Friday, 25 May 2018

#Aye. Ken it wis like this...with Dan Morales

Series image - Dunkeld Cathedral 
My Friday series continues...
where guest authors are invited to share a post with us about the historical background to their writing. Today, I'm delighted to welcome a new author guest, Dan Morales, whom I've met on the Historical Novel Society page on Facebook. Tim's here to share his very-recently published debut novel with us, which reminds me very much of my primary teaching days when I had to teach WW2 to my classes of 11-12 year olds. I always enjoyed teaching all historical eras, but WW2 had so many aspects that could be focused on. Though, I have to say that the premise for Dan's novel never occurred to me, back then! 

In addition to a very intriguing post about the background, Dan's sent along some great scene-setting illustrations. Welcome to my blog, Dan - please tell us what historical circumstances surround your novel . 

Nancy, thank you so kindly for having me.

My debut novel, The Scouts of St. Michael: OPERATION ARCHANGEL was inspired by a comment made by the late great Capt. Eric Brown of Royal Air Force fame. Through some extraordinary events, as a young man Capt. Brown, an ex-boy scout, spent an extended period of time as a guest of the Hitler Youth on a visit to pre-World War II Germany (war was declared while he was visiting and he was escorted to the border with his automobile and instructed to leave the country). 

The ‘Eureka’ bulb flashed in my head. “Boy Scouts vs. Hitler Youth!” I had never read a story that pitted the two like-but-very-different foes against each other and it sounded like a story others might be interested in reading. I figured if the tale was ever going to be told, I was going to have to tell it. But the spark of an idea and tag-line does not a story make and that’s all I had, so I started the writing process by reverse engineering my story.  What does that mean?

Being a Yankee, my mind immediately imagined my story with American Boy Scouts as the protagonists. But historically speaking, the United States didn’t enter World War II until 1942 and the fighting took place thousands of miles away. Those two facts meant that trying to create a plausible piece of historical fiction would present a huge challenge. 

In my case, the basic premise of my story dictated when and where the setting had to be.

My solution was to make my boy scouts English. Problem solved. The timing could now be correct; the setting would be England, summer 1940, when the Germans were already in France and parked on the doorstep and threatening England with Operation Sea Lion and invasion (which as we all know, thanks to brave actions of the RAF Few, was scrapped). 

Once I decided on time and general place the real work of research began. I literally pulled up an online map and started looking for a small village located in southern England, between London and the coast, all within the sight and reach of Nazi air raids and bombers.

St. Laurence Church in Hawkhurst, inspiration for 
St. Michael’s Church and Boy’s Home. 
Image - courtsesy of Dan Morales
I was drawn to the village of Hawkhurst in Kent simply because it had an interesting-sounding name.  As it turned out, I picked a good one.  From Wikipedia: “Hawkhurst has over 1,000 years of recorded history. The oldest known settlement was the Saxon manor of Congehurst, which was burnt by the Danes in 893 AD. There is still a lane of this name to the east of the village.”

As I came to learn Hawkhurst has a sorted past, being home to a group of thieves, highwaymen and smugglers back in the 18th century. They were known far and wide as “The Hawkhurst Gang,” which I was able to incorporate into my story, as my main characters are six orphans from the fictitious St. Michael’s Home for Boys, which is also based on an actual location in the village of Hawkhurst. The Church of St. Laurence served well as an ideal setting for the home and its cast of characters.

Covert workshop at Trevor Square, 
Knightsbridge, South Kensington 
– used by the SOE as Camouflage, 
Photographic and Make-Up Section, 
Station XVa.
-image courtesy of Dan Morales
I won’t sugar coat the process. At times it felt very daunting to be writing about a place I knew little about, had never visited and could only see on the internet in its current state, not as it stood back in 1940. I often asked myself, “What do you think you’re doing?  You live in Chicago. You can’t possibly pull this off.”

Oh but for the help of a very patient and very kind publisher, who just happened to have grown up in the village of Worthing on the southern tip of England. Saints be praised! He suggested I hire an English editor, which I did. He also suggested books I should read, movies I should watch and gave me innumerable tips on what I had gotten right and wrong. I had gotten less wrong than right but with an open mind and years of experience in advertising (where rule No. 1 is don’t fall in love with your work), I took the feedback and direction constructively and set out working to make it as right as I could. 

“Stately ‘ome” Arisaig House, Arisaig, Invernessshire
 used as STS 21: Commando-style Training School
-image courtesy of Dan Morales
As for other locations, in the course of the story the boys are approached by the powers that be to become part of a special team of undercover agents (for the newly formed Special Operations Executive) which then moves them all around England and Scotland to covert training schools, which were like day camp for adults. All of these locations were/are actual places, many in grand country houses (famously referred to as the “Stately ‘omes”) used by the SOE in 1940 and were easy to find listed in great detail on Wikipedia.

Would I do it again? Of course, actually I’m doing it now. Book II in the St. Michael series is set in occupied France and Nazi Germany, but I’m approaching the writing of this part of the story differently.
Much like in the movie business, this time round I’m “scouting” locations for the major story events.  The research/writing process has been underway for several months now and I’m learning more about France and Germany than I ever thought I would, but that’s awesome. Each bit is another possible storyline to investigate.

(Mont St. Michel in Francejust one of the many interesting 
places I hope to take readers in Book II of the Scouts of St. Michael series - Image courtesy of Dan Morales) 

For me writing has always been as much a learning process as it has a creative one. And there’s nothing more inspiring than diving headfirst into extensive research when trying to create an engaging and realistic world for my characters to inhabit and my readers to get lost in.

Buy link

Find more information here:
about the novel
about Dan Morales 

All images are in the public domain and/or permissions to use are available.

Thank you very much for sharing your debut novel's background with us today, Dan. I wish you the very best for all of your writing projects, current and future.


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