Day 4 of the Violette Szabo theme & I have been lucky enough to convince Dianne Ascroft author of the Yankee Years series to answer some of my questions! Here goes,
Q) I specifically admired the changes in the character Ruth and felt she gained in strength & developed as a woman. Was there an intention to have a subtle feminist theme?
A) I’m glad you enjoyed watching Ruth develop through the first two stories, in The Yankee Years Books 1-3, The Shadow Ally and Acts of Sabotage. No, I didn’t have a specifically feminist theme in mind for the stories. I always try to create characters that act in ways that fit their era. I don’t want to set a modern character into the past as that isn’t true to the era. But, at the same time, the war years were pivotal for women. With the men away fighting, they took on jobs and tasks they would not have been allowed to do normally, as they had done during the First World War. Women discovered that they were capable of much more than anyone thought they were, and by the end of the war, many women were reluctant to go back to their traditional roles. Although they wouldn’t have called themselves feminists, they led the way for the feminist movement to emerge. So Ruth’s growing confidence and competence wasn’t out of place for the era. If you enjoyed Ruth’s story, you’ll be happy to know that she will be back with another action-packed mystery to deal with in Book 6. I’m plotting the story right now and will soon start writing it.
Q) What was the Inspiration behind each book in The Yankee Years series?
A) The idea for the series came to me after I read “Castle Archdale and Fermanagh in World War II” by Breege McCusker. It’s a factual book about County Fermanagh, where I live in Northern Ireland, during the Second World War, and the flying boat bases on Lough Erne, the largest lake in the county. I was enthralled by the stories of the real servicemen and women stationed at the flying boat bases and I began to do more research into County Fermanagh’s role in the war. There were army camps as well as the air force flying boat bases and the arrival of all these Allied troops brought such a huge change to the rural county. I also began to hear stories about local people’s experiences. There are some marvellous and unique stories to tell and very few wartime novels have been set in Northern Ireland so I wanted to make sure that these stories are told. My stories are fictional, but there’s always grains of truth that have sparked them. I look for snippets of information that grab my attention and build a story from there.
For instance, when I was thinking about the plot for The Shadow Ally, I noticed a Fermanagh newspaper item from the era that mentioned a court case against an American civilian technician who had been charged with driving offences. This brought to my attention what I knew from other reading: that the American workers were already in Fermanagh secretly building U.S military bases before America had declared war. I considered this piece of information and wondered what would happen if someone threatened to inform Germany about the construction projects. This was the beginning of the story.
When I was planning the second story, Acts of Sabotage, I noticed numerous newspaper items from the era reporting on court cases where the defendant was charged with the theft of military equipment. The stolen goods were sold on the black market. I also noticed several articles about local residents’ fears that the I.R.A. would take the opportunity to mount terrorist attacks against strategic targets in Northern Ireland while the government was occupied with the war effort. I put these two pieces of information together and wove them into the events in my story. One of the newspaper court reports mentioned the judge’s comment when he sentenced the prisoner for theft, saying that the theft ‘was an act of sabotage’. This really hit home to me and catapulted my story into life.
The third story in the collection, Keeping Her Pledge, is mostly a product of my own imagination but the opening scene was inspired by an anecdote someone told me about his relative’s smuggling escapades. Since Fermanagh is so close to the Irish border, smuggling was very common during the war and I’ve heard countless stories about the incredible antics that went on. But this one exploit was so daring and also so very funny that it started me thinking. The rest of the story just grew from there. The seaplane crash and the training accident incident in the story are both based on real events. Unfortunately, there were many aircraft crashes in Northern Ireland and training exercise accidents also occurred. I drew the details for both scenes in the story from real events.
Q) How much time is spent researching when writing a novel in the ww2 era?
A)Lots! I’m not sure I could tell you exactly how long I spend on research for each story. I’m currently working on my fifth and sixth Short Reads in The Yankee Years series (they will be released this spring and summer) and I am also in the process of revising a novel for the series. Hitler and Mars Bars, an earlier novel I wrote, which is not part of The Yankee Years series, opens in the Ruhr area of Germany after heavy bombing by the Allies during the last days of the war. As you can see, I’ve written quite a bit about the era so I’ve already done lots of background research for those books, from reading memoirs of ordinary people in Germany during the war to reading memoirs and accounts of life on the home front in Britain, as well as studying general history texts about the war era. Although I still have to check facts and details sometimes, my general knowledge of the era is a good foundation on which to set the knowledge I gain from my research into aspects of life in County Fermanagh during the war. I try to use real places in my stories so I visit the sites and I also read local history books and memoirs to glean details about the places that I won’t find anywhere else. I think this makes the stories more rounded and gives an authentic feel to them.
