Writing historical fiction with author Mark Ellis

Mark Ellis is a thriller writer and a former barrister and entrepreneur. He grew up in Swansea, under the shadow of his parents’ experience of the second world war. His father served in the wartime navy and his mother witnessed the bombardment of Swansea in 1941. Mark has always been fascinated by World War II and, in particular, the Home Front and the criminal activity which sprung up during wartime. Today Mark gives his take on writing historical fiction and I’m delighted to welcome him to A Writer of History.

How I Go About Writing Historical Fiction by Mark Ellis

I have written three books in my fictional mystery series set in World War Two Britain. The main protagonist of the stories, Detective Chief Inspector Frank Merlin, is a senior police officer working in Scotland Yard, London’s police headquarters of the time. I chose wartime Britain as my setting partly because of a long-held general interest in the war, and partly because of a more specific fascination with how ordinary life on the home front was lived. I also thought that the setting would be an excellent backdrop for a crime series as the years from 1939 to 1945 saw a great rise in criminal activity. Reported crime in England and Wales grew by almost sixty per cent during that period and the real policemen of the time had their hands very full.

There are three stages in my writing process – research, creation, and editing and redrafting. Before I set down a word, I spend three or four months immersing myself in the very specific period in which my book is set. For the first Merlin book, Princes Gate, that was January 1940, the period known as the ‘Phoney War.’ For Merlin 2, Stalin’s Gold, it was September 1940, when the Blitz and the Battle of Britain were under way. For my new book, Merlin At War, the setting is June 1941, just after the Battle of Crete and just before Hitler invaded Russia. I aim in my books to describe Merlin’s fictional adventures against as authentic a portrayal of the life of the time as I can. To that end I consult my own library of key reference books as well as the collections of the many excellent public libraries in London. Libraries like the Kew Public Records Office, Britain’s principal historical document facility, where I have spent many hours delving into its comprehensive stocks of old newspapers, journals and other records of interest. I draw on the huge range of pertinent history books, biographies, and diaries which have been published since the war, as well as on war fiction, particularly that written at the time or soon after. Then there is, of course, the internet which has become a brilliant research resource. One feature of my books is that every chapter is set on a specific day, and I like to be as accurate as I can about that day as well as about the general period. The internet can now provide pretty much any of the detailed information I require. If I want to know if it was sunny or raining in Central London on Tuesday June 3rd 1941, the internet can tell me. If I want to know what planes were in the air on a given day in the Battle of Britain and which airbases they flew from, the internet can tell me. If I want to find out what variety show was running in the London Palladium at the beginning of June 1941 and who was starring in it, the internet can tell me. And it will do so rapidly!

I like to know as much as I can about the places in which the action of my books takes place. London, where I have lived most of my life, is the principal location for my stories. However, there are scenes in foreign cities such as Moscow, Warsaw, Buenos Aires, Paris and New York and more. I was lucky enough to travel extensively in my business career and got to know some of these places well. However, if I haven’t been somewhere and I feel the book needs it, I travel there.

After the research comes the slog of getting the book written. There are many different ways in which authors approach this task. In my own case, I do not, as some fiction writers do, map out the whole story in outline before fleshing out the detail. When I start, I have in mind a few plot ideas which have usually been prompted by my research. I start writing and see where those ideas take me. When I am around half way through the first draft, having developed or dropped some of these plot lines and added a few more which have occurred to me along the way, I then try and work out how everything is resolved. I trust to inspiration. Some might find this way of doing things a little stressful, but it works for me, or has so far at least. Once I have a first draft, I edit and redraft many times. With my latest book I had over 20 drafts. Sometimes, but not often, I make a major plot change during a redraft.

With Merlin At War, it took me around 18 months to complete a manuscript with which I was satisfied, although I would have been a few months quicker if a computer malfunction hadn’t disconcertingly deleted a few months of edits from my working draft. I am speeding up with each book and want to continue doing so. We’ll see how I get on with Merlin 4 which I am just about to start researching. It is to be set in December 1941, the month in which Pearl Harbour precipitated America’s entry into the war. An interesting time, I think, for Frank Merlin’s next adventure.

