For the #238 Nov 2021 issue of Writers’ Forum, I interviewed Jules Wake about the research for her historical novel inspired by Latimer House.
Jules told me she had no intention of writing a historical novel but the idea for The Secrets of Latimer House was one of those wonderful, serendipitous times when a fully formed idea just popped into her head, literally overnight, inspired by a talk by the real life events that took place at Latimer House in Buckinghamshire during World War II. The house, home to a secret POW camp housing senior officers of the German armed forces, was bugged from top to bottom, so that their every conversations could be recorded.
She explained that this in itself was fascinating, however what really sparked her interest was the number of women at the house who were involved in a wide variety of roles from interrogating prisoners, translating transcripts from German to English and analysing data through to compiling intelligence reports.
“Writing a historical novel during lockdown presented quite a challenge compared to writing my next novel The Cosy Cottage in Ireland, written by my alter ego, Julie Caplin. For this I was able to rely heavily on You Tube videos to visit numerous tourist locations by proxy.”Jules Wake
Jules elaborated that when it came to writing The Secrets of Latimer House, she had to be more innovative because she couldn’t use a lot of the usual channels for her historical research during the lockdowns. she told me she would have normally started by visiting the Imperial War Museum or the National Archives at Kew which holds many of the original reports and documents from Latimer House. Unfortunately, with the National Archives closed, she couldn’t do as much original research as she would have liked, so had to do a lot of desk research instead.
This involved reading a lot of books. Jules told me she read a number of reference books for research and was careful to find a second source of the same information and to use historical accounts as inspiration to create fictional versions. For example, in one reference book there was a detailed account of how someone was recruited to work at Latimer. Jules described how she created a fictional alternative to this scene by reading up on the process from different sources.
She explained that Michael Smith’s, The Debs of Bletchley Park, gives several different accounts of Wrens being recruited to Bletchley Park, as does Sara Baring’s autobiographical account of her life at Bletchley in The Road to Station X. From these she constructed her own recruitment scene based on the sort of things that would have happened, rather than on exactly what did happen.
Jules said reading more generally about wartime Britain was also invaluable, enabling her to write with a better understanding of what ordinary people experienced during the war. It gave her a flavour of what people’s lives were like and their different attitude towards everything from views on foreigners, bombing raids and joining up through to American GIs, the black market and rationing.
“As my story is narrated in third person but from the view point of three different characters from very different backgrounds, it was important for me that each of them used the right sort of language. I nearly came a cropper when I wanted to use the phrase, ‘in slow motion’. The technique of slow motion in films hadn’t been invented in 1943! I also spent a lot of time googling the origin of phrases and items that we take for granted.”Jules Wake
She particularly recommends reading self-published titles, which can be goldmines of information as they’re often written by real enthusiasts and experts with access to first-hand accounts. For example, Derek Nudd’s Castaways of the Kriegsmarine (his grandfather was actually the Commander at Latimer House) is an incredibly detailed account of information garnered from prisoners at the house, which gave Jules a lovely insight into what went on at the house, including the fact that prisoners were taken out on trips. This allowed her to create her own scene of prisoners being driven around London which was loosely based on true accounts of prisoners going out on journeys designed to undermine their confidence in the success of the German bombing campaigns.
She revealed, the accounts of the German Jews living at Latimer house who worked as listeners and translators, including Egon Brandt and Franz Lustig were invaluable. Both were German Jews who had escaped to Britain and their memories helped shape one of her characters, in particular their views of the German prisoners and the work they were doing.
Her advice to writers of historical fiction is to use your research to inform and direct but not to let yourself be led by it. Readers want to know that they are in safe hands but hate being patronised by too much superior knowledge.
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