by Wendy Worley
I listened with enthusiasm to Hilary Mantel explaining the merits of historical novels and their place in the telling of past events in her Reith Lectures broadcast in June 2017, which coincided with the publication of my debut novel Echoes of Friendship. What she said about bridging the gap between past and present resonated with my experience of writing. Echoes of Friendship was my way of sharing a family story of my grandfather’s friendship with a German POW at the end of the First World War. When I decided that I should write their story the World War centenary was almost a decade away, but novels and history books on the conflict were already flooding the shelves of bookshops and libraries. Echoes of Friendship was finally published collaboratively between Frome Writers’ Collective’s imprint, Silver Crow and Silverwood Books.
Historians can be dismissive of historical novels but their own work is an interpretation of artefacts and documents from a given historical period. They tell the reader what happened. The novelist shows the past to the reader by writing about real individuals, or imagined characters from history. The people they create inhabit a world that existed once upon a time, and the characters in their stories must be embedded in a historically accurate period in the past. Many writers of historical novels spend years researching their era; others consider that conjuring the atmosphere of the time is more important and investigate specific or technical details during the writing process. Authors speak of creating the sense of a location – they are likely to have visited the places where their stories are set, despite it being nearly impossible for anyone today to see sites exactly as they were. Battlefields have been restored by woodland recolonization or farming; towns and cities have been rebuilt or redeveloped. Remnants of the past can be uncovered but they have been masked in the intervening years.
The strength of a historical novel is that the reader shares the ‘feel’ of what it was like to live through significant events: it allows us to empathise with the characters and experience how life in the past was different to our own times. The writer peels back the layers that we see today and shows us how it might have felt to be there. Non-fiction books from the First World War which come closest to this are accounts of interviews with veterans and their families such as Chris Howell’s No Thankful Village, and Forgotten Voices of the Great War by Max Arthur.
Echoes of Friendship has real people at its heart. I have photos of my grandfather, his family and others of the soldiers he befriended from the First World War. The key element was not only the photos of his friend, Hans, but also several letters from the German, which hint at his personality and attitude to the conflict. Exactly how they became friends was never revealed in the letters, so I couldn’t write a memoir; having too little evidence. Instead I had to use information based on what I learnt about the war and the life of the soldiers. Then like many historical novelists before me I made that magical leap of faith to imagine what it might have been like to be in their shoes.
This is a guest blog by author Wendy Worley and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the FCBG. Echoes of Friendship is a Silver Crow Book published by Silverwood Books.