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Why Is World War II Such A Popular Subject For Historical Fiction Right Now?


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Around the year 2000 I had an idea for a book about British aristocrats who aided Hitler during WWII. I sent the idea to my agent who replied with a scathing letter that nobody was interested in WWII, and it was disgusting to show people having an easy time in the British countryside when so many were suffering on the Continent.

So, I put the idea aside. Many years and a new agent later, I found it again and decided it would still make a good story.  I shared it with my current agent who loved it. It was snapped up by Lake Union (Amazon’s women’s fiction line) and came out as IN FARLEIGH FIELD. It has since sold half a million copies.  Since then, I have written THE TUSCAN CHILD, THE VENICE SKETCHBOOK and my upcoming title, WHERE THE SKY BEGINS. All featuring aspects of life during the Second World War. THE TUSCAN CHILD has sold close to a million copies worldwide and The Venice Sketchbook is on its way to repeating that success. So clearly people are interested in WWII.

In the past few years there have been many successful novels about the war—I’ll give you some suggestions at the end of this.  It seems the appetite for these books is unquenchable. So why now?

I believe that a primary reason is that we are now far enough away from the war that it has become history and the generation who fought it is now largely dead. If we don’t read and write about it, the details will be forgotten. Grandpa’s legacy will vanish. Immediately after the war there were firsthand accounts, of battles and bravery: all by men. Escape from Colditz, The Dam Busters, Kennedy and his PT Boat.

But what about the quiet bravery of women? The unsung heroines who delivered the big planes to air bases (and the government would not pay for their burial should those planes crash). The female spies, operating radios in occupied Europe, whose chance of survival was twenty-five percent. And the women on the home front who made do, without their menfolk, who endured nights of bombing and couldn’t show fear to their children.  So many stories waiting to be told.

Lives were lost but it was worth it in the end. This is what we hope for now. This is why we read and write about WWII.

This is what the recent books have tried to do. My own books have highlighted female bravery: the woman who risked her life to bring food to a downed airman in occupied Italy, the woman who spied for her country and paid the price, the woman who worked at Bletchley Park and could tell nobody what she was doing, and in my new book . WHERE THE SKY BEGINS, the woman who is pulled from the rubble of her bombed house and has to reinvent herself when evacuated to the countryside.

Another important reason for telling these stories is that WWII was the last war for which we had a clear sense of good versus evil. Men joined up willingly knowing that if they did not stop evil it would swallow the world. Every war since has been clouded in shades of gray and questions as to whether we were doing the right thing. The themes resonate even more as we have recently witnessed extremism, racial attacks, propaganda and lies and how they can affect and divide a population. In recent months we have seen a brutal dictator set out to conquer a neighboring country. We have seen cities destroyed by bombs, refugees fleeing. War has been brought home to us, making us feel insecure, reminding us of the fragility of peace.

And so it is appealing to read about another time, another place, when the world was in turmoil, where there was no safe haven, when people risked their lives to stop a madman. And goodness and justice prevailed. Lives were lost but it was worth it in the end. This is what we hope for now. This is why we read and write about WWII.

Here are some of my recent favorites, highlighting various aspects of the war. Some are mysteries, some are thrillers, others straight historical novels.

In no particular order:

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THREE HOURS IN PARIS by Cara Black

This is a classic thriller, another Day of the Jackal in which a female sharpshooter is sent to assassinate Hitler in Paris. You won’t breathe until the end!

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THE ROSE CODE by Kate Quinn

The hidden history of Bletchley Park where three unlikely friends, ordinary women, change the course of the war. A debutante, a spinster and an impoverished dreamer have to work together in breaking the enigma code.

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THE SECRET KEEPER by Kate Morton

An old woman’s wartime secret is gradually revealed as she slips into dementia. A young girl witnesses a horrific crime involving her beloved mother. Fifty years later she has to get to the truth about what happened in war-torn London.

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WOMAN IN THE SHADOWS by Jane Thynne

One of the books in a tense series set in Berlin with a British woman. A British born actress, now a rising star in Nazi Germany, risks her life to find the truth about an SS bride.

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THE CHILBURY LADIES CHOIR by Jennifer Ryan

The women of an English village decide to take over the church choir when the men go off to fight and we see their struggles and triumphs on the home front. Not all wartime books need to be grim. A delightful tale of how ordinary countryfolk rose to the occasion.

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THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY (Mary Ann Schafer, Annie Burrows)

One of my all-time favorites—a seemingly light-hearted tale gradually peels away layers of courage, heartbreak and German brutality to show what the island of Guernsey went through during the war.  A writer in post war England thinks she is on to a charming and light story, but as she gets to know the characters she learns of love and bravery and loss that binds them together.

And I’ll add mine:

WHERE THE SKY BEGINS, coming out August 2, 2022—a woman is pulled from the rubble of her bombed home in London she must reinvent herself in the countryside where a bomber base means she has not escaped from danger and a traitor is a work.

These are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this era in historical fiction. So many settings and themes—Paris dressmakers, Russian female pilots and just the simple bravery of ordinary people reminding us that it’s people like you and me who can change the course of history.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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