Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades. For a complete list of her awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clich├ęs and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Forgotton Heroes of the Air War in Europe (1940-1945): An American in Bomber Command

 It is widely known that seven Americans flew in the Battle of Britain with RAF Fighter Command and that later several “American Eagle” squadrons were formed in which all the pilots were Americans. These, however, were transferred to the USAAF when the United States entered the war and deployed units to Britain. Less famous are the Americans who flew with Bomber Command, where some individual American pilots successfully resisted the efforts of the USAAF to conscript them and remained in the RAF. I’d like to tell the story of one of them here: Hubert "Nick" Knilans.

I was unable to locate a photo of Hubert "Nick" Knilans. This picture of a Canadian Lancaster Skipper is used courtesy of the Bomber Command Museum of Canada.

Hubert Knilans was born in Delavan, Wisconsin on 27 December 1917, to an Irish-American farming family. As a Catholic, Knilans grew up knowing that in his home town the white supremacist organization Ku Klux Klan was primarily anti-Catholic, although antisemitism was also prevalent. In the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Knilans hoped that war would unite Americans and put an end to racial and religious discrimination.

In April 1941, Knilans was conscripted into the U.S. army. Knilans already knew he wanted to fly, but in the USAAF he had no chance of being accepted into flight training because he did not have a college degree. Therefore, without a word to his parents, he headed for Detroit, where he arrived utterly broke. With his last dime (figuratively speaking), he bought a bus ticket to Windsor, Canada. His reception by Canadian immigration was telling. He later claimed that they greeted him with the words: “I suppose you’ve come to join the air force?” — and directed him to the RCAF recruiting office nearby. Technically a deserter or draft dodger, Knilans joined the RCAF. He later claimed that he thought he could help “restore happiness to the children of Europe” by destroying Hitler’s regime.

Two years later, after successfully completing initial and advanced flight training, Knilans (along with many colleagues) crossed to the UK by ship in order to start operational training on multi-engine aircraft. Knilans made his trans-Atlantic voyage on the Cunard ocean liner Queen Elizabeth. The former luxury liner was at this time serving as a troop transport, carrying roughly 8000 troops instead of the intended ca 2,300 passengers.

In June 1943, Knilans at last joined an operational squadron, No 619 Lancaster Squadron based at RAF Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire. From this point forward, he was known in the RAF as "Nick" Knilans, rather than by his given name. His first operational flight as skipper was on the night of July 24/25, flying against Hamburg.

In October, Knilans received word that — despite deserting from the U.S. Army two and half years earlier — he was to be transferred to the USAAF. He refused. Technically, he reported for duty was inducted as a First Lieutenant, and then detached or seconded back to the RAF to complete his tour with 619 Squadron. This was certainly a good arrangement for Knilans as his USAAF First Lieutenant’s pay was roughly the same as the salary of an RAF Group Captain. (Group Captain is the equivalent rank to Colonel in the USAAF.)

In December 1943, Knilan’s Lancaster was attacked by a night fighter on the way to Kassel. His mid-upper and tail gunners were both severely wounded, the rear gunner fatally. In addition, one engine was knocked out and the wings and undercarriage damaged. Nevertheless, Knilans managed to shake off the fighter and continued to the target. For this operation, Knilans was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). He was later to earn a British Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), two American DFCs and five American Air Medals. He only wore the DSO on his battle dress, however, because as he explained it:

“I thought it would antagonize others on the same squadron, or confirm their prejudice about bragging Yanks. That was another reason that I did not want a scantily clad girl or a humorous name painted on the aircraft assigned to me. This flying into combat night after night, to me, was not very funny. It was a cold-blooded battle to kill or be killed.” (Source: RAF Museum Website, biography of Knilans.)

By now at the latest, Knilans no longer believed he was either making the children of Europe happy nor helping eliminate racism in America. His father wrote that the local country club remained closed to Jews, while he could see with his own eyes the racism and segregation practiced by the USAAF, even in the UK.

By January 1944, Knilans was also finding it increasingly difficult to engage in the kind of saturation bombing that had become Bomber Command policy. He therefore volunteered for transfer to 617 Squadron. Although 617 had the reputation of a “suicide squadron,” largely due to the exceptionally high casualty rates experienced on a number of its high profile missions, it was also a precision bombing unit. The commanding officers of 617, notably Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire, Wing Commander "Willie" Tait and Group Captain "Johnnie" Fauquier attempted to minimize collateral damage and casualties.

Knilans was not the first American to have flown with 617. At its inception, 617 had included another American flying with Bomber Command, namely Flight Lieutenant Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy had led the flight tasked with breaching the Sorpe Dam during the “Dams Raid” in May 1943. He earned the DSO for his actions on this raid.

