I’m an emotional person. It doesn’t take much to make me cry. A poignant commercial about a father and a daughter on her wedding day? Tears. A movie scene where the hero confesses his love to his girl? Tears. My cat tenderly cradling the kitten while he licks its head? Tears. (Yeah, I’m hopeless).
What does all of this have to do with writing World War II fiction? A lot, actually.
I’ve tried to uncover why I love studying this time period and why I continue to gravitate toward it when other eras have tried to compete for my attention (as a teenager, I was a devout historian of the American Civil War). It’s not the military aspect – the battle tactics and uniforms and planes, tanks, and guns. Though I love the music and the clothes of the era, that’s still not what holds my attention. Neither is it “good triumphing over evil,” though that’s certainly part of it. And goodness knows I hold no excitement for learning about the massive casualties and horrific deaths of millions upon millions of people.
What keeps me interested, fascinated, and altogether obsessed with World War II is this: emotion.
There is an absolute plethora of human emotion contained within this global war. There’s fear and horror and joy and laughter; there’s sympathy and empathy, courage and cowardice. There’s anger and guilt; forgiveness and redemption. And exploring those emotions within my fictional world is not only challenging, it’s crucial to understanding the human side of World War II.
Here’s an example. It’s easy to think of the boys who stormed the beaches at Normandy as just a group of nameless soldiers: but the fact is, each one was an individual with their own story. Each one. Can you imagine what was going through their minds as they rode in the Higgins boat and watched the French coastline grow closer?
I hope Mom got my last letter. I hope she knows I love her.
Just stay alive. Just duck and cover, but don’t run. Don’t be a coward. Don’t abandon your post. Do your duty.
She said it wasn’t my fault, that it was just “this stupid war.” Now I’ll never get a chance to make it right. I’m not going to see her again. I feel it in my gut. This is it. So long, pal.
When you think of all the human drama created by this war, there are millions of stories, and emotion is at the heart of them all. I cannot help but explore these numerous facets. I want to somehow understand, as best I can, what the war was like through their eyes. Whether it be a soldier, a German immigrant, a Jewish survivor, a Red Cross nurse, a mother waiting at home, a factory worker, a Resistance fighter, or just an average citizen trying to live life day to day, I want to experience it.
As a writer, that’s my job. I’ll never get it completely right because I wasn’t there. But it makes the war more real to me. It’s too easy to read facts in a book and skip over notable dates, battles, leaders, etc. Yet that is, in my view, dangerous. The men, women, and children of World War II were flesh and blood, and deserve more than to be remembered as just words and numbers. They felt. They hoped. They dreamed. They loved, they lived, and many of them died. They were real in every sense of the word.
So that, in a relatively large nutshell, is why I study World War II history, and why I write World War II historical fiction. I have a desperate need to connect with the past and to feel the emotions of those that experienced it. Because, to paraphrase a famous quote, those who do not understand the people of the past are condemned to forget them.
I refuse to forget.
And I’ll gladly shed as many tears as it takes to remember them.