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Bringing Together The Ingredients Of A Good Historical Novel, by Ken McCoy

Cobblestone Heroes was the first book I had published. It’s set at the end of World War Two, which makes it a historical novel. It’s a bit disconcerting that I can write a historical book largely from memory but I can remember the thoughts, fears, sights, sounds and smells of that era. I can remember what made me laugh, what made me cry and the many scrapes I got up to with my pals during those days, when we kids were given much more freedom to roam the streets than children today.

I started by giving the book several key ingredients: Three children, two of whom run away from home because one them, Jimmy, wrongly thinks he’s killed a bully in a fight. They are looked after by Auntie Dorothy who struggles a bit with the task. Then there’s Freddie, a young soldier on his way to army camp for training; handsome and funny and just young enough for the older of the two runaway children, Susan, to fall in love with. The saga genre is Romance, so I need a bit of that. Dorothy has her moments as well.

When I write a historical novel, I also tap into the memories of my equally ancient friends and of course I use reference books and Google where memory is insufficient. The story itself comes from my imagination (where else?)

I set it at the tale-end of the war because that was a time of unusual interest. It also means I can add a dramatic dimension by writing about the war itself and how the war affected families living on the home front. My memory allows me to talk about the life of a small boy in Leeds in the 1940s and to use the terminology of that time in the dialogue which gives the reader a feel of the spirit of the age. This is not just using words and terms that people used back in that age but also avoiding terms they definitely didn’t use. For example: back in the day you never heard people say “back in the day!”

An important, but fleeting, ingredient is a dead German who has parachuted to his death over east Yorkshire carrying a bag containing three precious jewels which the children find. The children have all been orphaned at the beginning of the book by a bomb dropping on their house in Leeds, and are now being looked after by Auntie Dorothy, who is a good woman but who finds it difficult to look after three children (Jimmy and Susan have a young brother called Billy). Dorothy, in desperation, has Billy put into care and eventually, at a time of hopeless depression, tells Jimmy and Susan that he’s dead; something that weighs heavily on her conscience throughout the book. Several unsavoury characters insinuate themselves into the story, such as Neville Simpson, the wicked landlord; Len Bateson, the murdering neighbour; and Delma Albright, the vicious prison inmate.

Cobblestone Heroes begins in December 1940 when Leeds was bombed. I then move on four years to when the war is coming to an end. I give my characters specific strengths, weaknesses, talents, fears and of course humour. I give them strong personalities, which makes the story character-driven, as is life itself. Although I start with a basic plot, the characters begin to create their own version of it to the extent that where they are at the end of my writing day is sometimes as much of a surprise to me as it is to the reader. My job then is to keep these wayward characters on track, like a sheepdog guiding sheep to the collecting pen which I call THE END.

So, what have I got to work with? I have three orphaned children, two of whom have run away from home; I have a hero (Freddie) to help them; and I have jewels which come in handy when the children are fighting to stop the wicked landlord kicking them out of their home. Among other things I need to get Dorothy out of prison and bring to justice the landlord, who lied to get her sent there. I need to find Billy and bring him out of the dreadful care home he ends up in; and I need to save Jimmy from being killed by a huge falling chimney which has been sabotaged by Len Bateson in an attempt to kill his wife and anyone else who gets in the way. Dorothy has to find her man, (builder Frank Sackfield) and Susan must decide if she can wait for Freddie.

The rest is down to my writing. If I can’t produce a half decent story with this lot to work with I might as well pack the writing job in.


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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’ve just seen that this book, ‘Cobblestone Heroes’ was your first novel. Looking at the list of books you’ve published since then, I find myself wondering how it struck you, going back to it? Did you find you wanted to edit or change it in any way? Incidentally, I’m from Yorkshire too – and also write historical fiction!

    April 15, 2015
    • Thanks for the comment Ann.

      I know this sounds conceited but, if I’m honest, back then I didn’t realise how good it was. Although my writing has hopefully got better, I doubt if I could improve that particular book.

      April 18, 2015

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