Living Historical Fiction by Elinor Florence

Elinor Florence lives in small town British Columbia. After a long and varied career in journalism, Elinor now writes historical fiction and has a passion for WWII. With Remembrance Day and Veteran’s Day less than a week ago, it’s fitting to feature her latest novel Bird’s Eye View, set during WWII.

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Historical fiction doesn’t necessarily mean ancient history. The broadest definition of the genre includes any novel written at least fifty years after the events took place.

Fifty years ago we were living in 1969, so somewhat alarmingly, even fiction set in my high school years would fall into the historical category.

Since I began my wartime novel Bird’s Eye View just six decades after the Second World War ended, I was able to do “living research” — that is, I didn’t have to resort to dusty tomes in a library to find out what happened. I could simply ask the people who were there.

That, my friends, was a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, I gathered colourful details of personal experience from people who lived through the war, either as participants or observers, and wove them into my novel for authenticity.

On the other hand, it meant that I was figuratively mopping the perspiration from my forehead with a hanky while writing, because I knew that every page would be scrutinized by real live people who knew what I was writing about!

Bird’s Eye View tells the story of a fictional Saskatchewan farm girl who joins the air force in the Second World War and becomes an aerial photographic interpreter in England, searching for bomb targets on the continent. Letters from her family and friends keep her in touch with the home front back in Canada.

It is the only novel ever written featuring a Canadian woman in uniform as the main character. To gather information, I interviewed many veterans, both male and female. My lifelong career as a journalist assisted greatly during this process. I included so much genuine historical detail that I call my novel fact-based fiction.

The combat stuff was fairly easy to garner, since much has been published about battles and military strategy (all of it written by men, I might add.) However, my novel isn’t a mere recitation of dry facts.

I wanted to bring the power of human emotion into my story. I interviewed male veterans for their feelings of fear, and grief, and homesickness, and their tremendous longing for the war to end. Many readers have told me that the book moved them to tears.

The research got more difficult when I turned to women in uniform. In spite of the fact that 50,000 Canadian women served during the war, very little has been written about them.

That’s not an exaggeration — I couldn’t even find an accurate description of a Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division uniform, let alone the training they received and the jobs they performed.

So I relied heavily on personal interviews, and it is here that my living research really bore fruit — not only for the basic information, but for the wonderful anecdotes that women told me.

For example, a Canadian air force veteran named Lou Marr who trained as a photographer told me that when the weather was hot, and the darkroom was sweltering, the girls would strip down to their undies while developing their photos because nobody could enter the darkroom as long as the red light over the door was turned on. That’s exactly the sort of detail that never found its way into the written record — the men didn’t even know it was happening!

Another example: a British air force veteran named Eileen Scott who worked at RAF Medmenham, the beautiful stone mansion in England that served as the headquarters for photo interpretation and the setting for my novel, told me that although pets were strictly forbidden, the girls had a secret cat who climbed up the wisteria vines late at night and scratched at their windows. Hence the cat’s name: Wisty.

These details and many others gleaned from oral history made their way into my novel — that the new female recruits drilled so long and hard that many stopped having their periods; that servicewomen often threw away their gas masks and used the containers as handbags; that women back home on the farm had trouble controlling the horses and cattle while the men were overseas.

My mother, who lived near an air training base in Saskatchewan as a teenager and therefore had a bird’s eye view of the home front, was extremely helpful. Almost every day I phoned her to ask questions like this: “What was a post office savings account?” or “Did you ever dance The Lambeth Walk?” In gratitude, I dedicated my novel to her.

Finally, I wove a poignant true life story into my novel. My mother was engaged during the war to a young airman from Tasmania named Maxwell Cassidy, who was accidentally killed while still training in Canada. He never saw home again, never even lived long enough to see combat overseas. His body still lies in a cemetery in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, a huge air training base during the war and my hometown.

Through the internet, I tracked down the Cassidy family in Australia and asked permission to use Max’s name in my novel. They were overjoyed to learn that my mother was still alive and remembered this fine young man with great fondness — living history, indeed.