Many thanks, Mark. My husband is a dedicated thriller reader and I plan to introduce him to your novels! 

Merlin At War by Mark Ellis – Summer 1941. Four violent deaths, French double agents, an escalating fraud case – DCI Frank Merlin sets out on his most complex case yet.

War rages across Europe. France is under the Nazi thumb. Britain has its back to the wall. In London, Scotland Yard detective Merlin investigates a series of disturbing events – a young girl killed in a botched abortion, a French emigre shot in a seedy Notting Hill flat, a mysterious letter written by a British officer, gunned down in Crete.

Chasing evidence spanning Buenos Aires, New York, Cairo and Occupied France, Merlin and his team are plunged into an international investigation of espionage, murder, love and betrayal.

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.

The Darkest Hour: The Battle for Britain in 1940 by Tony Russo

Tony Russo contacted me recently about his upcoming novel, DARKEST HOUR which was  a semi-finalist in the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards for Young Adult fiction. He is also the author of ZAK CORBIN: MASTER OF MACHINES. Today he reminds us of the significance of the Battle for Britain which forms the basis for his new novel. Over to you, Tony.

Last year marked the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, a contest for supremacy between Germany’s Luftwaffe and Britain’s Royal Air Force over the skies of England in 1940. The occasion was noted by parades, flyovers of vintage aircraft and tributes from the royal family. It comes as no surprise, however, that a poll taken by a British newspaper found that young people have little knowledge about the battle or its significance. Four out of ten believed the Vikings were involved or didn’t know who the “Few” were. Here are some details about one of the decisive battles of the Second World War.

The Darkest Hour

The armies of Hitler’s Third Reich had been unstoppable since 1939. In June 1940 at Dunkirk, on the coast of France, what remained of Allied forces were evacuated by the British Navy and private vessels. France, despite having Europe’s largest army, surrendered. Nearly the entire continent of Europe had fallen to Germany.

His armies victorious, Hitler toured conquered Paris and France, but secretly planned for Operation Sea Lion—the invasion of Britain. Prime Minister Winston Churchill warned that, “…the battle for Britain was about to begin.” He dubbed this period, from the fall of France to the end of the threat of invasion in 1941, as “The Darkest Hour”.

The Combatants

Germany could never hope to land an invasion force unless the Royal Air Force, the RAF, was swept from the skies. In Britain, Air Vice Marshal H. Dowding’s air defense system relied upon a new technology—RADAR—to detect enemy aircraft. Collecting reports from radar and observers, sector controllers radioed squadrons of RAF fighters to intercept.

The German Luftwaffe outnumbered the RAF almost four-to-one. The most recognizable and feared German plane was the Ju. 88 Stuka, a dive bomber with sirens in its wings that screamed as the plane dove on targets. The Do. 17 “Flying Pencil” and the He. 111 medium bomber were built as “commercial airliners” to defeat limitations set by the Treaty of Versailles. The Messerschmitt Bf109 was considered one of the finest fighter planes of the entire war and was armed with cannons in some models.

RAF pilots scramble to get airborne at Biggin Hill (Photo Credit: Rex; from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/battle-of-britain/11729951/Battle-of-Britain-Wasnt-that-a-Viking-invasion.html)
RAF pilots scramble to get airborne at Biggin Hill (Photo Credit: Rex; from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/battle-of-britain/11729951/Battle-of-Britain-Wasnt-that-a-Viking-invasion.html)

The RAF relied upon the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire fighter planes. Contrary to myth, the Hurricane was flown in much greater numbers than the legendary Spitfire. Both planes used the same Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and carried eight machineguns. Prime Minister Churchill referred to the brave young pilots who flew these planes and bombers as “The Few”.

Eagle Day and the Battle Begins

After weeks of German attacks on Channel shipping, Hitler gave orders to Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring to begin attacks on RAF airfields and critical industries on Eagle Day, August 13th 1940. Coastal squadrons were hit the hardest. A surprising number of Stukas were shot down—the planes were too slow and vulnerable against RAF fighters—and their squadrons were withdrawn.

