Thursday, July 14, 2022

Rhys on the Serendipity of Research.

 

RHYS BOWEN:  one of my favorite parts of writing is the research. It's like going down a rabbit hole every time. I'm looking for one thing and suddenly I discover something else you hadn't considered or thought about before and suddenly you have a new aspect of the story! It's always an absolute gift.

I have a new book coming out at the beginning of August. WHERE THE SKY BEGINS.  It’s another WWII book, this time set in England, close to a bomber command base where the young men took off for Germany every night and half of them didn’t return in the morning. That meant they were courting death every day, making the most of even the most simple of pleasures, knowing it might be their last.

So how did I come up with this story? Little did I know that what I was doing as research for one story would the catalyst for another. Well, you can thank my friends Penny and Roger Fountain for that. They are old and dear friends (we were in college together. I shared a flat with Penny when she met Roger. We’ve stayed in touch over the miles, when they moved to Canada and then came back to England. Since then I’ve stayed with them every time I’m over there. Roger converted an old stables into a fabulous house for them in Lincolnshire.

  It’s the flattest part of the country, rather like Holland with fields below sea level separated by dykes and channels of water. The sky is enormous and you can see church spires miles away. Because it is so flat, and it faces the coast of Europe, most of the bomber bases were established there, including the USAF bases when they joined the war.










When I was writing THE TUSCAN CHILD Roger and Penny took me around several of the old air bases that are now preserved as museums. We saw a Blenheim Bomber in flight (which featured in the Tuscan Child). I was able to climb up into a Lancaster bomber. I examined parachutes, flight suits, helmets and letters home, often written by men who did not return. And during those visits I found out that the survival rate for a bomber crew was 50 percent. As a new pilot or radio operator or gunner you were lucky if you made it through six weeks. That really stuck with me—and yet young men kept volunteering, knowing how slim their chances were. One of my characters says He’d rather do something proactive than be a sitting duck on the ground.


So these young men haunted me and I realized that I wanted to write about them. How to tackle the story? I didn’t want to write the traditional brave and foolhardy pilots story from a male point of view. So the story focuses on a woman who is evacuated to the countryside, right next to one of these bases.  Her home has been bombed. She’s been rescued from the rubble with nothing. How do you start again when you don’t even have the basic necessities of life?

Well, if you are Josie you make the best of it.  You survive against all odds and you work at making life a little better for those young men, only to find there may be a spy in their midst.

I get letters about my WWII books asking why the story couldn’t have ended happily. Couldn’t Leo have survived? They ask about the Venice Sketchbook. And little Hanni and the countess?

Well, the simple answer is that there wouldn’t have been much of a story if it had all ended well. There would have been no need for Caroline to find out her aunt’s secret history. But also we have to face the fact that many stories about war do not end happily. There is senseless killing, lives and homes destroyed, survivors who will never be the same again. That is why I continue to write about it, to remind people of the awful consequences of extremism and war.

When you read Josie’s story in three weeks from now, let me know what you think.

35 comments:

  1. Despite the awful consequences of war and the likelihood that far too many of those pilots won’t make it back to the base, I’m hooked, Rhys . . . I can’t wait to read Josie’s story!

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  2. What Joan said! I always look forward to your standalones, Rhys.

    Also, your post made me think about how many of the oldest veterans in this country are starting to be my peers and those a bit older - the Vietnam war vets. Many who made it home were not welcomed with parades and celebrations but with protests and scorn, and it scarred them deeply.

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    1. That was the big divide, wasn't it, Edith. The WWII vets came home as heroes. They thought they'd done something good. My father was a proud vet all his life. Went to reunions and parades. But after Vietnam they were vilified, even though they had no choice in the matter.

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  3. Everyone has such a treat ahead with WHERE THE SKY BEGINS! Congrats on another fabulous book, Rhys!

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  4. Rhys, I am really looking forward to this book! I pre-ordered mine. Thanks for the insight into your reseach and inspiration.

    It is hard to have war as a setting without some gut-wrenching loss. Devastating as Leo's death was in Venice Sketchbook, and I cried, that was the reason for the modern day part of the story. I think it comes down to trust. Do you, as a reader, trust the author to lift you up again after breaking your heart?

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  5. Along with everyone else, I'm really looking forward to Where the Sky Begins.

    Rhys, I have to say that your series have all been well written and I've loved all your characters, plots, and the humor. But your standalone novels have shown what a truly good writer you really are. Every story is so compelling and rich, and I've been blown away by each and every one. Thank you from my heart for sharing it with us.

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  6. You’ve hit my sweet spot and my Anglophile heart with WHERE THE SKY BEGINS. I met and became friends with a couple from the Sudbury, Suffolk area and Suffolk has a number of disused airbases also. Once I happened upon a memorial monument in deep country in Northamptonshire commemorating US airmen and I have visited Chilbolton in Hampshire where my husband’s uncle was based as an American pilot during WWII. I have WHERE THE SKY BEGINS on pre-order and am very much looking forward to it! —Emily Dame

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    1. Suffolk is very similar to Lincolnshire, where the book is set--lovely flat countryside.

