By Anne Allen
I did not plan to be an historical fiction writer, it has sort of crept up on me over the past seven years, since publishing the first novel, Dangerous Waters, in The Guernsey Novels series. Essentially a contemporary romantic mystery, it has an evocative link to the past, namely the German Occupation of Guernsey during WWII.
Having lived on this beautiful British island, perched in the English Channel a mere twelve miles from the French coast, I soaked up not only the atmosphere of the modern-day island, but also its fraught and painful past. Although few islanders are still alive from that dark time, the memories have leached into the psyche of even the young, cemented by the great concrete edifices built by the Germans, using slave workers, and which stand forever as memorials to what has gone before. My own home on the west coast had a German bunker in the garden, which had a role in my first novel.
An Island’s Compelling History
As a consequence of this oh-so-visible history, I felt almost compelled to refer to the Occupation or WWII in some way in my books. I was aided by the opportunity to talk to those who had lived through those years as well as being offered diaries kept by women left behind and the numerous memoirs published since. With comparatively recent historical events, this is a real bonus, compared to, say, writing about the eighteenth century. The ‘voices’ of the WWII era are not that dissimilar to ours now and if we have grandparents or parents who lived through those times it helps to bridge any possible cultural or social “divide”.
My inherent love of history also came into play. I had studied Humanities for my degree, with the emphasis on history, the arts and culture of different periods, from the ancient Romans and Greeks up to and including the First World War. I had learned to love research and this is key to writing plausible historical fiction. My long-time love of reading historical fiction has crystallized since becoming a writer. Two of my favourite authors in this genre are: Barbara Erskine, who introduced me to the time-slip genre with the fantastic Lady of Hay and the dozen or more since; and CJ Sansom, who brings to life so vividly the era of the Tudor age. I cannot hope to emulate these stars, but I can learn from them. Even though their time periods largely pre-date my own by hundreds of years, there is plenty to learn from such superb writers with regard to style and impeccable research.
The German Occupation of Guernsey
As I mentioned at the beginning, I did not plan on writing historical fiction, but it has slowly permeated my books to different degrees. For example, in Dangerous Waters, there are references to events which occurred, both factual and fictional, during the Occupation, but the story is contemporary based. The next book, Finding Mother, is primarily a modern story of a woman searching for her birth mother, but she uncovers stories and secrets going back to WWII when her grandmother was evacuated to England and became a Land Girl.
Introducing the grandmother’s story gave another dimension to the story arc and readers have said how they would have liked to learn more of her story! I was tempted to write another book focused on her, but it would not have fitted into the concept of The Guernsey Novels, or so I thought at the time. By now, I was surprised to discover how much I enjoyed writing the historical parts of my books.
Books 3 and 4, Guernsey Retreat and The Family Divided, have brief references to WWII and how it impacted my characters not yet born. Then, in book 5, Echoes of Time, I went much further and wrote chunks of the story set during the Occupation, a true dual-time book. I had already completed a fair amount of research over the years, but now dug much deeper into the island’s archives and personal diaries and memoirs.
I needed to immerse myself in 1940s Guernsey: covering what people ate when supplies were limited; how they communicated thanks to the loss of radios, telephones and a mail service; how islanders reacted to living cheek by jowl with the “enemy”; and, finally, their jubilation when they were liberated on May 9th 1945. Naturally, I could not waste this intense immersion and book 6, The Betrayal, was written as another dual-time story, and, unusually for me, written from a man’s perspective during the WWII section. This meant I was able to offer a different portrayal of events touched on in previous books.
The Legacy of Victor Hugo
By this point, in 2017, I realized I needed a fresh “take” on the island’s history. I was in luck, as no other than the French writer, Victor Hugo, had lived in exile in Guernsey for fifteen years in the late 19th Century. In fact, his house in Hauteville, St Peter Port, the island capital, was yards away from my son’s house and I had visited it some years before. It would be an understatement to say that this house was a huge inspiration for my latest book, The Inheritance.
This book was a big step out of my comfort zone. Not only was I writing about a “real” person, but he is someone who is known world-wide and especially revered in Guernsey as well as its neighbour, France. Although he died in 1885, he has a foothold in the present, not only because of the world-wide success of Les Misérables but his great-great grandchildren are alive and have an apartment in Hauteville House. Tricky! Needless to say, I was assiduous with my research, supported by a wonderful local librarian who is a huge fan of Hugo and dug out various volumes for me to study. And one of the curators of his house, a lovely French lady, answered any questions I had and was kind enough to check the final manuscript for errors.
Hugo was not only a prolific and outstanding author and poet, but he was also a painter and fascinated by interior design. His home, Hauteville House, was the first he had ever owned, and he delighted in its refurbishment and decoration, designing and supervising much of the work personally. Now owned by the City of Paris, the house is how he left it, and has recently undergone extensive renovations, so that the brilliant colours are even more vibrant.
Historical Fiction and Its Challenges
This is why historical fiction can be daunting. In order to keep the book a reasonable length and not become too much of an “info dump”, I had to leave out as much, if not more, of my research. I wrote the story from the viewpoint of my fictional character, Eugénie, who works for Hugo as a copyist, and befriends him and his mistress, Juliette. Oh, there are so many anecdotes I had to leave out! But most of the characters are real as are most of the events quoted in the book. The story is interwoven with the present day story focusing on Eugénie’s descendant, Tess, who inherits her house and learns her secrets.
Although there are indeed difficulties with writing historical fiction, particularly if real people are involved, I find the pleasure more than makes up for them. I am now writing book 8, a time-slip story (in the style of Barbara Erskine), set around 1800 when Guernsey was a successful free port becoming rich from privateering and some smuggling on the side.
Books 1-7 of The Guernsey Novels
Award-winning author Anne Allen lives in Devon, by her beloved sea. She has three children and her daughter and two grandchildren live nearby. By profession Anne Allen was a psychotherapist but has long had creative ‘itches’, learning to mosaic, paint furniture, interior design and sculpt. With her debut novel, Dangerous Waters, Anne was drawn to write a novel that was both about love and loss – central to everyone’s lives – and family secrets going back many years. Her experience as a psychotherapist helped her enormously, having spent many years helping people to deal with serious issues like the loss of loved ones. You can visit Anne Allen’s website here.