenario happen, while others wonder why it hasn’t. Others like the historical background from our military history. Some have military serving and see this as a way to support them as the sales proceeds benefit the military charity HeartsApart.org. Still others have said the cover drew them to the book. It’s a powerful image.

What kind of research was required for this book?    Before taking on this project I had to be sure the plot was feasible. So I researched the history of our laws around military service, including conversations with retired Judge Advocate General of the Army who validated the premise. For the Army training and battle scenes I had extensive conversations with military and former military and used Internet websites about equipment.

Have you developed a particular approach to research and writing?    I started my adult life as a mom and when I became a single mom, I was working and studying to be a nurse.  Organization was my key to accomplishment.  As a professional I loved research but I also had my jobs to do.

Now that I’m writing, I have not only let my right brain loose but I indulge in serendipitous research, meaning I allow my research to wander from time to time. So my research is not as disciplined as it might be, but I’m making up for lost time, enjoying the ride.

Have other writers influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you?    Absolutely. My one joy while working is reading. I love to read. So many authors have influenced me in positive and negative ways. I like to keep readers wondering about outcomes because predictable plots bore me. I like twists in plots but don’t think that it’s fair to bring in surprises. I love strong female characters (I know that’s redundant because all women are strong and their characters should be also, especially in fiction).

What ingredients do you think make for a successful author in this sort of genre? Did you deliberately plan for these ingredients in your writing?    There is no doubt that many people have characterized “In His Stead” as military fiction and this is one theme of the book. As such, the accuracy and believability of the plot is important and I did extensive research to ensure that the military aspects and scenes were as accurate as possible.

But, like life, my writing is not one dimensional and other themes, such as a parent’s love for their children, the importance of family in nurturing our children, the influences of community on our children’s development, all have a role to play in making “In His Stead” a success.

How do you select new stories to tell?    I look at writing the way I look at painting watercolors (which I also do from time to time). In both I need a personal motive to invest my time and myself. So my nephew’s worries about his son touched my heart and I found that I wanted to help him through my writing. I also like challenges. I wrote the initial draft of “In His Stead” in first person and then moved to third person in the second version. In both, the challenge was to capture a man’s perspective. I believe I’ve done that with “In His Stead”.

Another story I have in development is about the misfits of the world, an adult Willy Wonka, because I have seen too many of the less fortunate of our society trampled by the “cosmetically correct ” shallowness of modern times. I’m also working on a  “green” book to educate our grandkids about preserving our crumbling earth.

What techniques do you employ to write productively?    I need my own space to write, without interruptions. This doesn’t mean I need to work in a monastery, just don’t ask me where the peanut butter is when I’m writing.  I turn on my lava lamps and sip on a cup of tea. I also read a great deal to understand “show, don’t tell.”  And, for inspiration, give me a place where I can drop a fishing line in the water and enjoy nature.

Do you think of yourself as building a brand? If so, how would you describe it and how do you plan to reinforce it?    If you look around my work area and my home you’d say it (and I) are quite eclectic. As such I’m not sure there is a brand to my writing that would define me like Evanovich, Brown, or Roberts. So it is a bit of a challenge to build “my” brand but I prefer that challenge to putting myself in a box.

I would like to think that my readers and followers would see each book for its connection to life and life’s experiences, both happy and sad and would walk away from each book as they would a fine glass of wine — enriched, invigorated, and with just the right buzz about life.

What do you do to connect with readers?    I’m still learning about the most efficient way to engage through social media, but I have embraced FB, Twitter and the like. Having said that, I get the most joy from talking with folks, hearing their comments and their own experiences/stories. To that end I have been engaging with book clubs more and more, not only in person, but also through Skype. I also take copies of my books on vacation and sign copies there.  By the end of the vacation I have folks come up to me and we discuss the book, their impressions, and writing. That is a blast!

What do you know about your readers?    I really only know what they tell me about their experiences with my books and I love hearing the good and the bad. As with books, I know not to judge a reader by their cover. Clearly there are more women reading than men (at least in fiction), but that’s changing. And as with horses, you can lead a reader to your book, but you can’t make them open the pages.

Many of the readers of “In His Stead” have military connections but others readers like the book for the family elements. There are a few “proofreaders” out there who have helped me find a few spelling errors that my proof team and I missed and there are those who won’t connect with my themes but they are in the minority and I respect that.

What data do you collect about your readers?    I collect their comments. Those motivated to write reviews or send me a note get my attention. Through goodreads.com I’ve found out where in the US some of my readers live.

What strategies guide your writing career?    I started my writing career simply trying to be different than other writers, choosing a unique theme and unpredictable (or nearly unpredictable) plots. Over time I’ve come to concentrate on making my stories sharp and crisp. I love action and see a movie scene in my mind before I write. This adds pace to my books. There are places where I take positions on issues and I expect readers to react to those messages, whether overtly or subliminally.

What would you do differently if you were starting again?    If I was rebooting my writing career I would love to have spent time talking to more readers. And there is always room in my brain for a few more creative writing courses. But as far as starting again with “In His Stead” I might add some of the comments from my taped interviews with soldiers returning from deployments in the Middle East.

Do you have any advice for other writers of fiction?    My best, but not unique, advice is that to write fiction you have to first love fiction, read as much fiction as possible, and then define what you like, what you know (or can learn), organize your plot, characters, setting, and then be aware that as you write your ideas come to life and, as with all life, you need to feed, care, and nourish your stories if they are to live on in the hands and minds of readers.

Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked?    Yes. You may have noticed the logo for HeartsApart.org on the cover. Proceeds of my novel support this charity for military families. HeartsApart.org was a runner up in the Michelle Obama/Dr. Jill Bidden ‘Joining Forces’ Challenge and was started in Wilmington North Carolina. Professional photographers take a series of photos of a family with a member deploying. The family receives a set of professional photos and the deploying soldier receives a trifold card with the same set of pictures. The trifold card is made of a substance that is rain, mud, and war proof. It can be put in a helmet or pocket. These pictures are a great connection between families at home and our soldiers overseas. The charity has spread all over the United States and there are now over three hundred and fifty photographers who volunteer to provide this free service to our military families with members about to deploy.

Many thanks, Judith, for your interesting perspective on writing about war and the military. I’m sure your stories will touch families throughout North America and beyond.

Judith Sanders’ second novel In His Stead tells the compelling and gritty story of Retired Army Ranger Thomas Lane whose youngest son is called up from the National Guard to serve. Having already lost one son in Afghanistan, Lane knows he will do anything to save his child–even if it means going in his place, a pursuit unheard of since the Civil War when slaves were sent to war in place of their masters.

For more information on Judith Sanders’ novel, In His Stead: A Father’s War please visit http://www.amazon.com/His-Stead-Fathers-War/dp/193857382X.