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Writing Historical Fiction Focused on Wartime Holland

International bestselling author Imogen Matthews shares the process she followed to write her historical fiction trilogy based in wartime Holland.

My interest in historical fiction began when I was a child listening to my mother’s vivid accounts of life under German occupation during the terrible Dutch Hunger Winter of 1944-45. Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, her acts of derring-do and desperate measures to forage in the frozen earth for tulip bulbs in order to put food on the table for her family were to inspire my writing more than half a century on.

(6 Practical Tips for Writing Great Historical Fiction.)

My mother gave me a personal and direct link to the past that no history book could have taught me. I think this is the reason that, 77 years on from the end of war, World War 2 fiction is such a hugely popular genre, because so many of us have a connection through parents or grandparents who lived through those turbulent times. Their personal, often harrowing, stories provide a unique perspective into a world few of us can imagine today.

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It wasn’t until my mother was in her 90s that I recognized the importance of recording her memories of wartime Holland before they were lost forever. Although I felt I knew her stories by heart, I asked her to write them down for me to type up in a document for the family. I still have those pages, torn from a lined exercise book and covered in her distinctive cursive style, that reflect her uniquely vibrant voice in a way I could not do justice to without her assistance. 

However, I wanted to find out more, and tried to tease from her more information, but it never seemed enough. I suppose I will always wish I had asked her more questions about her past while I still had the opportunity.

Describing a sense of place

The inspiration for my first novel, The Hidden Village, comes from a place I discovered on a Dutch family cycling holiday. Deep in the Veluwe woods, some 50 miles to the east of Amsterdam, is the site of a WW2 refuge for Jews and others who were on the run from the Nazis. It was unknown to me all the years I had ridden past, until the day I caught sight of a large memorial stone by the side of the path. 

Stopping to look, I read the inscription giving thanks to the group of individuals who had built a woodland village and ensured the safety of its inhabitants for almost two years. Investigating further, I walked deeper into the woods, where I discovered replica underground huts had been erected, a chilling reminder of what life must have been for the 80 or so persecuted men, women, and children. 

Instantly, I knew that I wanted to write about this place, that was so hidden from view that few knew of its existence, even today. Every year, I return to this spot and walk through the trees, listening to the sounds, breathing in the scents, and trying to imagine myself in the shoes of those who succeeded in staying hidden deep in these woods for months at a time.

(5 Tips for Writing About Big Historical Events in Fiction.)

My second novel, Hidden in the Shadows, takes up the story at the time the hidden village was ambushed by the Nazis, describing the terror as people ran for their lives and scattered throughout the surrounding countryside. Once again, it was so important for me to bring my own sense of what it must have been like to hide in the woods into my writing.

In the second half of the book, the narrative moves to the west of Holland, the place where my mother lived. I drew on her striking descriptions of life during the harsh winter of 1944/45 to bring realism to the story.

Check out Imogen Matthews' novel The Hidden Village:

Hidden in the Shadows, by Imogen Matthews

IndieBound | Amazon

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Importance of research

Despite leaning heavily on personal experience for my novels, I’ve always recognized the importance of research derived from books, articles and written accounts from people who had lived in the Netherlands during WW2. However, it was difficult to find more than sketchy information about the hidden village. There was little mention of it online or in the history books I trawled through, which only made me more determined to write about this extraordinary place that so few people know about.

Then, by chance, I found a second-hand book on a Dutch website, entitled Het Verscholen Dorp (the hidden village). I couldn’t believe my luck and immediately ordered the single copy listed. The slightly tattered book arrived a few days later and I spent six months poring over the text with the help of Google translate. 

The author, Aart Visser, compiled detailed information based on first-hand interviews with people involved in the creation of the woodland village, including diagrams of the underground huts and many black-and-white photos. In 2014, a new edition came out and I bought this too, because of additional interviews Mr. Visser had included with elderly people he’d managed to interview who were keen to recount their wartime memories.

Fiction based on fact

My two novels, The Hidden Village and Hidden in the Shadows, are steeped in true events that took place at the site of the original hidden village, but the characters I created are entirely fictionalized. Many share traits with people who had sheltered there, as well as the local organizers who ensured the running of the camp by providing food, water, clothing, medicines, and other essentials. I also came up with a fictitious name for the hidden village: Berkenhout, loosely translated as Birch Wood.

I hope that by reading these novels, readers are transported to a time and place that bore witness to the efforts and resilience of ordinary people in resisting the occupying enemy.

*****

Historical Fiction

Whether history is a backdrop to your story or the focus of the story itself, this workshop will provide you with the tools to find the facts you need, organize the data in a functional manner, and merge that data seamlessly into your novel. You'll discover the appropriate level of historical data to include as a function of a particular writing goal, learn the definition of historical markers and how and where to unearth them, and uncover the tools to integrate history, research, and the fiction plot arc. Most of all, find out how to honor verisimilitude—the goal of any historical writing—and avoid the dreaded anachronism. You'll learn to write scenes utilizing historical markers that further the plot and put your reader firmly in the place, time, and setting.

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