And because I wanted their stories to be preserved, I have written the true accounts of Maxwell Cassidy, plus all the other male and female veterans I interviewed, on my website here: https://www.elinorflorence.com/blog/category/wartime-wednesdays/.

Some of these veterans are still alive. I’m so thankful that I was able to record their living history, and more importantly, for the opportunity to thank them in person for their contribution to the Allied victory.

Note: I have since written a second novel, Wildwood. It’s a contemporary novel with a strong vein of 100-year-old prairie pioneer history running throughout. For this novel, I wasn’t able to interview living pioneers but instead relied heavily on dozens of personal memoirs written by homesteaders.

Many thanks, Elinor. Stories about women serving during WWII are an important reminder of those whose wartime service we honour on Remembrance Day and Veteran’s Day.

PS: I love your story about the Australian Cassidy family.

Bird’s Eye View by Elinor Florence ~~ Rose Jolliffe is an idealistic young woman living on a farm with her family in Saskatchewan. After Canada declares war against Germany in World War II, she joins the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as an aerial photographic interpreter. Working with intelligence officers at RAF Medmenham in England, Rose spies on the enemy from the sky, watching the war unfold through her magnifying glass.

When her commanding officer, Gideon Fowler, sets his sights on Rose, both professionally and personally, her prospects look bright. But can he be trusted? As she becomes increasingly disillusioned by the destruction of war and Gideon’s affections, tragedy strikes, and Rose’s world falls apart.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (see left hand 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.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeMy husband recommended All The Light We Cannot See in January, and again in February. I began reading it then, but was waylaid by other reading obligations. Having fulfilled those, I escaped back into Doerr’s novel a week ago and COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN.

There, got that off my chest. Now that you know how much I enjoyed this novel, perhaps a few words about why.

As Goodreads reviewer Melinda said so succinctly, All The Light We Cannot See is about “A blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.”

The intricacy with which the novel is constructed contributes to its success as Anthony Doerr builds our interest, raising the tension chapter by chapter while switching back and forth between Marie-Laure and Werner with occasional stops with other characters. I never lost the thread, even though the story also switches time periods as it unfolds.

Let’s have a look at the 7 elements of historical fiction as a frame for commenting on the novel.

Characters: characters should “behave in keeping with the era they inhabit” which includes the norms, attitudes, beliefs and expectations of their time and station in life. Werner is an orphan sent to a German school training boys to be soldiers. He’s smart, intellectually curious, and a whiz with anything electronic. We see the German military regime and fanaticism through his eyes and his journey to understand his purpose in life and the goodness life offers. Daughter of an expert locksmith, Marie-Laure is defined by her blindness, yet sees so much. Trapped in St. Malo with her reclusive great-uncle, his housekeeper and a secret some would kill for, it is Marie-Laure who learns how to survive and is brave enough to participate in the fight against Germany.

Beyond these two, other characters are illuminated: von Rumpel, Frederick, Etienne, Volkheimer, Madame Manec.

Dialogue: Anthony Doerr dispenses dialogue sparingly and effectively. He spends much more time on the inner dialogue of Werner, Marie-Laure and others.

Werner: “Why, even at the moment of his escape, must some inexplicable warning murmur in a distant region of his mind?”

“Every part of him wants to scream: is this not wrong? But here it is right.”

“Open your eyes and see what you can see with them before they close forever.”

Sergeant Major von Rumpel: “Waiting, thinks von Rumpel, is a kind of war. You simply tell yourself that you must not lose.”

Frederick” “Your problem, Werner, says Frederick, is that you still believe you own your  life.”

Marie-Laure: “Who knew love could kill you?”

Setting: Ive read and written about WWII. Doerr creates not only scenes of war unfolding in all its gritty devastation, but he also immerses the reader in the atmosphere of living the hell of war as both soldier and citizen. The siege of St Malo is one set, another is the inside of a vehicle designed to find enemy radio transmitters, and a third is Etienne’s house where Marie-Laure lives on rue Vauborel.

Theme: Doerr explores themes of love, power, destiny, heroism, hope, coming of age, death, loss, patriotism, redemption. A huge canvas compressed into 531 pages.

