Love at War

Writing novels opens doors. You meet people and learn so much from all the research, you have offers to write articles and are asked for quotes, but of the many thrills that come from writing novels the most exciting is the journey you take with your characters.

I was once lucky enough to meet the great author, Iris Murdoch, I had just started writing a first draft of my first book and dared to ask her if she had a single tip she could give. “It’s all about the characters,” she said, “the plot, if you need one, is dictated by the characters. Character is all”

Well, I couldn’t have been given more wonderful advice and getting to know the characters in my new book, Love at War, has been remarkable, not least because the novel is based on a true story and so many of the dramas, loves and misfortunes that befall them had actually happened.

I’d had the great good fortune to be given a huge pile of ww2 letters from someone who had been at a talk I’d given on board a cruise ship. He was called Antony Hummel.

I was curious, grateful, and suggested that he and his wife came to lunch to discuss it all.

I saw the potential immediately and Antony gave me full permission to fictionalise his parent’s wartime experiences. It was unnerving, sending him the final fictionalised manuscript, I worried he would mind the subtle changes and embellishments, but happily he and his wife were very positive and delighted with it.

Antony’s grandparents were German, but had become naturalised British in 1911 out in Malaya where his grandfather was doing forestry. His maternal grandmother became quite a famous figure in the medical world and late in life was befriended by Prince Charles who had taken an interest in her work.

I have called Antony’s parents, Harry and Laura and the story opens in Hamburg where Laura is doing a course on Rudolf Steiner. It is November 10th 1938, Kristallnacht, a ghastly event which leaves her shaken and horrified, but she stays on to finish the course and perfect her German, only returning to her home in Edinburgh in July 1939.

Harry who has a degree in forestry had left for Uganda and joins up out there to serve in the King’s African Rifles when war is declared.

Laura has fallen for him, and is determined to chase out after him boarding the last ship to go through the torpedoed Mediterranean before all ships had to go right round Africa.

She reaches Cairo where she’s had the offer of a teaching job at an American mission school and is in Cairo for a year. She is far from home where war is rife and having life-changing experiences that leave her in an agony of guilt about Harry.  But it is wartime and will she ever reach him?

Laura is resourceful, strong-willed, proudly independent and grows through the trials she faces. And there are many, whether in Cairo, Palestine or East Africa. She has a terrible experience in Nairobi that leaves her emotionally scarred, very vulnerable and in a fragile state. Back home again in 1945, mature beyond her still young years, she is struggling mentally and living with sadness. Yet there is an unexpected twist in the closing pages and the story ends on a note of hope.

There were many challenges in writing about real people and real events in wartime. I wrote the story in the third person at first, but soon realised it had to be in Laura’s voice. I also discovered that having read and absorbed all the letters it was far better to put them away for good.  That gave me the freedom to imagine Laura and Harry’s dramatic lives and feelings. Letters can tend to keep the writer’s truest feelings obscured, bar any early outflows and declarations of love. 

I’ve hugely enjoyed researching and writing Love at War and hope that my readers will enjoy reading it.