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  7. « …To remind people of the awful consequences of extremism and war. « 
    Please Rhys, never stop writing. I’ll be there reading your books.
    Danielle

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  8. Rhys, I can't wait for this book. I learned a lot about the bombers, which I hadn't known, when I read a biography of Jimmy Stewart, the actor, who was a bomber pilot in WWII. It had a huge effect on his life and career, which didn't recover fully until he filmed "It's a Wonderful Life."

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    1. Now that was a hero--someone who gave up a career to fly bombers when he didn't have to

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  9. RHYS: I love, love, love everything you have written, even the stand alone novel about Caroline and someone (dual viewpoints and dual timelines). I read the chapters in one timeline then went back to read the chapters in the other timeline. I think that is how my brain is wired? Although I was fortunate to read the ARC for your new novel, I look forward to reading the finished copy and seeing the differences. I love your stories about doing research for your stand alone novels.

    Regarding research, I fell through the rabbit hole of finding a lot of interesting information, including stories about Queen Alexandra, who was a Princess from Denmark. For my novel in progress, I have been researching the historical background.

    Great post today!

    Diana

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    1. So much good material about Edward VII and his naughty life and long-suffering Alexandra

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  10. I cannot wait to read this one, Rhys. I've been looking forward to it ever since you first told us about it!

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  11. I can't wait to read this one, Rhys! Loved what you wrote today and have had similar experience - research has changed each WIP. A little story to go with: my mother had a beloved cousin in Toronto who was a pilot in the Canadian Air Force. He had a few funny stories about his time in England...but only his wife knew about the post-war nightmares. (She told my mother that) So yes, can't wait to read this story.

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    1. My friend's husband was a pilot with the Canadian air force. So brave!

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  12. My uncle was a bomber pilot in the US Army air corps in WWII and operated out of a base in England, where he met my aunt, the nurse who spent months caring for him after he had to ditch his plane. He never recovered, however, from the guilt at the destruction he was responsible for, although he made the Air Force his career after the war. My Dad was in training to be a navigator on an army cargo plane when the war ended. I'm always glad he didn't see action, because only a tiny fraction of navigators on that type of plane survived the war.

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    1. I think many young men carried that guilt all their lives. They obeyed orders but they dropped bombs on people

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    2. And they came home, when so many friends and comrades didn't.

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  13. Looking forward to the new book.

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  14. BLOGGER GREMLINS. I posted the same comment at 7, 8 & 9 am. I saw the comment get published, and then a few minutes later, poof, it was gone x3.

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    1. I'm always fighting the same gremlins, Grace. So annoying

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  15. Rhys, I remember when you were struggling to find a title for this book, and now it seems so perfect. And this is such a satisfying story. I love Josie and was rooting for her all the way. Gumption!

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  16. I am halfway through WHERE THE SKY BEGINS, and the only reason I didn't sit down and devour it in one gulp is because I'm on deadline for my own book, and have several must reads for blurbs or appearances. I agree with Debs: you are all in for a treat!

    And I will say, without giving too much plot away, that starting with an ordinary working class English woman who loses everything, including friends, in a German bombing truly grounds the story, and makes you understand on a visceral level why these young men were willing to fling themselves into the sky with such poor odds of returning.

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    1. I'm glad you're enjoying it, Julia. I wanted to show the nitty-gritty of war as it was for ordinary people. Quite pertinent now with Ukraine going on

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  17. Sounds fascinating. Looking forward to the new book!

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  18. The gremlins got me, too! Just want to say, Rhys, that the bitter comes with the sweet--especially in a time of war. Can't wait to read WHERE THE SKY BEGINS.

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    1. The gremlins are ever present, Flora. half the time I have to post as anonymous.

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  19. I have read WHERE THE SKY BEGINS (ARC) 6 times. It is one of the best WWII books ever. Great viewpoint with Josie and the bomber squad. The idea of having to start over from nothing hooked me from the start. Josie and the pilots are resilient and valiant. Now I can hardly wait for the audio(have pre-ordered). Then I can listen to WSB to my hearts content.

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  20. Can't wait to read WHERE THE SKY BEGINS! You are such a gifted storyteller, Rhys, it's like traveling through time when I read your work. Amazing.

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  21. I read Josie's story and I absolutely loved it! Way to go, Rhys!

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  22. Kathy Boone ReelJuly 14, 2022 at 5:43 PM

    Rhys, I look forward to all of your books, but I am especially excited about this one. I love that it's in England during WWII, my favorite place for WWII stories. And, I love the title and cover, too.

    I'm also a fan of research, and since my family listens to NPR so much, I guess we all are fans of the backstories and fact finding. I joke about still trying to decide what I want to do with my life, but the other night I had an epiphany of sorts. I was watching some information about Ken Burns' upcoming (September) documentary entitled The U.S. and the Holocaust, a film that "sheds light on what the United States government and the American people knew and did as the catastrophe unfolded in Europe." It airs September 18-20 on PBS, a three-part, six hours, series. As I watched this clip about the upcoming film, I thought how exciting it would be to work on such a thing, bringing together the research to show the real historical story. So, I think I want to work on documentary films when I grow up.

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  23. My husband’s closest friend was stationed at Seething. His plane was hit over Germany, but they were able to make it to France before landing. Next day returning to his base they crashed and he died. Nineteen and been in England just a few weeks. So young, such bravery!

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