History in the Making

The perils and pleasures of writing historical fiction and capturing the essence of the past.

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There are three important resources at a writer’s fingertips: experience, research, and imagination. And when they combine successfully, creating that elusive almost-psychic bond between author and reader, we discover the true classics of fiction. But where does experience come in when writing about the past?

In my own novels I have explored loyalty, tragedy, separation and love against the dramatic backdrop of the first half of the Twentieth Century. Creating such sweeping, romantic stories with a historical background is all very well—I could ‘google’ all day long to get the facts straight—but to make it a better novel, I know I need to give it that extra layer of believability and therefore more depth and heart. Something the reader can identify with.

I have set my books in periods of relatively recent history: four of them in either the First or Second World Wars. But for my latest, The First Dance, I was drawn to the 1920s and 1930s. I chose this era because I needed a break from the traumatic details I’d unearth while researching. Despite this, the legacy of war still permeates this book because the World Wars—occurring little over twenty years apart—shaped generation after generation and lingered in living memory. They affected everyday people in their everyday lives, far more than war had ever done before, and brought out the worse and the best in us—all intriguing landscapes for the author to explore.

Conflict came right into our homes: the physical disappearance of thousands of men from towns and villages during the Great War, the devastating Blitz, the threat of gas attacks, doodlebugs and rationing. The fabric of society was changed. And because this happened to my parents and my grandparents—every family has a story to tell, a box of old photographs to discover—I can relate to it and imagine it. And inspiration isn’t that far behind.

I wanted to capture in my novels the sacrifice and danger, the experiences of ordinary people doing extra-ordinary things. But, as I do not have the writer’s first requirement—experience—I had to work harder to create a believable world for my characters. I tracked down the people who had lived through it. I devoured eye-witness accounts of war and travelled to the places where I set my stories. I must see a city, a town, a battlefield, to be able to bring it to life on the page.

To make sure my stories are credible, I also sought out newspaper headlines from the day because they reveal what the public knew at the time (often less than we do now) and so ensured that conversations and scenarios rang true. Writers can make the mistake of talking about important events from our current point of view, or in hindsight, which can sound awkward and not come across as authentic. Most ordinary people, for example, had no idea about the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944 until the morning it happened or had, at most, an inkling that something was brewing.

When I visited Normandy during the D-Day anniversary celebrations, some eight years ago, I realised that no amount of research can beat sitting among the white dunes of Utah beach as a fly-past of Lancaster bombers swooped over, or discovering the messages written on the wall of a café by veterans returning to the village of Sante-Mere-Eglise where the Allied parachutist famously dangled from the church spire. I spent most of a guided tour of the Great War battlefields along the Western Front in tears and encountered, in the museum at Amiens, the darkly disturbing etchings of German soldier and artist Otto Dix which inspired my third novel, The Flower Book.

Museums great and small, from the Museum of the Liberation in Cherbourg to London’s mighty Imperial War Museum, are a goldmine of objects: uniforms, humble everyday memorabilia, letters and photographs which all conjure stories. Discovering in a glass case the exact World War Two Czech Army-issue revolver I needed for my first book A Season of Leaves (also known as The Secret Letters) was certainly a eureka moment for me, and such chance finds are what make writing such a magical, organic and unpredictable process.

As for visiting places like Paris, Prague and Venice in the name of research—any excuse! Simply sitting in a café in the shadow of a great cathedral, people-watching, absorbing the history and atmosphere of a cobbled old-town is all it needs to start me off on my emotional journey. This experience, then, evolves into that firecracker moment when imagination ignites, and the writing can begin.

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Author and freelance sub editor Catherine Law has known and loved Thanet for 25 years…so much so that she moved here in 2014.

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