Posted On September 18, 2017 by Print This Post

Writing WWII Historical Fiction – by Alix Rickloff

Author Alix Rickloff discusses how her interest in WWII inspired her to write THE WAY TO LONDON. Welcome to RU, Alix! 

My interest in WW2 began back in college with a late night viewing of 1942’s Mrs. Miniver. There are no battle scenes, though we do see Walter Pidgeon head off in his boat to save soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk and we’re witness to the devastation from German bombings of the Kentish countryside, but it was Greer Garson’s quiet courage in the face of mounting losses that blew me away. I wasn’t the only one bowled over; Garson won an Academy Award for Best Actress that year.

I followed up this amazing movie with Since You Went Away released in 1944 and nominated for eight Oscars including Best Picture. Again, not a war movie in the strict sense, it’s the story of the American home front as a housewife played by Claudette Colbert, whose husband is away fighting, raises her two teenage daughters amid the uncertainties and inconveniences of war. The audience watches as the family struggles with worry, grief, loss, love, and faith.

Thereafter followed a period where I devoured anything and everything about the war from military histories to social observation. Letters and diaries, newspaper reports and editorial commentary. Documentaries, fictional accounts, and, of course, lots more movies.

Then a few short years ago, at a crossroads in my career, my agent suggested I try branching out into historical fiction and ended the conversation with (and I’m paraphrasing here) “What time period would you want to write about?” I was over the moon. For the first time I could tell a story set during a time period that had fascinated me for decades. But just as my initial interest was sparked by the personal dramas of individuals dealing with the domestic chaos of war, I wanted readers to find characters who might not be soldiers on the front lines but were just as tested by circumstance and just as courageous in their own way.

I chose to write about Anna Trenowyth, a young British nurse looking for the keys to her past when she is unexpectedly stationed at her mother’s ancestral home which has been turned into a convalescent hospital. The story opens in the fall of 1940 when the London Blitz is at is most ferocious and continues through 1941 when England stands alone against a seemingly unstoppable German army and the fate of the nation hangs in the balance. As a nurse, Anna is both surrounded by the devastating aftermath of battle as well as suffering her own scars from serving at Dunkirk.

But while the war serves as a constant bass line to the events in the story, it is never more than a catalyst to convey more universal ideas of redemption, family, and finding one’s place—themes that seem to run unconsciously through all my books.

When I sat down to write THE WAY TO LONDON, I looked to a different moment during the war for inspiration. In September 1939, 800,000 London school children were evacuated to the countryside ahead of the expected German bombardment. While many were welcomed by host families into comfortable homes, for others it was a time of upheaval, sadness, and horrible homesickness.

On December 8th 1941 Japan invaded the Malay Peninsula, and by February 1942 when British forces surrendered, thousands of men, women, and children had fled, many leaving loved ones behind to an uncertain fate as prisoners of war.

Whereas the evacuation of London’s children had been planned for years and was safely carried out while Germany was busy solidifying its grip on the continent, the flight from Singapore was chaotic and fraught with peril from Japanese bombers and submarines. Of those who departed in the frantic final days, barely one-in-four made it out unscathed.

Out of these cold hard facts grew the story of Lucy Stanhope the spoiled heiress from Singapore and Bill Smedley the streetwise kid from the East End; two evacuees who have lost everyone and feel as if they belong nowhere.

Once again the war serves both as a dramatic backdrop and a trigger for the characters’ actions, but the focus is always on the more intimate dramas and personal sacrifices made by normal people as they struggle to go about their lives in the face of catastrophe and loss.

As Lucy unexpectedly finds on her travels from Cornwall to London, “…the triumph of Hazel Clapper’s new job as a secretary and the tragedy of Norma Askey’s boy gone missing over the North Sea were as important as the Russian army’s attempts to break through the German lines or the US Army’s retreat in the Philippines. The war for the ladies of the Charbury Sewing Circle wasn’t being fought on battlefields far away. It was being fought by people they knew. People they loved.”

Quiet courage in the face of adversity –Mrs. Miniver would be proud.

Do you have an interest in WWII history? What are your favorite WWII books and films?

