Friday, 5 June 2015

Writing Historical Fiction

I'm writing the second book of a trilogy set in France during World War 2. As LP Hatley says in The Go Between, 'The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.'

Not only did I need to become a virtual back-packer and learn the cultural differences of another country, but I also had to become a time traveller, re-setting and familiarising my world to the early 1940's. A writer of historical fiction must be accurate because the reader will not be fooled by guesswork. It only takes one inaccurate fact for the reader to close the book with a tut (or worse) and never buy another novel by that writer again. The first book of my trilogy, The Midday Moon, is set in rural France and tells the story of a farmer's daughter during the five years of WW2. My protagonist, Arlette Blaise, takes her grandmother back home to Oradour-sur-Glane on the day of the massacre. So apart from imagination, how do I strive to write exact historical fiction?

1. I couldn’t have placed Arlette in such a traumatic situation without visiting the martyred village first hand. I have walked the roads of this once quaint village and absorbed the atmosphere. I’ve seen the aftermath of brutality. As a writer, I feel a weight of responsibility in telling a story about a fictional character living through what was an actual genocide. I’ve endeavoured to honour the villagers' last hours with respect and accuracy, to choose the right words and not to glamourize this horrendous crime. Charles de Gaulle declared that the ruins must stay as a permanent national monument to the townspeople’s suffering, so I found Oradour-sur-Glane just as it had been left on the day of the massacre; frozen in time. What better way to write about factual surroundings and infrastructure.

2. I've read numerous novels set in the era. This is a great starting point for cultural immersion. I attuned myself to the writers' rhythm, nuances and the tone of the language used back then. Picking up a few extra details is always a bonus - which of course must be placed in my novel in my own way. For example, I learned through reading one book that the French folded their Metro tickets into V shapes, for Victory during the war. It was a small way to show contempt towards the invading Germans.

3. Non-fiction books are also invaluable. Pages and pages of facts and photographs build up a past world to write about.

4. Speaking to people who lived during the war highlights some rare treasures of information. Obviously this is only possible if your story is set during the past seventy-eighty years, but the older generation are full of stories they love to share.

5. The Internet! What did we do before the Internet? There are archives, interviews, photographs, paintings, stories and newspaper articles out there, all waiting to be discovered.

6. Magazines are also a hive of information. One which has been an enormous help to me is World War 2 Magazine. The description of tanks and writing about accurate weaponry is vital to make a scene sound authentic.

7. Television films and documentaries pull you into the screen making it easy to absorb the atmosphere, the fear, the horror and the bravery of many ordinary people. Here are just a few I've watched with notepad and pen in hand!
'Colditz,' 'Thunderbolt,' 'World War Two - The Lost Colour Archives,' 'The War' by Ken Burns, 'World of War: The Complete set,' narrated by Sir Lawrence Olivier, 'Band of Brothers,' 'Holocaust,' mini series and 'The Architects of Doom,' documentary.

Here is my blog post about my visit to the devastated remains of Oradour-sur-Glane and a excerpt from that particular chapter of The Midday Moon. Arlette and her grandmother have been ordered to the village green by the Nazis. Blogspot doesn't allow me to indent speech or change the layout but I hope it sounds authentic to you and thank you for reading this post.

