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Heroes and Villains

Forest Brothers has them. Life has them. What makes a hero? what makes a villain? Is it purely an audience point of view? Does it depend on your background, your origin, your life experience?

I have been traveling recently, a week’s break to Limburg. The hilly part of Holland. It’s a very relaxed area and I like to go to a city like Maastricht, to chill in the city centre in one of the street cafes in the town square. In October, it gets on with life without appearing to be hurried or stressed. I like Holland. We as a nation tend to like the Dutch, but centuries ago they were not allies, but enemies. Rival seafaring nations carving their fortunes along the coasts of the Americas and Pacific. Mutually colonising other nations, whose culture we dismissed, rather than acknowledged as different. Anyway, the Dutch have always been good to me. Dark beer, vla, malted biscuits are welcome, so is an ability to master English that puts our language inadequacies to shame.

We stayed a kilometre from the German city of Aachen. It is so beautiful in its medieval quarter, the centre piece being the magnificent cathedral. Again, we like the place for its calmness and the fact you can walk around without hassle. The cafe culture, with rugs for people to cover their laps and legs on the cooler days. Very civilised. I posted some photos of the interior of the cathedral (its absolutely stunning), the marble walls and gold leaf in the light streaming through stained glass. One comment I received was ‘what did they do to deserve that?’ A back-handed admiration, I think, but for most of my life, my country has always obsessed about the last world war. So, consign a whole nation to the role of villains in perpetuity? Seems a bit harsh. I am not going to condone the former leaders of Germany and the events they created in the 20th Century, but tar a whole nation? Did you know that Wellington’s army at the Battle of Waterloo was a multi-national force, the chief contingents of which were German, Netherlanders and Irish? What about Albert Einstein?

Russian politicians will sound bite from time to time about Baltic ‘fascists’. Anyone who opposed Stalin’s army was by definition with the Germans and consequently dumped in the same category. Estonia’s awful experience in the second world war was a direct consequence of two large nations and their bloody empire-building ambitions. Men joined both sides. Who were the villains and who felt they wanted to defend their homeland? Men were pressed into service by both sides, what was their choice?. The Stalin regime commited heinous crimes and certainly embraced fascism in all but word, but does that make every Russian culpable – past and present? Some of our media here would try and imply that Russia’s activities today mark the return of the darker days. Then they also fawn over Russian dancers who grace our TV screens every Saturday night…Then there’s  Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Nuryev – what was their legacy?

As we drove home through Belgium, we stopped at the town of Poperinge. Very close to Ypres, it holds a poignant reminder of the 1914-1918 war. On the way there, I was so struck by the flatness of the landscape that I queried how men were expected to survive on the ‘over the top’ assaults in the trenches? Where was the cover? It seemed impossible that someone could cast aside life so cheaply. At Poperinge, we visited Talbot House or ‘Toc H’, an establishment set up by a British padre during that time. The large three story building was turned over to be a servicemans club. Soldiers blessed with leave there could visit a place where rank was forgotten. No alcohol, but plenty of tea. A piano, a library and games room all were available there, or people could just chill in the garden. It was a beautiful sunny day when we arrived and the place felt so serene. All thanks to the idea and work of the Reverend ‘Tubby’ Clayton, all those years ago.

On two occasions on our daily visit to the swimming pool, my young son managed to befriend a playmate. One was a Russian boy at the numerous visits to the flume, the other was a German boy in a ‘who can tip who off the float in the swimming pool’ game. The mutual language appeared to be only giggles. It reminded me how we are not born with our own prejudices, they are inherited along life’s journey.

Heroes and villains, they are everywhere. They appear within every nation, every culture. You can judge a person by their nation and your conceptions of it or  make your own decision on an individual by their own actions. It was good of my son to remind me that.

 

Time to put pen to paper

I have realised that the year has slipped by and the blog posts stopped.

I have moved to a new day job. There hasn’t been much to say. That’s a lie. The year has been quite busy, at times interesting and I just haven’t created time to post.

The prequel is at draft stage. Ready to hit that important desk. It is a back story that takes you from the time of the ‘red terror’ deportations in Estonia to the beginning of the novel ‘Forest Brothers’. I am still hopeful it will move forward to publication in the near future, but alas, no timescales. It’s a shame, as the story does answer a few questions created by Forest Brothers and I think, with a hint of bias, it’s a good story. 🙂

To while away the hours that time allows, I started a sequel. I didn’t have a story to start with, then it became a desire to give Juhan some more exposure. Then some old characters began to knock on the door. then some very old characters and a very feisty new character. Before you knew it… I was away on a new adventure. The story begins around the start of 1945 and I suppose VE day is not too far away. What next?