***

THE WAY TO LONDON – HarperCollins – September 2017

From the author of Secrets of Nanreath Hall comes this gripping, beautifully written historical fiction novel set during World War II—the unforgettable story of a young woman who must leave Singapore and forge a new life in England.

On the eve of Pearl Harbor, impetuous and overindulged, Lucy Stanhope, the granddaughter of an earl, is living a life of pampered luxury in Singapore until one reckless act will change her life forever.

Exiled to England to stay with an aunt she barely remembers, Lucy never dreamed that she would be one of the last people to escape Singapore before war engulfs the entire island, and that her parents would disappear in the devastating aftermath. Now grief stricken and all alone, she must cope with the realities of a grim, battle-weary England.

Then she meets Bill, a young evacuee sent to the country to escape the Blitz, and in a moment of weakness, Lucy agrees to help him find his mother in London. The unlikely runaways take off on a seemingly simple journey across the country, but her world becomes even more complicated when she is reunited with an invalided soldier she knew in Singapore.

Now Lucy will be forced to finally confront the choices she has made if she ever hopes to have the future she yearns for.

***

Bio: Critically acclaimed author of historical and paranormal romance, Alix Rickloff’s family tree includes a knight who fought during the Wars of the Roses (his brass rubbing hangs in her dining room), and a soldier who sided with Charles I during the English Civil War (hence the family’s hasty emigration to America). With inspiration like that, what else could she do but start writing her own stories? She lives in Maryland in a house that’s seen its own share of history so when she’s not writing, she is usually trying to keep it from falling down.

 

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5 Responses to “Writing WWII Historical Fiction – by Alix Rickloff”

  1. My grandfather was a medic in England and France in WWI and kept journals about the horrors of mustard gas and fighting in the trenches. In later years I discovered Vera Brittain’s books and became even more fascinated by the WWI era.

    But when I was in high school, my aunt told me about her time serving as a WAVE in WWII. She showed me a picture of a handsome pilot she had dated whose plane was shot down over the Pacific. I could see how sad his picture made her, even after all those years.

    I also read a couple of books that affected me deeply – THE WORLD AT WAR was one and the other, I think, was called THE LAST BOAT. I wish I had saved that book but with all my moves it has disappeared from my shelves. It was about the evacuation of children from the war zone.

    Thanks for sharing this story and good luck with your venture into this genre!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | September 18, 2017, 11:01 am
  2. I am a “war baby” born on December 7, 1942. While I am too young to remember the war itself, I grew up in a Navy family. That meant that most of the adults I knew had served in that war, and served later in Korea, or were wives of those who served. I also grew up hearing about and witnesses my parents’ WWII love story. They met and married in 1940 when she was his blind date. They met at the nurses’s residence and it was love at first sight. Like many people I’ve seen and love the iconic Best Years of Our Lives. It even outshines Since You Went Away. However my favorites are Mr. Roberts and The Americanization of Emily. (A very anti-war take on WWII, that came out in the 60’s when we were marching against that war. I should point out that all the Naval officers I knew, including my father, loved the Caine Mutiny.

    Posted by Ruchama | September 18, 2017, 9:06 pm
  3. Oh, goodness. Too many! “Best Years of Our Lives” was revolutionary in its depiction of a disabled vet. Jimmy Stewart’s own PTSD comes through in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Favorite books include Herman Wouk’s “Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance,” “The Magic of Ordinary Days” and anything by Sarah Sundin. I’m writing my own WW2-era novel, and although I knew a lot, there was so much more to learn!

    Posted by Janice Laird | September 19, 2017, 12:18 pm
  4. Hi Alix,

    I used to watch old black and white WWII movies on the television after school. Mrs. Miniver was a favorite. Claudette Colbert in Three Came Home is another. I’m a fan of WWII period dramas. Island at War, The Bomb Girls, and Land Girls. Noel Barber and Neville Shute (A Town Like Alice) wrote some of my favorite WWII books. Thanks for blogging with us!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | September 20, 2017, 1:49 pm
  5. The Best Years of Our Lives was brilliant!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | September 20, 2017, 8:02 pm

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