Although there wasn’t any panic among the gathering, Arlette could feel a mounting anxiety. The air was heavy with anticipation and a low murmuring of conversation spread between the villagers. How long would they be delayed? She didn’t need this hold up if she was going to make it back home today. Perhaps she would be staying overnight after all.
Lines of people continued to scurry along the main road towards them. Mademoiselle Petit, a schoolteacher, ushered a group of children in front of her and joined the congregation of villagers. The click-clacking of their small wooden clogs was silenced by the grass.
‘It’s Saturday. Why are the children at school today?’ asked Arlette.
The schoolteacher sounded impatient. ‘They’re attending an immunisation programme and this nonsense is very disruptive.’ She shook her head with irritation and turned to count her pupils.
Arlette looked into the sky hoping to see white clouds that might give them respite from the relentless intensity of the sun’s rays. The sky was cloudless but a single buzzard soared in a wide circular pattern, its wings outstretched and static.
Grandma Blaise held her lower back and spoke to Berthe, an acquaintance who had worked in the hairdresser’s for more than twenty years. ‘Goodness, I do ache.’
‘Hopefully they won’t be too much longer,’ said Berthe. ‘I’m dying of thirst.’
‘I hope they’re being careful with my ornaments.’
‘Look, grandma.’ Arlette pointed to a lorry convoy that had parked in the lower part of Oradour. Soldiers wearing flecked waterproof clothing in yellow and green, swarmed out of the back of the trucks and through the streets.
‘Why are there so many Germans?’ asked Grandma Blaise. She slipped her arm through her granddaughter’s. ‘The village is already swarming with them.’
Arlette shook her head. She didn’t have an answer.
Everyone was watching and waiting in a dignified silence. Soldiers continued to empty surrounding houses and shops of their occupants. They were being herded in groups towards the green. The crowd was now so large that it was spreading out towards a covered well. A woman stumbled towards them with her hair in curlers. A half-dressed child was held in his mother’s arms. Still with his jaw covered in shaving foam, a man had been ordered out of the barber’s. Worried mothers clutched the tiny fingers of their children or pushed prams towards the assembly point, its numbers growing by the minute. Next the grocer and another teacher arrived, accompanied by a larger group of children. The priest arrived, followed by a man carrying an elderly woman on his back.
The throng began to move. Arlette looked around in confusion. ‘What’s happening?’
A voice in the crowd answered. ‘They’re separating the women and children from the menfolk.’
The question went unanswered. Arlette took hold of her grandmother’s hand and moved closer to the front of the crowd.
From where they were now standing, Arlette could see and hear the SS officer more clearly. He was a solid man whose uniform was decorated with emblems and badges. The letters SS were zig-zagged like two lightning strikes on his collar. He demanded that the elders of the village reveal the hiding place of the ammunition. Arlette heard the mayor respond by denying any knowledge of the presence of arms. The officer turned to another German soldier and spoke out of earshot, no doubt translating.
‘The mayor’s just offered to be held hostage with his sons so the elderly and children can get out of the sun,’ said Arlette.
‘How brave,’ said Grandma Blaise.
Arlette felt a trickle of sweat run down her spine. The sun was sweltering. Her mouth was dry and she was worried for her grandmother. Why had they decided to come here today? If only they had made the journey the following day.
She immediately became more alert. Commands were being shouted to the gathered men. They were ordered to walk away from the fairground en masse. At gunpoint.
‘Where are they taking them?’ asked Berthe. ‘My son is with them.’
‘We don’t know,’ Arlette shrugged. ‘Try not to worry. They won’t hurt them because they haven’t done anything wrong.’ She realised how naïve she sounded. Hadn’t little Maurice only been trying to keep warm? Hadn’t the Jewish people only been trying to work hard and settle into a community?
Arlette watched several men turn to look back at the women. She recognised them: the ticket-seller at the tram station from when she used to travel to sell her silk cocoons, the owner of her favourite café, her grandmother’s elderly neighbour, Jean-Philippe. The men’s eyes searched for glimpses of their wives and children. They were led away. Their faces drawn with fear. They looked confused, many trying to dodge the pushing and shoving of Germans fists. Next the SS officer turned his attention to the remaining women and children.
‘What’s he saying?’ asked Grandma Blaise. ‘I do wish he would speak up.’
‘We’ve got to go to the church,’ said Arlette. ‘Maybe they realise that we need to sit down in some shade.’ She patted her grandmother’s hand for reassurance and helped her along the main street towards the village’s place of worship at the southern end of town. In front of the church grew a tall tree in full leaf. They walked beneath its dappled shade. Several women close by sighed audibly at the momentary respite from the sun’s rays as they were shepherded towards Oradour’s church entrance.
German voices grew more frenzied. Women and children were hurried along and pushed inside. An old lady fell at the doorway. Arlette recognised her as her grandmother’s friend, Jeanne. She didn’t mention it to her grandmother who was anxious enough. There was momentary turmoil when the women behind helped her to stand. People behind were bumping into each other. Arlette stumbled but she steadied herself and her eyes began to adjust to the dim light inside the church. Looking down, she saw flowers being trampled underfoot. They looked like the same flowers that Jeanne had been carrying. She reached for a pew for balance, smelling the familiar aroma of incense and candle smoke. It comforted her a little. She grasped Grandma Blaise’s hand and pushed to the back of the church. In seconds they were next to the altar.
Arlette didn’t let go of her grandmother’s hand despite the bumping and jostling from others. They were ordered deeper inside. The cool interior was a welcome relief from the fierce heat outside and many women and children settled themselves on the wooden benches. She helped her grandmother to sit on a stool beside the altar but as more women were herded inside, the crowd pushed Arlette a short way from the old lady. Helpless to stop the momentum, she was thrust to the opposite side of the altar.
A cough. A baby’s whimper. A child’s voice calling for maman. But still the women remained calm, their ears straining for any communication or sign of what was going to happen next.
Then it came.
Distant machine gun fire could be heard through the open church door. It continued for a long minute until it slowed. Then just occasional short bursts.
‘What are they firing at?’ someone whispered.
‘Perhaps they’re destroying something.’
‘The men…you don’t think…’
The woman didn’t finish her sentence and no one answered. Arlette sought out her grandmother’s face. They exchanged worried glances. A commotion at the entrance of the church made everyone turn and look. Two German soldiers were carrying a large chest into the building. They struggled under its weight.
‘Perhaps they’ve brought us water,’ someone suggested.
A soldier attached a thin rope to the chest and laid it on the ground. He walked backwards out of the door. An orange glow could be seen in his hand. He bent to the ground. The doors were slammed shut.