 

 

Best laid plans

For those who very kindly drop by from time to time, you may have felt I had dropped off the planet, I am still ticking over down here in what is now, sunny, Mid Wales. Time has flown and things have moved on. It has been definitely interesting times, but some people have it worse, so I won’t wring my hands too much.

I have changed jobs. Yes, authors need to work too! I now work for the Vale of Rheidol Railway. In truth, it is like a breath of fresh air and very enjoyable. The down side is, it has sapped my creativity – at least for the short term. Apart from the day to day running and ongoing development of the line (oh boy, there is loads of that!), there are also some pet projects of mine within that seem to take up my creativity. Creative writing has had to be parked.

The Finnish Boys is finished, reviewed, re-reviewed, re-re-reviewed. I am now waiting to see if my current publisher will take it on or if I need to start working on plan B-Z (delete where applicable). I am using the interim to brush up my ‘railway’ novel, set in Mid Wales. It won a prize a year or so back, so I think it has potential. I also begin to cast my mind out on the sequel to Forest Brothers. At the moment, Juhan is somewhere on the North Sea. I should really do him a favour and find a welcoming port soon.

This is of course when time allows. I’m not too worried, last time I changed jobs it did cause a brief hiatus. Then one night, I was stuck on a rural station for an hour and a half. Cold October mists hung in the air and no refreshments were available. I found a pen and a leaflet with the most open space on it and started writing again. Huw began paddling his kayak to the Estonian shore and the adventure had begun.

Hoping you all enjoy the year as it progresses and thanks for reading this!

Another project, another beginning

Forest Brothers is finished and out in the public domain. Finnish Boys (working title) is work in progress, but definitely a project that is at a standstill from my output. I have completed the first draft, it is now with my lovely alpha readers and I await their input. If all goes well, I hope to talk to the publisher as early as March. It’s ok, she knows this is a rough date, I’m not springing any surprises! However, it depends on how busy CG is and how I get on with the final edits following receiving feedback.

So what to do next? I have tried not writing and I am getting a bit frustrated now. Time for new starts.

I have been polishing up an earlier novel, set in the Aberystwyth area in the late 1890’s/early 1900’s. It won a prize in the Best Novel category at the Aber Valley Arts Festival in 2012, so i would love to find it a home (one with a printing press, of course!)

Once I have cracked that, I am already beginning to look towards my Estonian characters and have the beginnings of a new novel set as a sequel to ‘Forest Brothers’. This will feature Juhan more than he has ever managed so far. It will also be set in various corners of Northern Europe and for a timescale say 1945-7. Cold war beckons, let the intrigue begin! Thus,  Estonians will feature much more than Estonia.

One problem I have made for myself. The 1st novel is called Forest Brothers, the next one currently Finnish Boys. If I am making a trilogy, have I just set myself up for every title to be two words beginning ‘F’ and ‘B’? Thank God I’m reading about the Faroe Islands! A friend has a useful spoonerism when she swears of ‘Fuggery Bucknuts’. Tempting, but… maybe not!!!

So Book 3 will start where Forest Brothers left off and continue forward. The characters from that book will take it forward and more will be introduced along the way as the plot developes. at the moment, I have a start and a finish and a few points in the middle, so it is definitely a project for 2015!

The writing process – painting the canvas

How does a book like Forest Brothers come together? What are the stages that turn a group of ideas or concepts into a feature length story?

I recently read a great article by a fellow LWC writer – Glyn Iliffe. In it, he sets out how he puts together his historical novels. Glyn’s work to date has been set in Ancient Greece, so he  does have different problems to face than my work set in the 20th century.

This did however get me thinking on how I do it. This is particularly pertinent, as the second novel is now at the draft stage and I am currently thinking about what story to do next.

Setting

Firstly, where do I want to set the novel. What is the time frame and location to be used? In the case of Forest Brothers, I had fancied setting a novel in Estonia from the start of my writing career. I wanted to develop a story which brought together two important  periods in Estonian history; the war of independence and the second world war. I was also keen to dramatise what certainly over here is forgotten – the Royal Navy’s assistance in the fight against the Bolsheviks.

Initially my idea was to have two separate novels. However, as I wrote the WW2 story, the idea of using the earlier intervention as a back-story developed. I wanted to set the bulk of the story in Estonia, because there have been few works in the English language set there. Also, my wife and daughter are Estonian, so in some ways this is an acknowledgment to their culture and heritage.

Research

There are precious few works of history in the English language about the Baltics. Those that have been produced tend to be very general. Mart Laar has provided some excellent background, his ‘War in the Woods’, useful to understand about Forest Brothers, for example. Some websites like Estonica have also been helpful. The internet is a godsend for finding out little bits of information that can be key.

The Royal Navy mission is charted well in Geoffrey Bennett’s ‘Freeing the Baltic’. Please don’t take offence at the title, I think Geoffrey was upset that the contribution of men like his father had been forgotten. The book does not deride the massive effort Estonia and Latvia made to winning its own independence.

