The Story of a Novel – where’s the story arc?

My time is fragmented into small slices these days – see recent post Writing While Caregiving – and it might not surprise you to know that small bits of time are not conducive to creating a novel. However, I have now accumulated many potential plot points and difficulties for my heroine to face. What’s not yet working is the overarching story arc and its corresponding character arc.

Source – https://hunterswritings.com/2016/03/31/character-and-plot-arc-resources/

With so many novels set during WWII, and many recent ones featuring female spies or women working with the resistance, I want this one to be different. And yet readers enjoy characters who are larger than life, who face danger and impossible odds and yet survive. What is the right blend for Claire – my protagonist. Who will be her friends and her foes? How will her biological father factor into the story? Will he have a large role or a minor one?

And then there’s the question of how the war will change Claire. Will she experience a love affair? An unexpected betrayal? A brush with death? The loss of a parent or brother or sister? The destruction of her home? Will she be wounded? If so, how? Those of you who have read of the plane crash I survived might not be surprised to know that I’m toying with that idea.

As you may have guessed from an earlier post, D-Day will play a role in this story. The planning and build-up to D-Day was a phenomenal feat with the British, the Americans, and the Canadians playing significant roles. Interestingly, despite being leader of the free French, Charles De Gaulle was kept out of the planning for D-Day. In fact, he didn’t even know the timing until the last moment. Not surprisingly he was furious with Churchill, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower. How might that bit of history factor into the story?

I have a feeling that tunnels will be involved in some way. Miles and miles of underground tunnels were built during World War One. Many of these underground passages survived into World War Two. I’ve also discovered that there was a hidden tunnel complex inside the White Cliffs of Dover that formed Britain’s first line of defence in World War II. Such interesting tidbits are hard to ignore.

So, you see, I have lots of work to do to flesh out both the story arc – drawing on real historical events – and the character arc. I’ll be back when there’s more to share.

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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 AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

The Ongoing Fascination of War by Catherine Hokin

I had the pleasure of reading a pre-release version of Catherine Hokin’s The Fortunate Ones. My Goodreads review: The Fortunate Ones is a story that matters. Set in World War Two Germany and post-war Argentina, it will grab your attention from start to finish, and make you think about war, consequences, choices, and the power of love. Here’s Catherine to talk about the ongoing fascination of war.

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War is hell – there’s a statement I doubt anyone would disagree with. Being caught up in a war, either as a combatant or a civilian, must be one of the worst experiences anyone can endure, and yet, since story telling began, we have filled up our firesides and our books and plays and poems with stories of conflict and the pain that comes with it.

The urge to write about war has been with us far longer than the desire to write about love. Most people’s main experience of classical literature comes through the epic adventures of the Trojan War. Beowulf, composed between 700 and 750 and the oldest surviving Germanic epic poem, tells the story of a monster-battling warrior. One of the oldest English poems in existence is The Battle of Maldon, believed to have been written in 991. More recently, the dynastic mayhem surrounding the Wars of the Roses shows no signs of losing its appeal and there can’t be a secondary school pupil in the UK who doesn’t know the name of at least one WWI poet.

I used to teach some of those pupils and, no matter their ability or level of interest, there was always a moment (usually in the middle of a discussion of something revolting like trench foot) when the age penny dropped. When somebody realised that the boys in uniform were barely older than the boys in the classroom. You could feel the change in mood every time it happened.

They all knew (or could at least regurgitate) the poetry’s key themes and functions: to encourage the heroic, to celebrate bravery and promote the sense of a communal experience; to de-mystify war and bring home its realities; to be anti-war and a propaganda tool. They were street-smart enough to spot the manipulation of words and ideals, but it was the realisation that the dead and the horribly maimed were too often 17 and 18 that brought empathy. That sent them home asking for family stories, or sent them to the newspapers and pictures of Aleppo. That brought wider themes back into the classroom: how recounting experiences can be an act of remembrance; how unimaginable trauma can be dealt with through literature and be made smaller, more relatable. Without wishing to go all Dead Poets’ Society, that moment of connection was when the cost of war became real.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not sticking The Fortunate Ones in a bracket with Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. I do think, however, that all war-based writing comes from a shared source: the need to make sense of the horrors people inflict on each other in the name of religion or politics or land, or whatever excuse one group can dig up for killing the ‘other’.