Plot: step by step, the plot unfolds. Relentlessly Doerr guides us to the climax. Back and forth in time, back and forth between characters, yet we are never lost. Each scene comes alive. Tension builds.

Conflict: and there is so much conflict. At several points I wondered how the characters could possibly handle another day without falling apart.

Asked why he reveals much of what happens in August 1944 intermingled with the main storyline progressing from 1940 to 1944, Doerr said in an interview with Publishers Weekly:

If I have dinner with you and then at the end I pull out a gun and shoot you, that’s surprise; if I put the gun on the table at the beginning of the meal, that’s suspense.

World Building: an aspect that deserves specific mention is Anthony Doerr’s ability to make us see and feel the life Marie-Laure experiences in blindness. We are with her every step as she taps her way along the streets of St Malo. We feel what she feels, hear what she hears and taste what she tastes. A remarkable feat. Beyond that world, is that of World War Two, seen from both German and French points of view. The school Schulpforta is another part of the world Doerr constructs and here we experience the deviancy of training young boys to be German soldiers. Evil reigns in this world and few refuse to go along.

Beyond these seven elements, I should comment on the author’s superb imagery and prose.

My only caveat — you knew there would be something, didn’t you? — is the ending. To this reader, the novel should have ended soon after the siege of St Malo. The chapters in later years detract from the impact of the main story.

A great read. Highly recommended.

FOR MORE ON INSIDE HISTORICAL FICTION, subscribe to A WRITER OF HISTORY (follow button on the left margin)

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.

Celebrating 3 years with a giveaway

ContestWhere does the time go?

I began this blog in early 2012 and here it is March 2015. Three years and 381 posts later so much has happened.

So I’m celebrating with a little contest. The prizes are one copy of UNRAVELLED and one copy of LIES TOLD IN SILENCE.

I hope you will enter. To do so, send me an email – mktod [at] bell [dot] net.

A few words about each novel.

Unravelled CoverUNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage.

In October 1935, Edward Jamieson’s memories of war and a passionate love affair resurface when an invitation to a WWI memorial ceremony arrives. Though reluctant to visit the scenes of horror he has spent years trying to forget, Edward succumbs to the unlikely possibility of discovering what happened to Helene Noisette, the woman he once pledged to marry. Travelling through the French countryside with his wife Ann, Edward sees nothing but reminders of war. After a chance encounter with Helene at the dedication ceremony, Edward’s past puts his present life in jeopardy. When WWII erupts a few years later, Edward is quickly caught up in the world of training espionage agents, while Ann counsels grieving women and copes with the daily threats facing those she loves. And once again, secrets and war threaten the bonds of marriage.

Barbara Kyle author of Blood Between Queens: “M.K. Tod’s skilful debut novel spanning two world wars deftly illuminates the subtle stirrings of the human heart as movingly as it depicts the horrors of battle.”

Maryline, blogger at M’s Bookshelf: “What a debut! It captivated me from the very first page until the very last and frequently moved me to tears.”

LTIS CoverLIES TOLD IN SILENCE

In May 1914, Helene Noisette’s father believes war is imminent. Convinced Germany will head straight for Paris, he sends his wife, daughter, mother and younger son to Beaufort, a small village in northern France.

But when war erupts two months later, the German army invades neutral Belgium, sweeping south towards Paris. And by the end of September, Beaufort is less than twenty miles from the front. During the years that follow, with the rumbling of guns ever present in the distance, three generations of women come together to cope with deprivation, fear and the dreadful impacts of war.

In 1917, Helene falls in love with a young Canadian soldier wounded in the battle of Vimy Ridge. But war has a way of separating lovers and families, of twisting promises and dashing hopes, and of turning the naïve and innocent into the jaded and war-weary. As the months pass, Helene is forced to reconcile dreams for the future with harsh reality.

Tony Riches of The Writing Desk: “This is without doubt one of the most moving and engaging books I have read in a very long time.”

Sharon Kay Penman author of Lionheart: “a novel that dramatically depicts the horror and heartbreak of war, while also celebrating the resilience of the human spirit.”

FOR MORE THOUGHTS ON HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (use follow widget on left margin)

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.