I read a few tales and two are adapted in my novel – the commissar in the forest and Kadrina. Normally, I don’t like doing this and certainly for the second novel, I have adapted events into similar stories without reference to the true events (by changing the setting or the whole story. I don’t feel I know enough of the full story to do otherwise).

Observation

There are a few things I do here. Firstly, going to the places and looking at them, breathing the air, taking in the atmosphere, looking for obvious things that make the place unique. For example, the sandy beaches of the mainland are shallow for a long way, albeit deceptively undulating. The small islands such as Naissaar are fairly deep. The north coast is speckled with half submerged granite boulders, the south is not.

Secondly, what makes Estonia different to my own land? The little things. The carpet of blueberries, the wild raspberries and strawberries, the Estonian eagerness to take advantage of this natural harvest is generally missing from the UK (apart from blackberries!). We don’t tend to trust any mushrooms, whereas I have found there are some which are a prized find in Estonia. Other things also stick out, the storks nesting on telegraph poles, the forests, the damned biting horseflies and the simple remedies (vodka)

Thirdly accuracy is honed by looking at places or objects. Toompea is a good example, to go and look at what can be seen from where. In the story, the Estonian submarine ‘Lembit’ is used. It is fired on  and returns fire. On my visit to the museum  found the trusty boat did not have a deck gun to achieve this feat. Rewrite…

Observing people and mannerisms are very helpful. There is no one way that people act or speak, but you can take some of people’s mannerisms and meld your characters from them. Not all Estonians are reserved, neither are all of my characters.

Anachronisms

That is, trying to cut out things that are not right for the time. When the first edition of the book came out, I was immediately told Swansea was not a city in 1944, and the WRVS was known as the WVS. Not essential pieces, but those little things that can irritate the reader, which you don’t want to happen.

I just about got away with using ‘spooks’, time-wise and I deliberately called a particular Russian vehicle a jeep – not because it is right, but because you know the kind of vehicle I am talking about.

The story

The plot arrives piecemeal. The first piece written was the section about Kadrina, which was done as a short story and then banked for future use. The novel built itself up slowly into a set of mileposts or events, which I wanted my characters to experience. The story then becomes a weave of these events into a plausible roadmap.

For example, at the start. I wanted a character from the British Navy to experience the events of 1919. I wanted him back in 1944. How could I do that? Perhaps as a spy. How would he know the language? Perhaps he stayed on, to do that he would have jumped ship. How did he get back to the UK to become a spy? He must have had to return. And so on…

I also have to acknowledge that I cannot know exactly how things were. I have not (thankfully) lived through a war, nor been a fugitive in a forest. However, you can adapt your own experiences and observations. I have not been on a destroyer in combat, but I have experienced shock. I have not seen a rail crash (as i used on a different story), but I have been in a car that rolled.

Sometimes serendipity takes place. I wanted to pay tribute to the Shetland Bus at some point in my writing. Very quickly it became obvious to me how it could be done in Forest Brothers. Some characters need to escape, but Estonia is the other side of Germany – how am I going to get them back to the West?

I don’t use real people if I can help it. I think it is unfair to give them personalities when I do not know the people involved. I could be make a tyrant seem placid, or vice versa. Where the people are key to the story, I have only given them cameo roles. Similarly, I tend not to use places I have not visited. There is no major plot taking place  around Lake Peipsi for that reason, as an example. Sweden was the only place that I could not visit at the time – and so I have used my experiences in Goteborg and Malmo to help me develope an atmosphere.

In Forest Brothers, I have linked the mileposts together to make the one story. In doing so, I have discovered a few scenes that I had not planned, but quickly became very relevant to the story. It’s when writers tell you that their characters have started to write the book themselves. It’s a term of saying, I don’t have voices in my head!!!

I have written Forest brothers in chronological order. i.e. except for Kadrina, I haven’t written chapter s out of sequence. Once written, I went back to Estonia again and  immersed myself in the culture. I soon had a list of 50 tweaks to go and adjust in the book. The old roads weren’t as straight as the modern ones and the depth of the sea shelf at Naissaar are two examples.

After that, we started to edit. Kay, Alex and myself had loads of fun due to my dropping of definite and indefinite articles in Estonian speech. Although correct in the sense of the way many Estonians speak English, it was hard to convince my mind not to use ‘the ‘ and ‘a’. In spite of best efforts, they still snuck in from time to time!

There were some suggestions as to reworking small parts and I elected to totally rewrite the hook, during this time. I also saw the need for a final meet up before Huw is sent abroad, it became relevant.

Finally we got to publication and you have the finished article (hopefully with you!). That’s how it got there. I hope you enjoy it.