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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.

 

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.

Progress report for ‘Finnish Boys’

The novel set in second world war Estonia and prequel to Forest Brothers, by the way. All you hopeful teenagers will have to look on other sites for your kicks.  🙂

To give you an idea of the process; The novel is about 90% complete or at least to first draft. Once I have written that, I will give it a slow read through edit and check the continuity. The problem with producing a piece 80-90,000 words long, is that you don’t craft it all in one session. Even if you have planned out the plot with milestones along the way, you still need to check that the story flows – especially when you are writing multiple points of view.

For me, the plot needed to marry up with the timeline of actual and fictional events. It begins on the night of the Red Terror, when 10,000 arbitrarily chosen Estonians are rounded up and shipped to Siberia. (It was a dastardly event, most were women and children. The idea was to break down society and make everyone feel vulnerable and therefore compliant.) The story ends with a British agent paddles towards Estonian in a kayak, which brings you to the beginning of Forest Brothers.

The story follows Märt’s journey from baker to Forest Brother. As the story unfolded, it did not take long to bring in many other characters, including Maarja. This provides the back-story for the Estonians in ‘Forest Brothers’. It also allows me to bring to life some of the other characters who have only had cameo roles so far.

Once I am happy with my draft, I will ask my wonderful volunteers to read and comment. i also hope to be in Estonia at some point, where I can check the realities of the landscape and absorb myself in the culture. That is important for me, because I want it to feel right to people from Estonia, as well as those from outside.

Once that is done and any changes are made, I hope to submit it to the publisher. Timescales are flexible, as you still have to juggle life around it and there are many things to do away from being a writer for myself and everyone who assists me. I would love it to be ready in the second half of next year.

Welcome

Stuck in a limbo and desperate to do something meaningful, what to do? That is where writing began for me. A creative way of expressing myself and a chance to harness my wondering imagination. I close my eyes and I’m there. Wish I’d picked ‘there’ as a warm sunny day on a sandy beach, with the waves gently lapping on the shore…but I have to let the story load in my mind, then watch it unfold, wherever it may be. Currently I’m in an Estonian forest being bitten by midges