Monday, April 22, 2013

Writing a WWII Novel: A guest post by Ruth Francisco

Ruth Francisco, author of the WWII-era novel Camp Sunshine, is my guest at Reading the Past today. She has written her post in the form of a Q&A, discussing her research into the period, why the Florida Panhandle caught her attention as a setting, how she creates her characters, and why she chose to publish on Amazon Kindle after years of writing for large New York publishers.  Welcome, Ruth!

Writing a WWII novel 
Ruth Francisco  

Ruth Francisco worked in the film industry for 15 years before selling her first novel Confessions of a Deathmaiden to Warner Books in 2003, followed by Good Morning, Darkness, which was selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the ten best mysteries of 2004, and The Secret Memoirs of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

She now has nine novels, including the bestseller Amsterdam 2012, published as ebooks. She currently lives in Florida. 

Tell us about your novel.

Camp Sunshine is based on the true story of Camp Gordon Johnston, a WWII amphibious training camp on Florida's desolate Gulf coast.

Here, twenty thousand young recruits test themselves to the limit in love and combat; politicos and tycoons offer aid with one eye to profit; women patrol the coast on horseback, looking for German subs; a postmaster's daughter, the only child on base, inspires thousands with her radio broadcasts; and a determined woman bravely holds together her family and the emotional soul of the camp.

But when Commanding Officer, Major Occam Goodwin, discovers a murdered black family deep in the forest, he must dance delicately around military politics, and a race war that threatens the entire war effort. Amid tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, the fate of the soldiers and their country hangs perilously in the balance, as each endeavors to find his destiny.

What's the most important thing in writing an historical novel as opposed to other fiction?

In a word, research. I did an incredible amount of research for this novel. The vastness of my ignorance when it came to WWII military history was epic, so I had to do epic amounts of reading. I interviewed WWII vets. I visited WWII museums, especially photo archives. I watched WWII Army training films. Camp Gordon Johnston had a newspaper written by the troops, called The Amphibian, and I spent a month reading every issue on microfiche.

Black troops, Camp Gordon Johnston
Research can surprise you and can lead you in new directions. In my research, I learned of the Double V campaign, which was an African-American civil rights movement intent on integrating the armed services during WWII. I'd never heard of it, and found it fascinating. Suddenly, I found myself with a subplot, which added depth to the novel. It made the story important.

When writing historical fiction, how free can you be with historical fact? It is fiction, after all.

Certain things you can't mess with. Big events. You can't have the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1940. If your characters talk about the song “White Christmas” in 1942, you better be sure that it was written by then. Your readers are smarter than you are. They know more history. They make sport of catching oxymorons.

With lesser known events you can use “artistic license,” especially for little-known historic characters. For instance, I read that two twelve-year-old girls ran a radio station out of Panama City for WWII pilots in training. So I had my postmaster's daughter do the same thing, although the “real” postmaster's daughter was not a DJ. I changed the names of some of the officers who ran the camp because I wanted to involve them in a crime. You can make an historic character a murderer, but you have to be careful. It has to make sense.

In other words, with minor characters, motivations, thoughts, and feelings—let your imagination run wild. Historic events, details—stick to the facts.

Do you have any “tricks” for historical novel writing?

I study photos. I study the clothes and hairstyles. I try to imagine what the people are thinking in the picture, what came before the picture was taken, what came after. When I wrote The Secret Memoirs of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, I wrote almost exclusively from pictures. For instance, the famous picture of Jackie leaving the White House for the inaugural ball—I started with the event, then had her remember all the events that led up to that moment. One picture was an entire chapter.

In this book, I was particularly captured by the photos of WWII training maneuvers, and tried to imagine how an eighteen-year-old boy would react to having bombs explode all around him, waist-high in a swamp, stepping on creepy-crawly creatures. How frightened he must've been. There's a picture of civilian women sewing uniforms for the soldiers, and I get such a sense of dedication and sacrifice—so alien to our culture.

I also read a lot of fiction from the era, which is loads of fun, attentive to jargon, word usage, and attitudes. I listened to a lot of WWII era radio, G.I. Jill, Command Performance, all those great WWII shows. I also studied the pop culture of the era, the songs and dances.

You cannot assume people in another era would behave as you might to a situation.

