Telling it Like it Was

When writing a novel whose characters are born in the early part of the last century, it is essential that the writer conveys their speech, vocabulary, thinking and behaviour as credibly as possible.  In other words, he needs to tell it like it was then, not like it is now.  This leaves the writer with plenty to ponder, and although it is a challenging task, the rewards are worthwhile.

To illustrate the challenge, one need only watch footage shot during World War Two in which soldiers, politicians and ordinary people speak, to realise that they talked and comported themselves very differently than we do.  As the man said, the past really was another country.

During the war, spoken English (and presumably French and German etc) sounded more clipped and formal.  Sentences were shorter.  Cadence in speech was quite different.  People were stiffer when being interviewed.  Accents were perhaps less pronounced-the famous received pronunciation of Home Counties English dominated.  The sense of humour was simpler.  Irony and sarcasm were rarer; people responded to questions with a ‘straight bat’.  Politeness, and the fear of causing offence, meant that people took longer to get to the point.  And of course, back in the 1940’s, the ‘one liner’ or ‘smart ass’ response to another person’s comment were virtually unknown.  Thank goodness.

Vocabulary too was radically different.  Language evolves constantly-drawing on culture, literature, media, technology, travel, fashion etc.  Slang changes. Words die out with old people, new ones evolve with the young.  Jargon varies with profession, vocation and region.  The writer must consider all of this and more.

The World War Two writer must also heed swear words.  He has to use them, people did, especially in such a stressful and desperate period.  Yet most of the officer class would rarely have said ‘fuck’, particularly in front of their men.  That word (and several other swear words) was considered uncouth. It was perceived as belonging to the working class. Saying it was ‘common’-indicative of a lack of culture and education.  And women, in particular would almost never have sworn.  As with all language, many expletives from the war are nearly extinct (bugger, bally, flippin’, a right Charlie), whereas many of today’s (motherfucker, shit for brains, turdburglar) had not yet evolved or were rarely said.  It’s a bloody minefield!  Almost literally.

By recalling all this, and evoking the way characters would have talked and behaved in the 1940’s, the writer can capture the era and lend authenticity to his work.  This task however, is a serious challenge, because just one slip can spoil a writer’s good work.  And unless the writer is in his nineties and equipped with a formidable memory, it requires considerable research and attention to detail.  And of course, a keen editor with a knowledge of the period.

Yet, character speech is not simply a question of evoking appropriate vocabulary.  Position in society, or social class, created barriers and codes of behaviour among people.  British officers, agents and diplomats for example, were almost always University educated and from privileged backgrounds.  A breed apart, they were often unaccustomed to interacting with ‘ordinary people’.  When they did so, awkwardness and an inability to connect would often result.  And in return, others acted towards them with considerable deference and restraint.  Military orders were carried out unquestioningly, as were commands in other occupations. Superiors were rarely challenged or questioned, partly because it was always assumed they knew what they were doing.  Or if it was not, people were too polite to say so. Because of this, those in higher positions rarely knew what others below them really thought.  And those at the bottom sometimes did not know what their superiors meant.

There were of course exceptions-many soldiers were fiercely loyal to their commanding officers, particularly when the latter displayed courage and real concern for their men.  However, many more were scathing of their superiors, whom they termed ‘toffs,’ and whom they considered aloof, unapproachable and pampered.

Another characteristic the writer must recall, is the prevalence of honour.  The convention that a gentleman’s (or officer’s) word was his bond, still remained. One rarely lied to a  police officer, or a figure of authority, even if he was wearing an enemy uniform.  Respect did not need to be earned.  It was an automatic consequence of status.  While captured allied officers (and men) were entitled to provide only name, rank and serial number, many felt obliged to answer far more searching and damaging questions, simply because it was the ‘done thing’ and was ‘not cricket’ to refuse.

