Three Musts for Writing World War II Fiction

Guest Post by Marcus Brotherton –

World War II is a popular setting for historical fiction. But your manuscript must ring true to the era or you’ll risk alienating your audience. Even worse, you’ll risk dishonoring the veterans who were actually there.

If you are interested in writing fiction set during World War II, three mandates are foundational to your work:

Get the facts straight

Accuracy is essential. If you’re writing about a group of twelve Allied soldiers slinking through the wintery night of the Ardennes Forest and you refer to them a “platoon,” instead of a “squad,” then your work will be seen as disingenuous. It will smack of sloppiness. This includes getting the facts straight in everything from dates and locations of battles to uniforms worn and equipment used.

Before turning to fiction, I researched and wrote several nonfiction books where I interviewed aging World War II veterans, gaining as much understanding as possible. But the option of talking with the military personnel who actually lived through World War II is slipping away fast as this generation of veterans passes.

To compensate, your research can include deep dives into oral histories, diaries, letters, and memoirs, as well as secondary sources such as history books and documentaries. If possible, ask a historian or a veteran to read an early draft of your work.

Convey attitudes correctly

It’s one thing to get historical names and dates correct. It’s another thing to get the tones and attitudes of an era right. For instance, if you grew up watching M*A*S*H like I did, you might assume that all soldiers hate the Army just like Hawkeye and BJ did.

But in World War II, that wasn’t the case. After Pearl Harbor, many young American men rushed to enlist. The popular attitude was: “Our nation has just been attacked. If we don’t defend it, who will?”

To get the attitudes of an era correct in your novel, it’s essential to research the cultural trends of the time. Reading oral histories and memoirs can help. You’ll pick up on social norms and even speech patterns and the sentiments behind them. Also, study era-specific almanacs and issues of popular magazines such as TIME and LIFE. Look beyond the articles; it’s amazing what you can pick up from the advertisements too.

Portray characters three-dimensionally

Tired tropes abound in World War II fiction. We’ve all read novels featuring scheming spies, hard-charging sergeants, or frightened privates who wish they were home with their mothers.

These tropes are not wrong. They’re just overdone, so these kinds of characters risk coming across as wooden and flat. The best World War II novels portray three-dimensional characters who exhibit a full range of individualities, strengths, and faults. By showcasing the depth and breadth of humanness, you will create fresh characters. Readers will relate and empathize.

Keep in mind that World War II is often portrayed as a cut and dried conflict between good and evil. But in reality it was a complex conflict with multiple nuanced perspectives. Your characters should reflect this intricacy and show honest emotional experiences of people from various points of view.

Similarly, it’s essential to convey the impact of war on relationships and connections between people. War can tear friends, families, and communities apart. But it can also bring people together and inspire heroics. Your writing should explore these connections and show how real people interact with each other during complex events.

In sum, writing fiction set during World War II requires careful study to gain understanding of the era and its attitudes. Characters should be three-dimensional and genuine.

As with writing any historical fiction, it is essential to approach the setting of World War II with respect, recognizing the gravity of the events that took place during this significant time period, and honoring the veterans who were actually there. This will provide powerful emotional impact for your readers.

Marcus Brotherton’s newest World War II novel, THE LONG MARCH HOME, (written with Tosca Lee), is about three best friends from rural Alabama who must survive the Bataan Death March—and the girl they all love back home. Publisher’s Weekly, in a starred review, called it a “tour de force.”

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