As a story-teller, my process begins with a character. It is then my job to bring them out into the light of day.
Sometimes I know him or her well.
Stage Two is when I start to think about the What Ifs.
Sometimes this will be background and setting stuff – like what if my hero stumbles across Napoleon? Or the Hadron collider? Or an international conspiracy?
But usually it’s more personal. Characters in novels are awkward sods.
What if my character insists on making a different choice from what I expect? Believe me, this happens at least once in every book.
Shadows Cast by Big Shared Events
Now, at the moment I am writing a novel about a family who lived through the Second World War. And their friends. I know the characters, their history, their friends. I know what drives each one of them. Who they love. What they want. What they will – and won’t – do to get it.
Or I thought I did.
But someone I knew who had worked at Alexander Korda’s studios during the war once told me, “The War turned us all into actors. We never quite knew who we were or what we were capable of.”
And that’s exactly what is happening to my characters. They keep finding themselves torn between what it practical and what is ideal. Or find they have to choose between two courses of action, both morally right, both desired by people they love – and mutually exclusive.
Alternatively, what can I do, as the writer?
Can’t change history. Can’t change the character, now that he’s off and running. All I can do is pant along behind, trying to understand him.
And my problem is that I know what is happening elsewhere and how the war ended – and they don’t.
In one case, that was actually the First World War! Marshall Foch, who signed the initial armistice for France, notoriously said of the Versailles Peace Agreement, “This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.” By contrast, both ex-soldiers like Sassoon and Robert Graves and grieving survivors, as well as the bereaved, vowed that it was the war to end all wars.
“Never again” was the watchword. The creation of Armistice Day bore witness to that.
Where do my characters stand between those two extremes?
Knowing What People Thought at the Time
George Gallup ran his first Opinion Poll in the US in 1935. Dr Henry Durant ran the Gallup Organisation’s British arm from 1937. By October 1938, Prime Minster Neville Chamberlain was getting 57% approval from those polled.
In September, after the German invasion of the Sudetenland, Chamberlain had returned from Munich waving a paper that he claimed would deliver “Peace in our time”.
Gallup added the first national question on voting intentions to their survey in February 1939. 64% said they would vote for the Chamberlain government “if there were a general election tomorrow”. Their approval rating had gone up. The following month, Nazi troops rolled into Austria and were largely welcomed. By the following September, even Chamberlain saw no alternative and declared war.
“Poor old man,” said my Great Aunt soberly. “We felt for him.” Reading contemporaneous news reports, I had the feeling that a lot of people agreed with her at the time.
Finding What my Characters Feel
But otherwise? If they believe that war is either inevitable or necessary, then they will be in profound disagreement with the majority of their contemporaries. And by a big margin. It’s not easy being at odds with your fellows.
That was a challenge I’d expected for one of them – a veteran of World War 1 and a philosophically-minded classicist. But the others? All of them, in fact, one way or another? Nope. I didn’t see that coming.
Another is an international businessman whose agents have their ear to the ground in several capitals of Europe. He is pragmatic. But he has a conscience.
One young woman, with a distinctly chequered history, concentrates wholly on her own affairs and keeps her head down when people discuss the chances of war. (Yes, that would almost certainly be me, were I to time-slip into October 1938.) And, just sometimes. she’s much braver than she expects.
Sometimes they will have a moment of clarity. Usually under extreme stress.
But these people, whom I created, have lived with for several years, and deeply love, are often complete strangers to me.
It’s very exciting.