Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Guest post by Dianne Ascroft, author of Hitler and Mars Bars

I'm happy to welcome Dianne Ascroft, author of Hitler and Mars Bars to Diary of an Eccentric today for a guest post about writing historical fiction. You can read my review of the book here.


by Dianne Ascroft

Anna has kindly invited me here today to tell you why I write historical fiction. I released my first novel, an historical fiction, Hitler and Mars Bars, earlier this year. It’s the story of a German boy, Erich, growing up in war-torn Germany and post-war rural Ireland. The novel is set against the backdrop of a little known Irish Red Cross initiative, Operation Shamrock, which aided German children after World War II.

So why did I decide to write this tale rather than a contemporary story?
I enjoy writing contemporary and historical fiction. The characters are more important to me than the time period that the story is set in. I think writers should capture the humanity and personality of their characters. They should bring their characters to life and that’s what I try to do no matter when I set a story.

So then, why did I set this story sixty years ago?
While I enjoy writing contemporary fiction, I’ve always been fascinated by history. At university it was my major subject. Political history courses never interested me much but I always loved social history. Curiosity about people and events of bygone days spurred my studies. It also spurred me to write Hitler and Mars Bars.

Ann Hoffman in Research For Writers (A & C Black, London, 2001) says, “The writer of an historical novel must be thoroughly familiar with the period in which his story is set, and especially knowledgeable about the manners, customs and daily life of the people concerned.” I never found that a problem as research is a perk of the job for me.

I discovered many interesting facts and details about Germany and Ireland in my background research for Hitler and Mars Bars.

Among them I discovered:
how coal was transported in overhead cable cars in Germany
when electricity was installed in rural areas of Ireland
how much Irish farm labourers were paid
what year Dublin’s main street was named O’Connell Street
how old Irish boys were when they were allowed to wear long trousers
how old Irish children were when they left school
how to bale hay with a tumbling paddy
how to make boxty

My background reading for Hitler and Mars Bars was fascinating. Although the book is set only sixty years ago, it was before I was born so I have no memories or first hand knowledge of the era. Germany and Ireland were two very different countries - Germany a battle scarred, industrialised nation, Ireland a quiet, mostly rural one. I read quite a few biographies and autobiographies and I loved learning about these German and Irish people’s lives.

Ireland sixty years ago was so different from the Ireland that I live in. It was like stepping into another world. Memoirs such as Alice Taylor’s To School Through the Fields, Bryan Gallagher’s Barefoot in Mullyneeny, Sean McElgunn’s Charleyhorse Rider and William K. Parke’s A Fermanagh Childhood opened up a new world for me. It was so absorbing that I sometimes had to drag myself away from it to write.

The more I read about it, the more I liked Ireland during this era. It was a more people centred society, without modern day cynicism and apathy. I wanted to step into their society. By creating my own characters and setting them in this time period I could do that.

I’ve lived in Ireland for nearly two decades. I speak the same language as everyone else and I’m married to an Irish man but my perspective and cultural background are very different from the characters I’ve created. I think like a modern, urban Canadian not an Irish countryperson sixty years ago. I see the world through my fast paced, city perspective rather than their slower, more relaxed one. My characters are more interested in stopping for a chat with their neighbours on the way to the creamery than rushing to catch the subway to work. They know all their neighbours and expect to see a friendly face wherever they go, whereas I never expect to meet anyone I know when I walk down the street and am initially distrustful of strangers. It is refreshing to step into their world and leave mine behind for a while.

As if that weren’t enough reason for me to write historical fiction, I found another one. Have you seen the films ‘Bridge Over the River Kwai’ or ‘Saving Private Ryan’? After watching a few war films you might think that you’re quite familiar with the Second World War era. The major events of the war are well known and documented. Countless books, documentaries and other films have been made about the era. As a result, I’m sure many people think there’s nothing they don’t already know about the war years.

I thought the same until a few years ago when I met a German man who told me about his unusual boyhood. His story opened up a previously hidden slice of German and Irish history for me. It’s a piece of history that’s been overlooked in history books. His story prompted me to do the research that I enjoyed so much. I set out to discover more about Operation Shamrock, the project that helped him. I read any material I could find and I spoke to other people who were also involved in the endeavour. For a history lover like me, it was exciting to uncover these little known facts and hear the stories of these people’s lives. It was like an explorer encountering an unknown civilisation for the first time. After delving into Operation Shamrock I had images and impressions of the people and events swirling around in my head. Their stories moved me and captured my imagination. I found a story I wanted to write.

In my novel I had the chance to tell the story of Operation Shamrock. It was exciting to be able to present the story of real events and people that history has overlooked. I am constantly amazed that most people in Ireland are unaware of this commendable part of their own history. So, through my fictional account, I’ve shared it with my readers. It was fun to create fictional characters and set them amidst real events. Although I was careful not to alter historical facts, when I was writing it felt like I was creating my own version of the real events. I could also bring real events, such as Princess Elizabeth’s Coronation Day, to life again. Readers can experience these momentous occasions with my characters.

Hitler and Mars Bars begins during World War II Germany and does not shirk from portraying the horrors of war. But it also moves on to the wonderful Red Cross endeavour, Operation Shamrock. These two events provided so many people and incidents to explore. My curiosity about people and events in bygone days was aroused and couldn’t be restrained. And that curiosity has always fuelled my love of history - and my desire to write historical fiction.

If you would like to learn more about the novel, please drop by my website. My Virtual Book Tour continues until December 24. The full schedule is available here.

Hitler and Mars Bars is available to order from Trafford Publishing, Amazon and other online retailers, and my website.

Dianne, thanks so much for stopping by Diary of an Eccentric. I wish you much success with Hitler and Mars Bars and in your future endeavors!


Serena said...

Wow did she ask the questions of herself or where those your questions. Great questions and answers.

I love the idea of writing about the past, but the research would go on and on for me I think. I wouldn't know when to stop. LOL

I love the idea of writing about Germany and Ireland post-WWII

Anonymous said...

Well that's an interesting author doing the interview qs by herself ;)
I love Historical fiction ;)
and this would have been so fit for the WWII challenge ;)

Anonymous said...

It is very hard to know when to stop on the research - I had to drag myself away from it at times to write. Even as I was writing there were often details I needed to check - so you can't separate the research and writing completely.

Anna told me that Hitler and Mars Bars is included on the reading list for the World War II challenge next year - hope you'll enjoy it!

Serena said...

Dianne: I will have to borrow anna's copy for the challenge...since we live close enough to borrow each other's books.

The Bookworm said...

great post! Hitler and Mars Bars does sound like a good book.

anna: I love the new blog header :)

Jeannie said...

This sounds truly unique and wonderful! Thanks for sharing. :D

P.S. I'll try not to be such a stranger. One more week of Busy Bunny then I'll be my carefree self again.

Shana said...

Dianne, I really enjoyed reading this guest post and cannot wait to read your book. As I read more and more books about WWII, I always seem to discover this is yet more I do not know about that time period.


Anna said...

Serena: Dianne posed those questions herself as part of the guest post. I really think you'd like this book. And yes you can borrow my copy!

Veens: This would be a great book for the WWII Challenge. I bet you'd enjoy it.

Dianne: Thanks so much for the guest post and for dropping by my blog! I found your research process to be very interesting.

Naida: Thanks! Monica did a great job!

Shana: I can't wait for you to read the book, too, because I'd love to know what you think of it!