Writing historical fiction is tricky to begin with— dodging the deadly slings and arrows of ridiculously overly researched, smarty-pants narrative history dumps, often at the expense of our beloved characters. Trickier still: How does a middle-aged-heterosexual woman in 2015 write about sexual awakening of a male soldier in WWII? One can’t even fall back on cliché because…back to my opening sentence: it was love unspoken and unwritten. Homosexuality was a criminal offence under civil law and convicted service personnel risked court martial and dishonorable discharge. See what I mean? There was an accidental history dump.
In my book, A Wake For The Dreamland, the world is on the brink of war and friends William, Robert and Annie are on the cusp of adulthood. Haunted by memories of a boyhood dalliance with a lad and more than platonic feelings for Robert, William feels shame and longing to be ‘normal’. But these are not normal times. Every arena of their young lives is infiltrated by the war, from the home front to the underground of queer London to the battlefields of Italy.
The moment I knew I was writing a love triangle, I also knew that William would be gay. It seems strange to say this but I knew he was gay before he did. That is to say, I understood that the emotional stakes were very high and that it was up to me, to write his experience in the most authentic and honourable way possible. When I began writing in 2003 there was scant information available on homosexuality in WWII. But there were a couple new documentary films and a few excellent books. I had the benefit of a thoughtful archivist who remembered cataloguing a collection of love letters between two men from the 1940’s. And then, there was mustering the courage to come right out and ask the veterans who were helping me with the military aspect of my research. It wasn’t always easy and I experienced some kick-back along the way. There was the retired Major who, upon listening to my ‘Reader’s Digest Condensed’ version of the novel, declared, “Not in this Regiment!” That nearly sent me scurrying into re-write mode but another veteran friend, 90 years old at the time, reassured me that of course there were gay men in the unit. It didn’t bother anyone so long as they were a good soldier and did their job. I guess if you’re a good killer it doesn’t matter what kind of lover you are. There was the indignant participant at a workshop where I read an excerpt. She demanded to know, “Does your veteran friend know you’ve turned him into a homosexual?” I admit I had some fun with that one.
Where the truth lies, is the no man’s land where historical fiction writers tread. Writing the love that dare not speak its name during WWII and the aftermath was like crossing a minefield that could end in disaster. Confinement to a particular time and place in history: truth; gave me a scaffold upon which my imaginary friends could play out their infinite and intimate struggles and triumphs: lies. It was the ‘story’ in history that mattered to me. Nothing else. I kept reminding myself not to be afraid to be afraid, that this was not a story about war as much as it was a story about love. Those rushes of adrenalin were there to remind me I was on the right track.
Those of us writing historical fiction are excused from that old prescriptive chestnut: write what you know. But if we know something about friendship and love, fear and longing, grief and loss— that understanding will allow our characters to rise from the page and into the very hearts of our readers. The rest, as they say, is history. And my closing advice to anyone is simply this: Soldier on.
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Excerpt from A Wake For The Dreamland
It was London where he felt most alive. Where he could walk the line between civilian and serviceman, where he could connect with other Allied soldiers for whom the city held the same degree of safety and danger, possibility and peril, sociability and sex. At the Buckingham Gate Urinal or alongside the Albert Tavern, behind two telephone booths, he could steal a kiss or more…gratify his longing. There, or Charing Cross Station, or the gardens in Trafalgar Square.
But it was at Cyril and Lou’s apartment, in an enclave of others like himself, that he first slept in the arms of a man, a lover. There, for three days and nights, the sport he endured and enjoyed came as close to killing him as the war ever would— and it was heaven. Spending each waking moment in the pursuit, the act, or recovery from every conceivable means of lovemaking. To sleep: however briefly, only to be awakened by hunger in the belly, mouth, or groin. And listening: to music, to poetry – reading and writing it, too— and eating and drinking and tumbling, tumbling willy-nilly into bed again.
In the city her learned the language of his type: invisible to passersby, visibly to each other. He learned to go from being hunted to being the hunter. He learned to find his way in the dark, to seek an encounter, to be less afraid, less alone, seduced by the allure of safety and privacy where he could be himself without fear of discovery. And yet. While the other fellows were sleeping it off and the mantle clock in the parlour squeezed out the minutes until dawn, a sickening sadness would sneak through his limbs and curl up in a ball at the foot of his heart.
Laurel Deedrick-Mayne was born and raised in Lacombe, Alberta but has spent her adult life as a city dweller and now makes Edmonton her home. Once an arts administrator (dance publicist, concert promoter and ad copywriter) Laurel has become a juggler: raising a family, managing her private massage therapy practice, serving on multiple arts boards … and writing. This book is a tribute to the generation of her parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles who took the time to hang on to family letters, clippings, stories, and poetry — all those treasures that inspired this story. A Wake For The Dreamland is Laurel’s first novel.