The air battle seesawed for weeks. German intelligence was faulty. Hitler and his generals were convinced they were winning when in fact they were losing planes, experienced pilots and air crews. The RAF had enough airplanes, but pilots were in short supply. Soon Polish, Czech, Free French, several Americans and other Allied pilots joined squadrons with the RAF.

Hitler Loses His Own Battle

In September, a German bomber force attacked London. Churchill ordered an immediate reprisal and Berlin was bombed. Enraged, Hitler ordered a change in tactics—he would terrorize the British people into surrender. This was the Blitz, over two hundred days of raids against London and other cities that didn’t end until 1941. The bombings forced the evacuation of children to outlying areas while people hid in air raid shelters and in London’s Underground stations.

Heinkel He 111 bomber over the Surrey docks and Wapping in the East End of London on 7 September 1940 (Public domain image from the collections of the Imperial War Museums)
Heinkel He 111 bomber over the Surrey docks and Wapping in the East End of London on 7 September 1940 (Public domain image from the collections of the Imperial War Museums)

Hitler’s ego proved his undoing. The British people refused to cower to terror. The change in targets gave the RAF time to rebuild its fighter squadrons. The further distance to London pushed German planes to their limits. Fighter escorts had to leave the battle early or run out of fuel. Despite facing larger and larger formations, the RAF held on.

Battle of Britain Day

On September 15th 1940, Battle of Britain Day, massive German raids were intercepted and resulted in unsustainable losses for the Luftwaffe. All daylight bombing raids ended soon after and Operation Sea Lion was cancelled. Germany had lost its first battle in Europe.

Darkest Hour by Tony RussoDarkest Hour (Divertir Publishing, Ltd. Expected release date: Feb 8, 2016) is set in an alternate history where the long Great War leaves behind a shattered Europe without an entire generation of men. Britain permits women to serve their country as soldiers, sailors and especially pilots. After her older brother Mackinley is hurt in a plane crash, young Briley Bannatyne trains to become a pilot officer in the air service. A terrifying enemy conquers much of Europe before turning its sights on Britain. All that stands between this unstoppable enemy and invasion is Briley and a handful of brave pilots.

From now until February 17th, enter to win a signed copy of this book through Goodreads!

Many thanks for being on A Writer of History, Tony. And best wishes for success with Darkest Hour.

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 and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.


Guest post – Jane Bow author of Cally’s Way

Cally's WayJane Bow’s novel Cally’s Way was released in March 2014. She’s here to tell us a bit about the background to the novel Many thanks for being on A Writer of History, Jane.

Living on Crete’s south coast with a rambunctious seventeen-year old daughter for six weeks inspired my novel, Cally’s Way, about a woman in the Cretan Resistance during the Germans‘ brutal occupation in WWII.

Girls all over Greece overcame amazing odds, including their own families‘ ideas about the roles of women, to fight for their country’s freedom. On Crete, in the eastern Mediterranean, they helped save the lives of trapped Allied soldiers. My daughter and I read about the student who carried food past German patrols to two Australians hiding in the Koutaliotis Gorge, and about the girl who rowed a British soldier fifty miles out to Gavdos, an uninhabited island off the coast. Machine gun fire, strafing the boat from the air, opened the soldier’s side. The girl made him lie in the sea water flooding into the boat, to stop the bleeding and keep the wound clean.

Plakias BaySixty years later, hiking on Crete’s mountainsides, we’d see old women dressed in black filling bags tied to their aprons with horta, edible greens. These women had been young during the Second World War. What was it like for them, we wondered?

Inevitably, my daughter met a young, handsome Cretan. Heart in my mouth, I had to watch her ride off into the evening with him on his motorcycle. She came home full of amazement about the mountaintop cemetery he had showed her, where oil-lit lamps on the tombs twinkled under the stars.Cemetery Tomb

And one morning, while I was meditating, the plot line for Cally’s Way dropped into my head. The novel, which took the next twelve years to write, interweaves the 2002 story of Cally with that of her grandmother Callisto in 1941 – 1947. Cally’s Way was published by Iguana Books last March and is available at your favorite online retailer including Amazon.

What a lovely personal story, Jane. And gorgeous photos to inspire us all.