When I research the places where my stories are set, I have extra research to do, compared to authors who write about the home front anywhere in the rest of the United Kingdom, as many aspects of the war in Northern Ireland weren’t quite the same as in England, Scotland and Wales. For one thing, there was no conscription because of the division of opinion about the war between the Protestant and Catholic communities and the threat of rebellion by anti-unionist organisations if conscription was introduced. Related to this, there was the threat of the terrorist organisation, the Irish Republican Army, attacking strategic locations in Northern Ireland for their cause while the military and police were occupied with the war. The province was waging an internal war as well as the one against the Axis countries. So there’s lots to consider when setting stories in Northern Ireland.
I couldn’t tell you how much time I actually spend on research but I do some background reading before I start working on a story and then look up specific facts as I need them while writing. Research is never finally finished until the story is written and released to readers.
Q) What has been the most interesting research you have come across by accident?
A) I think one thing that really intrigued me, when I first learned about it, was that the United States was preparing to join the war months before the attack on Pearl Harbor forced them into battle. And they weren’t just devising strategies on paper. They were already secretly building military bases throughout the United Kingdom, including several in Northern Ireland. It was a huge operation to undertake in secret and, if it had been discovered, it would have pushed them into the war before they were ready. As I’ve mentioned, The Shadow Ally, the first story in The Yankee Years, revolves around a threat to this secret and how Ruth, an ordinary girl, and Frank, one of the civilian contractors working on the nearby base, strive to keep the secret from falling into the wrong hands.
I’ve also been amazed and entertained by many of the stories I’ve read in books and heard from people who lived through the era about unusual incidents that occurred in County Fermanagh. We often think that people in previous generations were more willing to conform, constrained by the conventions of their society, but I’ve found that many people, especially in Fermanagh, did some wacky things and didn’t seem to worry about what anyone thought about it.
For instance, when one of the U.S. soldiers, who was stationed at a military base near Irvinestown, a small town in County Fermanagh, wanted to go into town, he had a habit of standing at the roadside outside the army camp and jumping on the back of a passing horse pulling a cart and riding it from the base into town. This didn’t seem odd to him as he was raised on a ranch in Texas, but since these horses were only used to pulling carts, it always startled the animal when a man suddenly landed on its back and it was likely to bolt. Many farmers cursed the soldier for the trouble he caused them. Another story I heard was about an Irvinestown café, or eating house as they were known, that always managed to get rationed meat, such as steaks that had been smuggled into the country, to serve to their American military customers. The place had a great reputation and was always busy. But, as the staff went about their work, they kept an eye peeled for police officers or customs inspectors and when they spotted either approach the premises, the staff would rush to move all the raw steaks out the kitchen and hide them in the garden until the inspection was over. Of course, when the inspectors spoke to their customers, no one had never seen steak on the menu. I also heard about another incident where a local lad came out of a dance one evening and ‘borrowed’ a post van parked on the road. He was rather enterprising and charged a small fee to servicemen leaving the dance to give them a lift back to their bases. Hopefully he earned enough money from his clients to cover his fine when he was sentenced in court. These are just a few examples of the things that people got up to. Sometimes it seemed there was nothing too strange for someone to attempt to do. This realisation gives me the freedom to create unique and interesting characters, without feeling I’m betraying the truth of the era.
Q) What is your Favourite/s novels from this era? & did they influence your writing?
A) I have so many wartime novels that I love – almost every one I read touches me in some way and the memory of the story lingers in my mind. But I don’t think any of the wartime novels I’ve read specifically influenced my writing. The stories I tell are about a place that’s a bit different from the rest of the United Kingdom so they are probably more influenced by Irish novels than wartime ones.
I can’t really pick one or two favourite wartime novels. But Kate Lord Brown’s The Beauty Chorus sticks in my mind as it was the first novel I had read about the women in the Air Transport Auxiliary and I love stories about women who took on new, daring roles during the war. Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, a story of the French resistance, also had a huge impact on me for its drama and poignancy. I also loved Alrene Hughes’ trilogy, that begins with Martha’s Girls. The stories are set in wartime Belfast, so the characters’ experiences particularly resonate with me.
Thanks for reviewing The Shadow Ally, the first story in The Yankee Years Books 1-3 and for inviting me to visit your blog. I’ve enjoyed chatting with you, Anne.
*Huge thanks to Dianne & I wish you much success with your writing career.