Furthermore, a perception existed in many military and political circles that espionage, assassination etc, even during war, were underhand, and ill-befitting.  Spreading or telling lies, using deception, or mounting undercover operations were seen as somehow dishonest.  A gentleman faced his enemy head on, as he had in the First World War. Spies and undercover agents were seen as a rogue element, as somehow dodging the fight. Real men wore uniforms and carried their weapons in plain view.

To this end, it is almost incredible today, to note the opposition that the British Special Operations Executive (who ran sabotage, disinformation, and the recruitment and training of espionage agents in occupied countries) encountered from the British military and political establishment throughout the war.  In fact, had Churchill not personally championed SOE, it may well have buckled under this pressure, so much was it held in disdain by the conservative majority in positions of power.  Likewise, the American OSS also encountered ‘moral’ opposition from within the USA.

Yet not all people held honour in such high regard. Hitler used the fact that people were much more honest in the 1930’s and 1940’s, to his considerable advantage.  Non-agression pacts, sincere promises, signed conventions and alliances, were all made -and broken -when it suited his purposes. British Prime Minister Chamberlain’s assurance that “I have in my hand, a piece of paper…” from Hitler, that the Nazis planned no military offensives against other countries, reassured most British people. Why?  Because political leaders, even despicable Germans, simply did not tell lies.

Of course, as World War Two progressed, the casualties mounted and atrocities and brutality abounded.  The naivety of prosecuting war with honour and honesty came into question, and tactics, thinking and operations increasingly over-rode these old conventions.  The conscious targeting by allied bombing, of civilian populations in Germany and Japan, are testament to this, even if internal opposition lingered.

Indeed, time changes most things.  Officers and soldiers, who by 1944-5, had seen their colleagues butchered, and who had survived years of shellfire and bullets, became less concerned about swearing, deference, honour and gentlemanly behaviour.  They simply wanted to survive, get home to their families, and forget.  Quite how they achieved that, mattered little.

For the writer, there is therefore the task of capturing in words and actions, first the prevalence and then the erosion, of naivety, politeness, innocence, and honour as the war progresses. Put simply, the soldier of 1939 would have been a very different person by 1945.  This internal and external change, however, is partly what continues to make the war such a compelling subject for a novel.

In capturing the language and behaviour of a character convincingly, the writer also conveys the character’s background, thinking, morals, beliefs, social status and so on, without having to resort to long passages of narrative summary to fill in the blanks.   And in achieving that, the writer is able to plunge the reader into the period in history in which his character lived. Telling it like it was is a hard battle, but definitely one worth fighting.

And on that note, toodle-pip old chum, or have a nice day, whichever you prefer.

Holiday in the Protectorate

My friend Fabien Nowak sent me the above article from the New York Times.  It concerns a Czech reality television show.  Contestants are ‘sent back in time’ to 1939 when Bohemia and Moravia were subject to Nazi rule, (English speaking WW2 buffs will know this chapter of history as the Annexation of the Sudetenland).  The reality show contestants have to survive deprivations, Gestapo investigations, threats, and must adapt to their new circumstances.

The television show has provoked strong negative reaction from historians, journalists and commentators.  They note that the real consequences of civil disobedience to, and oppression by Nazi rule, were often fatal, unlike in the television show. The creators on the other hand, argue that the show educates people by casting new light on the period.

The Czech show provokes interesting questions about the representation of real historical events and contexts in fiction or in entertainment.  To what extent do writers or television and film producers have a responsibility to represent reality?  Do these responsibilities vary in degree depending on format, or even subject?  For example, should a novel writer be granted more freedom to invent than a television producer?  Is it somehow more legitimate to fictionalise real people and events in novel and film, than in a reality television show?  Is a novel art, whereas a reality television show is exploitation?  Did the critics of the Czech show previously rail against novels and films that distorted fact?

The answers are too complex to discuss in a short essay, and the lines are of course, terribly blurred. However, one might argue that viewers are not as ignorant as the custodians of the moral high ground tend to imagine. Reality television shows are a gimmick.  They are by definition oxymoronic.  People cannot actually be transported back to 1939.  Just as viewers know this, they know that the ‘reality’ portrayed is therefore, fiction.  A significant % of the Czech viewers will have lost grandparents during the war.  They are only too aware of the real history and suffering of their country.  A television reality show that plays loose with the factual context will not change this.

