How History Impacts the Narrative with Johnnie Alexander Donley

In her upcoming ebook Where Treasure Hides , Johnnie Alexander Donley weaves history and imaginative storytelling together to bring us an engaging love story set to the backdrop of one of History’s greatest tragedies: WWII.
Today, Johnnie will share her experience with writing historical fiction and how history affects the narrative.


Weaving Details into a Historical Novel

Johnnie Alexander Donley

            A talented artist hesitates to give her heart to the soldier who loves her. After all, he’s a soldier, and all Europe is uneasy after Hitler’s annexation of Austria.

                That artist, the protagonist in my debut novel Where Treasure Hides , came to life in a free-writing exercise that simply began, “My name is Alison Schuyler . . .” The soldier, British Army officer Ian Devlin, came to life as a secondary character in another unpublished story.

                While imagining and writing their love story, I browsed the library stacks, reading whatever interested me. From a book on Colditz Castle, described as an escape-proof fortress, I learned that a few of the Allied POWs were captured at Dunkirk. That led to placing Ian in that battle so that he eventually is imprisoned in and escapes from Colditz.

                Similarly, as other plot points developed, I became more focused on researching specific details. In that way, history provides a kind of built-in structure for a novel as characters experience and respond to the major events occurring within the story’s timeline.

                The novel opens in August 1939 when Alison and Ian meet at Waterloo Station in London. A couple of weeks later, they listen together to a BBC broadcast announcing Hitler’s invasion of Poland, an aggressive act that brings Great Britain and France into the war. For the next several months, troops camp along the French-German border in what is known as the Phoney War.

                Not much happens until May 1940. In a few short weeks, Hitler invades Holland, mercilessly bombs the city of Rotterdam, and fights the British Expeditionary Force in the Battle of Dunkirk. These three events affect the characters in Where Treasure Hides and propel the action of the story.

                The Dutch had remained neutral in the Great War (WWI) and expected to remain neutral in this one. The following scene reveals how Alison, her grandfather, and her father react to the unexpected invasion:

                On Friday, May 10, Alison and her family stood outside their home and stared upward as countless Germans descended from the clouds. Their white parachutes appeared angelic against the gloriously blue sky. Planes soared across the heavens and rumbling explosions echoed in the east.

                “They’re bombing The Hague,” said Hendrik. The stricken look on his face gripped at Alison’s stomach.

                “Probably the airfields,” said Pieter.

                A sliver of hope lightened their spirits later that [Sunday] afternoon when they learned that Dutch forces were preventing the Germans from crossing the north bank of the Nieuwe Maas, the broad river that ran through Rotterdam. They listened as the queen, safe in England, broadcast a message of courage and resolve to her people.

Historical details, such as the futile attempt by the Dutch forces to stop the Germans and the fact that Holland’s queen had escaped, are woven into the narrative.

                Only a few days after the invasion, bombs pound the city where Alison’s family had made their home for over three hundred years. In this scene, Alison responds to the personal destruction:

                Alison wandered to the rim of the canal where the rowboat, still in one piece, floated serenely on the calm water. She was tempted to climb inside, untie the knot, and let the boat drift along the city’s canal system to wherever the flow carried her. To never look back.

                Instead, she sat on the embankment and slipped off her shoes. Rippling the surface of the sun-warmed water with her toes, she stared, transfixed, at the expanding circles, the droplets that slipped from her ankles when she lifted her feet.

                Staring into the canal, she could pretend the stately old brick house still stood behind her. Could pretend that her home, like so much of Rotterdam, had not been demolished by German bombs.

Alison reflects on the horror of the devastation, the loss of her family’s ancestral home, and the death of a loved one. This catastrophic historical event propels the storyline as Alison and her family join the Dutch Underground.

                On the continent, the Phoney War becomes all too real. German armies advance, forcing the Allies, and the man Alison loves, to retreat to Dunkirk. This scene places Ian inside history:

                Acrid fumes from burning oil stung Ian’s eyes as he crouched beside an abandoned supply truck near the French coastline of the English Channel. Beneath the black smoke, pounding waves crashed against the shore, relentless in their arrhythmic pounding. Survivors of the British Expeditionary Force staggered across the exposed ground as German cannon fire exploded around them. Weighed down with combat gear and their boots filling with water, the soldiers waded awkwardly through the surf toward a small flotilla of fishing boats. Further out from the shore, larger ships waited to take the evacuees home to England.

The evacuation at Dunkirk saved over three hundred thousand British and French soldiers, making it possible for them to return and fight another day. If not for this near-miracle, Hitler may have succeeded in conquering all of Europe.

                Alison and Ian were initially created for a World War II story about looted art and the plight of Jewish orphans. That’s why Alison is an artist, and Ian an escaped POW. But that’s about all I knew when I started writing the story. The history of Holland became pertinent because that’s where Alison lives. Dunkirk became important because that’s where Ian is captured.

                During the writing process, both characters grew into their own personalities. The three scenes given above propelled the story forward as Alison and Ian were motivated by the historical events that affected their lives.


Thanks to Johnnie for sharing her process with us!
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            And don’t forget to come back here next week, Mon 12/17, to hear from our final Digital First author this winter, Pam Hillman, as she tells us about her inspiration behind her latest prairie romance ebook, Claiming Mariah !