I was born in 1961 and grew up in the shadow of WWII. Films were obsessed with it; my parents (who were small children in Liverpool during the conflict) and their friends constantly talked about it; the shadow of rationing still dictated their attitudes to food and waste. Taking it back a generation, my grandfather fought all four years of WWI and carried the mental scars to his dying day.

One of the most common words I heard in relation to WWII in those days, was ‘monster’. Hitler was a monster, the Nazis were monsters. Then I heard about the Holocaust and what other term could you use? That word was where The Fortunate Ones started: an exploration of what monster actually means, in this context most particularly through the character of Inge.

There are universal themes and collective experiences we draw on, but there are also risks involved in writing about war, especially if what you are writing touches on the concentration camps. I was asked why I even wanted to do it, why anyone would write about something as horrific as the Holocaust, and wasn’t it an exploitative thing to do? They are fair questions and were constantly in my mind while I was writing.

Holocaust literature has never been, as odd as it feels to use the word, as popular. There are many theories as to why this is. That the number of survivors is shrinking plays a part, bringing as that does an increased need for remembrance, a need to hold onto accounts that many have only felt able to share years after the actual events took place. The Holocaust has also been described as an embodiment of some of our deepest fears, and that resonates with me. We can pretend such a horror, with its inescapable round-ups and removals and contempt for human life, can never happen again but do we believe that? When we live in a world stained by rising antisemitism and we see children being forcibly snatched from their parents at the Mexican Wall? When we have witnessed genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia and Rohingya?

Like all the generations before us then, we make sense of our world’s cruelties through reading, and telling, stories. Holocaust and WWII literature is part of this: our horror story existing still, albeit just, in living memory. We exorcise our fear of war’s pain and death and separation on the page, but we also we look for hope. The moments of bravery and sacrifice that change a life. Those acts we hope we would be capable of, an uncertainty we hope will never be tested.

Writers will never stop writing on war’s themes, they are too universal. I hope, however, we all recognise that the topic comes with responsibilities.

We cannot glorify war. We cannot romanticise it and make light of its horrors. We cannot use its realities carelessly, creating situations that cannot possibly have happened and blunting or belittling what could. We must do our research and root our characters in real events which we handle with care.

Those were my rules when writing The Fortunate Ones. If I’ve achieved nothing else, I hope in those I’ve been true.

Many thanks, Catherine. As an author who has written four novels featuring war, your words resonate for me and I am sure they will resonate with many others. In our current world of ‘proxy wars’, we should be even more mindful of the horror and obscenity war brings.

The Fortunate Ones by Catherine Hokin ~~ Every day he stood exactly where he was directed. He listened for his number, shouted his answer in the freezing cold. He was ragged and he was starving, but he was alive. He was one of the fortunate ones whom fate had left standing. And he needed to stay that way. For Hannah.

Berlin, 1941. Felix Thalberg, a printer’s apprentice, has the weight of the world on his shoulders. His beloved city is changing under Nazi rule and at home things are no better – Felix’s father hasn’t left the house since he was forced to wear a yellow star, and his mother grows thinner every day.

Then one night, Felix meets a mysterious young woman in a crowded dance hall, and his life is changed forever. Hannah is like a rush of fresh air into his gloomy, stagnant life and Felix finds himself instantly, powerfully infatuated with her. But when he tries to find her again, she’s vanished without a trace.

Was Hannah taken away by the Gestapo and held prisoner… or worse? When Felix himself is imprisoned in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, his thoughts are only for her safety. And when a life-threatening injury lands him on the ward of Dr Max Eichel – a Nazi medical officer with a sadistic reputation – his love for his lost Hannah sees him through the pain.

Until one day Dr Eichel brings his pretty young wife to tour the camp and Felix’s world is thrown off-kilter. Framed in the hospital window he sees – impossibly – the same girl he met that fateful night… her wrist in the vice-like grip of the deathly calm SS Officer. And it’s clear Hannah recognises him at once – there is no mistaking her expression, she has been dreaming of him too…

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.

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.