David Lowther: how do you write modern historical fiction?

Added about 7 years ago by David Lowther

GUEST BLOG: David Lowther, author of two gripping novels set in wartime Britain, The Blue Pencil and Two Families at War, reveals the challenges (and rewards!) of writing modern historical fiction.

When you are reading my novels, I want you to be thinking to yourself “yes that could easily have happened.” Authentic narrative is an important aspect of a page-turning novel. However, when writing fiction, this can be quite challenging. 

To achieve this authenticity requires an enormous amount of research. The difference between writing modern historical fiction and historical fiction is the huge amount of evidence available from 1860 onwards. The American Civil War gave us the first war photographs and silent cine film became within easy reach from the start of the twentieth century, quickly followed by the gramophone and radio – not to mention the explosive growth of newspapers from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards. My own particular period of interest is the Second World War and my trilogy of novels cover the period 1936 to 1941. The massive amount of material available to me, which included word-of-mouth testimony from survivors and witnesses, meant that I had no excuse at all for not getting it right.

My first novel, The Blue Pencil, was an appeasement thriller and had as its main theme the attempts that Neville Chamberlain’s government made to control the media and suppress the truth about the warlike intentions of Nazi Germany so that Britain could attempt to avoid another catastrophic conflict like the Great War of 1914-1918. The second novel, Two Families at War, was a crime story set during the London Blitz of September 1940 to May 1941. A third, The Summer of ’39, due to be published in October 2017, is an espionage plot set in the five months before the outbreak of war on 3 September.

My first task before embarking on each novel is a literature search so that nobody could accuse me of plagiarism after my novels were published. Then I visited almost all of the locations in the book; various districts of London and its suburbs, Paris, Berlin and Perth (Scotland). Hour upon hour in the British Library Newspaper Library at Colindale (now at St Pancras) followed and then it was personal interviews with either witnesses (particularly of the Blitz) or others who had valuable recollections of the war years or the late thirties. My own personal library is full of archive film and photographs of these times and I was greatly helped by the British Film Institute who have stored much valuable footage not normally available to the general public. Then I wrote the books.

I strived to make the novels as credible as possible, and this is why I mixed real-life characters with fictional ones. I wanted the reader to think “I know that this is fiction but it could easily have happened like that”. One tool that I used to achieve credibility was archive film. Much of it was provided by the Imperial War Museum and some of it by the British Film Institute.

More than anything, I was inspired to write The Blue Pencil after watching the documentary Before Hindsight (1977), directed by Jonathan Lewis. The main thrust of this film was that the newsreels in British cinemas in the second half of the 1930s often concealed from the public the truth about what was happening in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Spain. Many newsreels in this period depicted events which we now in hindsight to be warning signs of war in a sympathetic light. Although people were aware of atrocities, such as violence against Jews, its absence in newsreels was justified by the “cinema is entertainment pledge. 

In researching my books, the mass of primary and secondary sources of evidence available made my goal of achieving authenticity relatively straightforward. But there is a catch. Get it wrong and there are plenty of readers out there who will take you to task. With ordinary historical fiction, set say before the middle of the eighteenth century, there is much less material; some newspapers, books, paintings and drawings and diaries but not much else. For example, we’ve little idea of exactly how people spoke. We can guess but can’t be certain.

Writing modern historical fiction might be a slog in terms of preparation, but it is incredibly rewarding!

David Lowther is also the author of Liberating Belsen: Remembering the Soldiers of the Durham Light Infantry, retelling the story of the infantrymen who uncovered the monstrous crimes of the Belsen concentration camp and the Holocaust. Liberating Belsen, as well as his two novels The Blue Pencil and Two Families at War, are all available from our online shop.

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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