One might recall also, that there are many good films set during WW2 which do not entirely adhere to reality.  Saving Private Ryan and The English Patient spring to mind.  More blatant distortion might include the film U-571, (not a great film) in which history is openly re-written to show the Americans capturing the Nazi enigma code machine, when in reality it was the British.  There are even WW2 shoot ’em up films like Kelly’s Heroes or Where Eagles Dare, or Inglorious Basterds in which ridiculousness and farce are much more prominent than historical reality.

In his excellent series of Bernie Gunther novels, the British writer Philip Kerr (see separate article on this site), uses fictional representations of real Nazis.  Prominent among Kerr’s supporting cast is Reinhard Heydrich, who became the Nazi Protector of Bohemia and Moravia (the setting for the reality television show) in 1941. Heydrich directed a brutal campaign against opponents and was a key architect of the Holocaust.  Yet Kerr does not dwell on these facts, rather he emphasises Heydrich’s cunning, his political manoeuvring, his intelligence and respect for his fellow policeman-the fictitious Gunther.  In short, Kerr humanises a monster.  And to an extent, Kerr repeats this with Goering and Himmler.  Some might say Kerr crosses a line in so doing.  I would not.

The WW2 novelist has a different responsibility to his or her reader.  In my view, a key aspect of this responsibility is credibility.  As such, this is part of what might be termed the pact between writer and reader.  The reader suspends his disbelief as long as the writer does not abuse this gesture by making it impossible for the reader to continue to pretend the writer’s story is real.  The fictional portrayal of a real person, like Heydrich, capable of true evil, despite possessing other more rational ‘human’ qualities, serves only to increase this credibility.

Put another way, credibility vanishes when pretend Gestapo officers cannot and do not shoot contestants to death in reality television shows.  Credibility thrives when pretend Gestapo officers invented by a novelist can and do shoot characters to death in novels.  Thus a novel will always be much more ‘real’ than a reality television show.  Even though it is not!

In conclusion, I would lean towards arguing that the representation of historical fact is not a de facto responsibility for fiction writers, film makers and reality television makers.  It is an individual decision.  All are purveyors of entertainment.  They are motivated by the expression of emotional truth, not historical fact.  Certainly, the accurate portrayal of historical fact will often contribute to achieving this goal, and its absence may hinder it.  Yet the facts remain complementary rather than key to the equation.  The themes of love, heroism, conflict, revenge, survival, wealth and passion may be shaped and influenced by historical facts.  But these themes do not depend on the facts being depicted accurately in order to make their desired impact.

The makers of Holiday in the Protectorate knew this.  They also knew that in striving purely to entertain (and make money), they would alienate and disrespect some people.   They decided to accept that.  And as long as we respect freedom of expression, it seems to me we must concede that such a decision was theirs to make.   And, in case we forget, television sets do still have ‘off’ buttons and remote controls for changing channels.  Even in the Czech Republic.


Chicory and pear- a French restaurant dinner in 1942

I was recently writing a scene where the protagonist enters a French restaurant in 1942.  He’s a downed American pilot attached to the RAF (see Long Way to Thunder Bay excerpt) trying to reach Spain.  He has cash and speaks a little French.  Not possessing ration coupons, he fishes out 500 francs to pay for his meal – hoping this is sufficient to appease the ‘patron’. I mentioned to friends in Paris, Fabien and Agnes, that I was concerned about this scene.  I did not know whether my protagonist was paying way too much.  He might pay a little over the odds, but would 500 francs have been a small fortune in 1942?  Would that amount of money have drawn unwanted attention to him?

