Fiction and Fact

My novels have been described as ‘literary Second World War espionage fiction’. As genres go, it’s not exactly in the same league as Harry Potter or Fifty Shades of Grey, but it does have a dedicated following which I appear to have tapped into.

I first became aware of it many years ago when a friend introduced me to the books of Alan Furst. On her recommendation I bought The World at Night and was hooked. This noir tale of espionage set across Europe at the start of the war remains one of my favourite books of all time and I soon bought all his other books and those published since. Other writers in this genre would include David Downing and Philip Kerr.

Writing in this genre though presents particular challenges. Fiction quite obviously allows the writer a very wide degree of latitude in terms of accuracy and indeed in telling the truth. The very fact that a book is fiction means that the story is not true, it is made up. This much is obvious but when I first started writing fiction, as a journalist I found this difficult. I was used to dealing with facts. Being accurate and writing the truth was the most important part of my day job. To start making things up, as novel (if you’ll excuse the pun) and appealing as it was on one level, was quite alien.

This seems to be especially the case with the subject matter I was writing about. In many areas of fiction this does not matter one bit. Tales of wizardry are quite obviously fantasies and the reader is not seeking to identify the story with the world with which they are familiar. This would also apply to other genres, such as science fiction. Indeed, in those genres a world far removed from the one they are familiar with is probably what the reader is looking for. In other areas of fiction the degree of accuracy required is so incidental as to barely matter. There is no reason at all why the author of a romantic novel, for example, cannot make up the name of a city and set their book in a place called Midham rather than Birmingham.

Writing fiction set in the Second World War does represent particular challenges for two reasons. Firstly, while the story itself may not be true all the events around it and the context in which it is set is based on fact. In many ways that is an advantage. You have a readymade template to build the story around. At the same time, you are working with facts that are very well known. More than seventy years after the start of the war, interest in it does not diminish. Type ‘Second World War’ into and you’ll find there are 50,000 books on it. So you start off knowing that any identifiable facts in the book have to be as accurate as possible because you know that many readers will be very well aware of them. The scope for fiction exists in the characters and in those parts of the story which are clearly part of the plot rather than the factual landscape around it. I endeavour to make the dividing line between what is known fact and what is fiction both obvious and seamless at the same time.

There is another reason why this genre is especially demanding on the fiction writer. The subject matter could hardly be more sensitive. My novels cover themes such as the French Resistance, the aftermath of the Holocaust and bravery and sacrifice in wartime. Many readers will be able to identify at a personal level with many of the events described in the book; I certainly can. Therefore to play loose with the facts or to write about them in a trite or even casual manner seems to me to be morally wrong. The way I dealt with this was by approaching the story as a journalist. I looked for more than one source on all factual matters. I visit key locations and interview people who had been personally involved in the stories.

My novels are still works of fiction; I would never pretend they are any more than that. But where they deal with matters of fact, I hope that it at least the book does so in a responsible way.

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