History People #1: Wartime Fiction: Wandering Off the Beaten Track

The first GI arrives in Northern Ireland, January 1941

The first GI arrives in Northern Ireland, January 1942

This is the first in a series of guest posts by fellow historical fiction authors. Dianne Ascroft, who writes World War II fiction, kicks it off with some thought-provoking reflections on unusual settings for wartime fiction and what readers are looking for. Thanks for joining us today, Dianne.

When readers encounter a story set in a ‘popular’ historical era, they often have expectations about how it will unfold or where it will take place. For example, I write stories set during the Second World War, and, judging by the novels in my genre I’ve seen on bookshop shelves and Amazon’s listings, I would hazard a guess that the majority of fiction set in this period takes place in the European theatre of the war. Recently the Pacific theatre has risen in popularity but the European theatre is still a mainstay for the genre.

Readers have certain expectations about the choice of settings within the European theatre: occupied France and Belgium or maybe Germany or Russia, as well as the home front in England and Scotland. How many novels have you found in your local bookshop about the Norwegian resistance or Romanian soldiers? My stories are set in Northern Ireland, a country within Great Britain that, despite the popularity of home front stories, rarely features in wartime novels.

Typical rural scene in Northern Ireland - little changed since the 1940s

Typical rural scene in Northern Ireland – little changed since the 1940s

Since previously published books in the genre have primed readers’ expectations, it may be difficult to convince them to try something a bit different. They may even find it unsettling to encounter a new perspective to a theme they think they know well.

However, that shouldn’t deter authors from presenting something different. A steady diet of novels with well-worn settings, despite variations in their plots, will eventually bore readers. Glimpses into unique aspects of life in unfamiliar places during this complex and multi-faceted war, can provide fresh insights and discoveries to invigorate and renew readers’ enthusiasm for the genre.

Florencecourt House, a stately home where soldiers were billeted in WW2

Florencecourt House, a stately home where soldiers were billeted in WW2

And ‘something different’ doesn’t have to be something completely unfamiliar. Novels that are set off the beaten track should still contain the elements that readers are really looking for. But, what are they?

The book promotion company, Bookbub, did a study to determine which aspects of wartime fiction resonate most with readers. They found three key elements – and none of them is linked to the story’s setting:

First, the relationships between the main character and his family and friends must touch the reader. Readers want to have an emotional response to the characters. My characters hail from America, Northern Ireland and Ireland and have all ended up together in stories set in rural Northern Ireland. Many readers find the American characters most familiar but no matter the nationality of the character, each expresses the same needs, fears, desires and aspirations as they interact with others and this is what readers respond to.

Second, it must have an uplifting ending. Again, this can be achieved no matter where a story is set. Some of the challenges and choices my characters face, such as the threat of attack not only from the Axis forces but also the IRA, a terrorist organisation, or having to make the decision whether to enlist in the armed forces when not compelled by conscription to do so, are unique to where the story is set.  However, no matter what conflict the characters face, when they ultimately triumph readers feel satisfied with this positive ending.

The third element is familiarity and a sense of nostalgia. This may seem more difficult to achieve in a lesser-known setting but familiarity doesn’t have to come from the place. People have common traits, emotions and experiences the world over which the author must draw on to make readers connect with the characters and identify with their struggles.

In Northern Ireland, where my stories are set, the characters are not under attack during the Blitz but they experience the same fear and apprehension about the threat of attack as people throughout the United Kingdom experienced during that period. They also fear the threat of invasion by the Axis forces, just as the rest of the British population did.  Readers relate to these parallels.

Lough Erne, a stretch of water near the location of the flying boat base

Lough Erne, a stretch of water near the location of the flying boat base

Ultimately, wartime fiction lovers want to experience the tension and drama of the era, as well as the camaraderie and passion that were integral to it. Stories like mine, unfolding away from the usual settings, can fulfil this desire just as well as those set in tried and tested locations. And, as a bonus, readers get a unique insight into somewhere off the beaten track during an era that fascinates them.

N Ireland church that would have been in use during the war

N Ireland church that would have been in use during the war

If an author keeps in mind the elements that matter to readers and fulfils them, then the story may be set wherever the author chooses. Satisfying wartime fiction can happen anywhere that was touched by the worldwide conflict. 

 

Dianne AscroftDianne Ascroft writes contemporary and historical fiction. She is currently working on The Yankee Years series of novels and Short Reads, and has released a story collection, Dancing Shadows, Tramping Hooves.

 

 

Connect with Dianne:

Website
Facebook
Twitter

You might also like:

History: A Thing of the Past?
Nursing in World War I: the French Experience
Period Pieces: How Much History Should be in Your Fiction?

Copyright © Dianne Ascroft, Vanessa Couchman 2016. All rights reserved.

12 thoughts on “History People #1: Wartime Fiction: Wandering Off the Beaten Track

  1. Pingback: The Story Behind ‘The List’: Occupied France 1941-42 | Vanessa Couchman

  2. Pingback: Meeting Readers’ Expectations In Wartime Fiction |

    • Thanks for commenting, JJ. I’m sure Dianne will add her own comment but I agree with you somewhat about the second essential element. I don’t personally feel that a happy ending is always necessary; but, of course, this is from BookBub’s research, and who am I to disagree with them?!

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    • I can see how it might be difficult to find an uplifting ending for some of the storylines you deal with, JJ. But people and characters are resilient so giving a hint that there will be a future for the main character may be enough to satisfy this.

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  3. I agree, Dianne, there is still an appetite for WWII fiction if it’s from a different angle. I’m enjoying Home fires at the moment on ITV which is the war as told from the residents of an English village; so it’s essentially a story of those left behind. Last episode they brought in some European POWs as well to add an extra frisson. I believe is is based on real events so it does occasionally lack narrative drive but an entertaining watch all the same.

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    • We don’t get UK TV here, so we miss things like that (don’t seem to watch much TV full stop!). I’m sure Dianne will want to comment, but I agree that a different angle is needed sometimes, since there is so much of what one might call “traditional” wartime fiction out there.

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      • Well, it’s all via the satellite dish. We get BBC1 and 2 via the terrestial channels but otherwise it’s all beamed in ‘illegally’…Watching telly is an enjoyable waste of time, so well done for you for not succumbing.

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      • French TV is pretty awful, so it’s no hardship not to watch it. Expat friends here are always asking if we saw the last episode of Strictly or Downton Abbey. Totally ignorant about both – and many others…

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    • I have to admit that I love Home fires, Susan. Since my stories are also set on the Home Front I like to see the similarities and differences between life in England and Northern Ireland at the time. And, of course I just enjoy a good story too. The human element is central to the tv drama.

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