The answer appears to be yes, according to:

 Agnes kindly found the above photograph of a Parisian Restaurant (Le Quercy) menu from August 1942.  Itemised in detail, it provides a fascinating insight of the cost and composition of restaurant meals.  The three meals listed cost less than 20 francs each.  Certain items appear only to have been available ‘sous ticket’ (with a restaurant ticket or ration coupon that customers would have secured in advance with their identity cards from official Government agencies).  Other courses appear to have been paid by cash without ticket.

Most noticeable is the absence of meat from the three meals detailed.  Sauteed green beans, chicory ravioli, pears, and chicory in ‘jus’ all feature.  These are foods that would have been grown in and around Paris, and presumably were in season in August.  Other courses included soup or vegetable salad.  My guess is that these would have been….chicory.

In fact, the scarcity of food and monthly ration allowances had plunged by the second half of 1942.  The German occupiers and Vichy regime were tightening their grip on the French people, and on what they consumed.  At weekends therefore, Parisians took to their bicycles or to trains, and headed into the countryside to buy food.  They returned home on Sunday evening, to dodge the German checkpoints set up to catch black-marketeers.  The owner of the Restaurant Le Quercy may himself have run this gauntlet.  Farmers, hitherto perceived as peasants, gained a new elevated status.  City dwellers looked on jealously and hungrily at the butter, cheese, eggs, chicken, hams and other luxuries the farmers produced, and paid high prices to return home with even a few hundred grammes.

Returning to my fictional scene, 500 francs would have been a little much to pay in an ordinary restaurant.  But I sense that to eat chicken, butter and ham, city people with the means to do so, would have paid many times the official price.  Some did so, at clandestine black market restaurants, hidden away in the basements of unassuming private residences or in alleyways in Montmartre.  Yet for most people, chicory and pear would have been all they could afford.  And that is if they ever went to a restaurant at all.

Come on in.


I’m not going to lie to you.  Well, not too much.  This site is intended to promote my own writing.  But it is also a forum for discussion on WW2 based fiction in general.  In addition, it will contain articles about real WW2 events that may not be discussed widely elsewhere.  The odd post about the craft of writing might even slip through as well, just to keep the pacifists onside, you understand.

A Scottish writer resident in Switzerland, I have finished two novels-The Road to Fernando Nunes and The Eyes of the World.  I am half way through another, Long Way From Thunder Bay.  I have included excerpts from these for the interested browser.  The complete books will be available in electronic format in the coming months and links to them will appear here.

Meantime, welcome, and please do leave any comments or questions.

What makes a good WW2 espionage novel?

IMG_1462 I’m a sucker for The World War Two espionage genre in fiction.  And judging by the output on that subject, I’m not alone.   But what makes it so compelling?  The following would be my answer. Novels in the genre are often based on true events or real people.  Charlotte Gray, for example, was based on the life of Nancy Wake, an SOE agent.  This lends instant credibility to a fictional work.  The reader can be informed and entertained simultaneously.  And even when the writer invents the story entirely, by referencing real historical events as part of the context, a similar result is achieved.

The atmosphere is also appealing.  The danger, the stakes, the uncertainty, the inability to trust, all lend the genre a foreboding tension.  Alan Furst is a master of this art.  Even when little seems to be happening in the lonely life of an agent, the enemy is normally closing in, or a trusted ally is succumbing to treachery. Atmosphere can be physical too.  The buildings of 1940’s Paris for example- the music, food, clothes, drinks, cigarette brands, vehicles and of course the people, can all add to an authentic portrayal of place and time.  As can the manner in which people talk and behave, their vocabulary, their concerns, their politics and the way they treat others.

The morality of the time is also fascinating.  Social status, the position and perception of women in society, and religious belief were unrecognisable by today’s standards.  This, and the existence of a sense of duty, patriotism and the racial and sexual prejudices of the day, are fertile ground for the writer. For this reader (and writer), all of the above combine to make wonderful stories.  When a young woman is a trained killer who parachutes into occupied France to liaise with the Resistance, and is hunted by the Gestapo, her life under threat every moment…call me a sucker, but please do count me in.