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The Second World War In Historical Novels, by Paul Dowswell

A few months ago, I wrote about subjects that were perennially popular in historical fiction. One of them was the Second World War, and its prime instigators, the Nazis. This applies across the board – not just in fiction but many aspects of popular culture and entertainment: TV dramas, documentaries and films, and non-fiction of course. I have a personal interest in this, as a writer of teen historical fiction, as most of my stories are based in the 20th century.

Recently, my agent fixed up a meeting with a TV producer to discuss the possibility of presenting some documentary programmes connected to my books – especially Auslander which is set in Berlin over 1941-1943. We had a fascinating discussion but I could tell early on that we weren’t going to have a successful outcome. His opening words were ‘The market for World War Two and the Nazis is just about reaching saturation point.’

I knew what he meant. Anyone who keeps an eye on British TV will be all too well aware of how much ‘history’ we’ve had about the Second World War. This is still the case now – although for how much longer is anyone’s guess. The ‘History Channel’, dubbed ‘The Hitler Channel’ by Punk Rock legend Joe Strummer over 15 years ago, still has 16 programmes on World War Two over this week’s schedule. The ‘Discovery History’ channel has between one and three documentaries a night on the subject over the next seven days.

Focusing specifically on fiction, a look at the Amazon historical fiction best sellers tells a different story. US Amazon has only a couple of WW2 stories in its top 20. UK Amazon is swamped with Philippa Gregory’s Tudor scheming, with no WW2 to be seen. But the US Teens and Young Adult top 20 is teeming with WW2 books – 10 in all, although some are the same big sellers in a variety of formats. UK Amazon doesn’t have such a category, but bestselling authors such as Robert Muchamore have found huge success by setting some of their novels in this era.

Is the Second World War still a good bet for historical novels? It still seems to be, in my section of the market. After all, are there any baddies badder than the Nazis? (I loved the British TV comedy where two German officers work out that they must be the bad guys because they wear black uniforms and have a skull insignia on their hats.) Hitler, a dictator so lacking in humanity he made even the despicable Stalin look reasonable, still beats off stiff competition as History’s baddest apple. Was there ever a conflict on a greater scale, and with so much at stake? Seventy years after it ended we all still live with the consequences of the war. All of this makes fertile ground for an intrinsically interesting story.

Over the last decade, many teen novel runaway successes have been inspired by the subject. Those books, The Boy in Striped Pyjamas aside, often take pretty obscure corners of the war for their inspiration: Tamar, Mal Peet’s Carnegie winner, is based on British agents working with the Dutch Resistance. Markus Zusak’s bestselling The Book Thief concerns a German couple with communist sympathies, their adopted daughter and a Jew they hide in their basement. Julie Hearn’s Rowan the Strange uses the war as a backdrop to a story about a boy’s treatment for mental illness.

I think one of the keys to the success of the Second World War as a subject, especially for teenage readers, is its accessibility. This is a world of tanks, planes, machine guns and rockets – all recognisable in contemporary warfare. The home front too has telephones, cinema screens, radios, trains and cars. Teenage readers, who might regard most historical fiction as difficult to relate to, can empathise with this world.

This suits me. I’m happy to carry on writing about it as long as my publisher feels they can sell books on the subject. Reminding readers of the human consequences of war (rather than the gung ho excitement of all that ‘action’) and the perils of political extremism, seems like a worthwhile job to me. Even in its most obscure corners, there is still something fascinating and eminently readable about the Second World War. What do you think?


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AuslanderSektion 20The Cabinet of CuriositiesPowder Monkey: Adventures of a Young Sailor     Blood of the ReichThe Mathematics of Love (P.S. (Paperback))The Sultan's Wife

Writing Historical Novels

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’ve been writing WW2 fiction for years – for the adult market – yet I have heard a constant stream of “WW2 is a hard sell” from agents. This baffles me. But lately, I think the trend is turning.

    Of course, my novels are set on the American homefront (though I do have plans for one in WW2 Italy) and do not involve the military side of the war. This is the time period that I study and that I love the most, so I’m going to keep writing them regardless of what the market says.

    August 30, 2013
  2. Paul Dowswell #

    Hi Melissa,

    Thanks for your reply. Do you mean the trend with agents is turning to be more in favour of WW2 novels? The subject is still very popular in the UK, partly, I suspect, because it was our last great moment on the world stage. But it continues to fascinate me and I’ll continue to write about it as long as I can.

    September 2, 2013

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