I was never one to get excited about writing historical stories. I had an idea knocking around in my gray matter for years, but simply could not get any motivation behind it to actually develop the idea into anything substantial. WWII prisoner-of-war stories had been done and redone. Why do another one?
But then I came across John Toland’s The Rising Sun, The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire. It is a soup to nuts account of the events leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor and every major battle and military decision made until the surrender, all told from the Japanese point of view. I found it riveting. It literally changed how I saw history in a major way. In fact, I now believe that it was the boobs in Washington who were responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor.
It was while reading Toland’s book that gave me the realization that the value, at least for me, in writing an historical novel would be to approach it in such a way as to bring a fresh perspective to history that hadn’t been done before, at least not in my culture. That was the key element that had been missing in my thinking.
Toland convinced me to develop my POW story with a voice that equally presented both the American and the Japanese sides, being sympathetic to both, understanding the motivations of everyone, unbiased.
As I began to map out the story that would eventually turn into my second novel, The Lonely War, I realized that with this balanced perspective, the enemy was not American, English, German or Japanese. The only enemy in my story is war itself.
In researching WWII for my story, I read over two dozen books, stories like Herman Wouk’s War and Remembrance, Boulle’s Bridge On The River Kwai, and Clavell’s King Rat. The only book I read that came close to this balanced point of view was Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quite On The Western Front. In that novel, war was the enemy, but even Remarque’s story only presented the tale from the German side.
The main thing I learned while writing the unbiased war story, is that when one goes about presenting history in a way that has not been done before, one grows beyond one’s own boundaries of thought. A new perspective allowed me to develop intellectually, and I suspect, at least I hope, that my novel does the same for my readers as well.
So now I try to apply that idea with all my writing, historic and contemporary, to stretch to find a different angle to tell the story so as to bring a fresh perspective. I suppose this idea might be simplistic to most fine writers of historical fiction, but I must confess it was a revelation to me.
Book Reivew: What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell
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