I recall seeing the 1982 film The Return of Martin Guerre, set in 16th-century France, how tense and wild the people seemed, and it struck me profoundly—if you lived in an environment where you were constantly challenged, constantly on guard for a knife, constantly suspicious, constantly hungry, of course it would make you different. Writers often get caught with their characters having the same values and feelings of contemporary people. But people are different. The lines they will not cross. Their values. Their expectations. You have to use all the resources available to put yourself there. Imagine with all five senses, how things smelled and tasted.

Why did you add a mystery element to an historical novel?

The reason I tend to stick to the mystery/thriller genre, even when I'm writing an historical novel, is that I think it really helps to focus storytelling. A mystery demands a certain pacing. It demands parceling out of clues and information. It forces you to reveal character through action. I feel it really helps me as a writer to have a structured genre.

Where did you get the idea for your WWII story?

When I first drove to the Florida Panhandle from Los Angeles five years ago, I was smitten by the unspoiled beauty of the place. Thousands of Monarch butterflies flitted around my car as I drove down to Alligator Point. The first morning I woke to mullet jumping in the canal and screeching great blue herons. I looked out the window and saw snowy egrets and bald eagles. White squirrels jumping between branches of the pine trees. I had to write about this area.

One day I met a fisherman throwing a cast net into the water and asked him to show me how. We got to talking. When he heard I was a writer, he told me a local story about several dozen soldiers who lost their lives during a WWII training exercise while at Camp Gordon Johnston, how the tragedy was covered up.

Camp Gordon Johnston

So a few weeks later, I visited the WWII museum in Carrabelle, Florida and started doing research and interviewing people. I got completely sucked into the research, spending hours in the museum reading old newspapers. Everything fascinated me—especially the newspaper advertisements—from girdles to hair tonic. I started interviewing locals. Everyone had something to add.

I got overloaded with info, and had to step back for a few years. It wasn't until I interviewed Vivian Hess, who had been a little girl on the Camp Gordon Johnston Army base, that I felt I had a hook. Her stories were enchanting, and I felt I had to tell the story.

How do you keep a book character-driven when you have historical events that have to be covered? 

You almost have to approach your characters as if you were an actor, imaging how you would feel, how you would react to historical events.

Despite all the WWII coverage, Camp Sunshine is definitely character-driven—told from the voices of an officer, a soldier, a little girl, and the wife of the postmaster. However, there were some factual events—like the drowning of dozens of soldiers in a training incident—that I had to include in the plot. And there were other historical elements I wanted to include, like the Black Regiments, and the Higgins crafts. It was hard, but extremely enjoyable to figure a way to integrate them into the story.

How do your characters “come” to you? How closely are they based on real characters or people you know? 

The character Vivian Thatcher is based on my interviews with Vivian Hess, the real postmaster's daughter. Yet, as I wrote about her, the character separated herself from the real person, becoming increasingly impish and inventive. I wanted Major Goodwin to be a man of absolute integrity, but as I wrote him, he took on depth, becoming a man of great sorrow and great compassion. Vivian's mother was somewhat based on my own mother, but soon she became this incredibly strong woman who'd made great sacrifices, yet still yearned to be adventurous and free.

In my experience, you have a vision for your characters, but then, as the story unfolds, they become their own person. Some take on characteristics of friends and family. The imagination works from what it knows. It is a little odd. Like giving birth to children—you don't really know how they'll turn out. Inevitably, they turn out more interesting than you could possibly imagine.

What do you hope your readers come away with after reading your book? 

I hope readers will feel as if they’ve time-traveled back to 1943. They'll hear the big band music and blues, and sense the incredible vitality of the whole country pulling together for the war effort. It inspires me how selfless people were. When I started the research, I didn't know that the Civil Rights Movement had its beginnings in WWII with soldiers agitating for an integrated military. I didn't know about jook joints. I didn't know about how the industrial war complex manipulated the war effort, how it all affected race relations in the South. So I hope readers will be as fascinated as I was with the history, as well as being entertained with the antics of the characters.

You have been traditionally published by two big publishers. Why did you decide to publish directly to Kindle?

I got started publishing on Kindle several years ago. My publisher turned down my fourth book, Amsterdam 2012, which was highly controversial. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie and his publishers was still fresh in their minds. So I published to Kindle and sold 1000 books the first weekend. I suddenly realized how quickly the whole publishing industry was changing.

