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.
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.
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).
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.
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 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.