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