At one time, agents discouraged writers from publishing on Kindle, thinking it would prevent the book from getting sold to a traditional publisher. But that is no longer true (Fifty Shades of Grey case in point). Traditional publishers now routinely offer contracts to people who have published ebooks. I no longer have patience to wait for my agent to sell a book. That can take six months. Then a year to get published once you sign a contract.

But if you published an ebook, you are selling books in a day. You are getting responses from readers. You can make changes based on those responses, if you want to. You have an open dialogue with your readers. They become part of the writing process, part of the storytelling process, in an almost traditional way—as if they were sitting around a campfire, reacting to your story. I love this. And if the book gets picked up by a DTB publisher, I will have a better book.

Anything else you'd like to add?

Maybe a few words for new writers.

Don’t wait for an agent. Don’t wait for a publisher. I am a huge advocate for Kindle publishing both for new writers and established writers. You can immediately make some money from your writing, which makes you feel like a writer. You get immediate feedback from readers, which is exciting, improves your work, and makes you realize that, yes, you are writing for an audience. You can make changes on your published material. Traditional publishing is on its way out: it is no longer economically sustainable for publishers; it is too slow to respond to the marketplace; and people are more mobile than ever—they don’t want to lug around a library of books every time they move.

Simply put, Kindle writing is the future of writing: exciting, dynamic, and very likely more profitable for writers. It makes literature suddenly relevant to readers in a new way.


Camp Sunshine is available on Amazon Kindle at $3.99.  Visit the author on Twitter at @kayakruthie and on Facebook.


  1. What an interesting interview. This sounds like a fascinating book and I will definitely download it to read. It is always enlightening the way different authors do historical research. I also find so much in pictures beyond what it obvious so I can understand that as a research method. I am also big on music of a particular time, even though I am not a writer. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

  2. One thing I wanted to add was how much FUN writing historical novels is, especially all the fascinating trivia. For instance, this is how much Winston Churchill drank during his typical day during WWII:

    A glass of white wine at breakfast; a midmorning scotch and soda; lunch, port, followed by Pol Roger champagne, then a brandy or two, perhaps a beer; before dinner another whiskey (Johnnie Walker Red Label); diner, more champagne, several brandies; before retiring, a port or two, and a final weak whiskey as he worked into the night.

    The things you discover when doing research.....

    (From William Manchester's, "The Last Lion")


  3. A wonderful informative interview, particularly the advice to new (and perhaps old) writers: "... Don't wait for an agent ..." !

  4. This sounds like a fascinating book, kept from being a stereotypical war novel by the subtext of the battle for integration.

    About the other: don't know about trading on the Onassis name. But that's just me.

  5. My husband and I drove through Carrabelle FL last year and were amazed to discover its' ties to WWII. Thank you for bringing this mostly forgotten story to life. I am going to get a Kindle just to read your book! Isn't the "Forgotten Coast" beautiful? It's so unspoiled and like time left it.

  6. Your novel sounds fascinating and I must read it. I equally enjoyed your description of how a novel grows with, under, through and sometimes even becomes submerged in research! Perhaps most of all, you impress me with your take on the publishing industry. As you've successfully published with the big houses, your perspective resounds with experience and hard-won wisdom that I'll take seriously in my own career evolution as a writer (as someone who has recently spent a lot of time waiting for an agent).
    Thanks for a great post! Kelly

  7. Citronyella--

    Yes, the "Forgotten Coast" is an amazing place. Even when you live here, you feel as if you are a guest, tolerated by the animals and birds. When looking out my window in the morning, it seems as if I'm in a zoo, only I'm the one in a cage, the animals free to roam.

    In my book, I write a scene where the soldiers are on the train taking them to camp for the first time, crossing the Ochlockonee River. They are awed--feeling as if they are passing into another world, the edge of destiny.


    1. K. Lyn Wurth--

      Yes, please do not wait for an agent. I've written a number of blogs, etc. with info to help writers make that leap to epublishing.,42600.0.html

      Kboards is a forum with a lot of useful information, especially in the Book Bazaar/Writer's Cafe forum.

      Good luck. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me via Kboards.


    2. Thanks, Ruth! I really appreciate it.