In April 1944, Knilans had technically completed his first tour of operations (30 operational flights) but along with his entire crew he volunteered for a second tour with 617. He was one of several pilots tasked with testing the Tallboy bomb, the latest invention of the outstanding British engineer Barnes Wallis. The 12,000 lb Tallboy, when dropped from its optimal altitude of 18,000 feet reached a velocity of 1,100 ft/second on impact — or almost the speed of sound. It could penetrate 15 ft of concrete and triggered a local "earthquake" that made it effective even if the bomb failed to make a direct hit on the target.

On the night of June 5/6, Knilans and other 617 crews contributed to the successful landings in Normandy by dropping aluminum foil to deceive German radar into thinking ships and landing craft were approaching Calais. The aircraft had to fly back-and-forth on a precise course advancing at only eight kilometers per hour to simulate approaching ships.

Following D-Day, 617 Squadron and Knilans returned to operations against strategic targets such as the V-1 and later the V-2 launch pads, submarine and E-boat pens, rail bridges and tunnels used to transport troops and equipment to Wehrmacht units fighting on the Western Front. In one raid, for example, 130 E-boats, which would otherwise have hampered Allied reinforcements to the beachheads in Normandy, were put out of action.

By now, however, Knilans “had the twitch” (in RAF jargon). Increasingly, he had odd sensations in his hands and at times lost his orientation when flying. He described it as “losing his confidence progressively.” We would call it PTSD.

Knilans’ fiftieth — and last — operation was a strike against the German battleship Tirpitz in September 1944. The Tirpitz was faster than any British battleship and armed with 12 anti-aircraft guns, 16 inch-and-a-half, 12 six-inch and 8 fifteen-inch guns, all of which could be fully elevated to shoot at aircraft. The range of her fifteen-inch guns was seventeen miles. Thirty-three attempts had already been made to sink her, and she had survived attacks from torpedo bombers, midget submarines and conventional bombs — which simply bounced off her armor.

Thirty-six aircraft of Nos 617 and 9 squadron made the attempt to sink the Tirpitz in an operation that called for the aircraft to fly first to a Red Air Force base of Yegodnik near Archangel (a twelve-hour flight). From there, after rest and refueling, the aircraft were to attack the Tirpitz from landward. Navigational aids were minimal, and Knilans along with roughly half the other RAF bombers were unable to find Yegodnik before running out of fuel. Knilans managed to put his Lancaster down in a hay field. The next day, however, all four engines cut out shortly after take-off. He restarted the engines by diving but rammed a tall pine tree while recovering from the dive. The tree broke through the nose and shattered the cockpit Perspex. Knilans, nevertheless, safely landed the aircraft at Yegodnik on three engines. Three days later, the repaired aircraft with Knilans at the controls took part in the raid against the Tirpitz, contributing to the debilitating (but not sinking) the battleship. Knilans brought his Lancaster back to Woodhall Spa on September 17, two days after the raid on the Tirpitz. It was one of only 16 of the original 36 aircraft that returned, the rest having been lost in crashes and cannibalization for repair parts rather than enemy action.

Having completed 30 operations with 617 in addition to the 20 he had flown with 619, Knilans “retired” from the RAF. When he stopped flying for the RAF, however, his transfer to the USAAF went into full effect. He was repatriated to the U.S. and employed in the training establishment. He retired from the USAAF at the end of World War Two with the rank of Major.  

Knilans vowed that after the war he would do something “constructive,” and chose teaching as the venue for that ambition. He worked as a teacher for 25 years, including two years with the Peace Corps in Nigeria. He was particularly dedicated to helping underprivileged children, particularly Mexican Americans, and also served as a counsellor in California prisons. He retired in 1978 and died in 2012. He never married.

(Sources: RAF Museum Website, John Nichol, Return of the Dambusters: What 617 Squadron Did Next)

I am trying to pay tribute to the men of Bomber Command in my most recent publications. "Lack of Moral Fibre" explores the reason why a decorated flight engineer refuses to fly on a raid to Berlin in late November 1943. The sequel, "Moral Fibre: Story of a Lancaster Skipper," will be released later this year.  

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My novels about the RAF in WWII are intended as tributes to the men in the air and on the ground that made a victory in Europe against fascism possible. 

Lack of Moral Fibre, A Stranger in the Mirror and A Rose in November can be purchased individually in ebook format, or in a collection under the title Grounded Eagles in ebook or paperback. Find out more at: https://crossseaspress.com/grounded-eagles

Where Eagles Never Flew was the the winner of a Hemmingway Award for 20th Century Wartime Fiction and a Maincrest Media Award for Military Fiction. Find out more at: https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew



Friday, January 21, 2022

Why Write? The Theme or Message: Final Reflection of Ten on Creative Writing

  When asked "why" I write, I sometimes try to explain that I am "compelled" and "inspired" Or I might say that I cannot stop, or that I am only happy when I'm working on a book.  Sometimes I try to explain that I have stories inside me that need to be told. Yet such answers ultimately boil down to a single thing: I write because I have something I want to share with others. In other words, I think I have something to say, something that is of interest - if not importance - to others beyond myself and my immediate circle, namely the theme or message of my works.



If I did not feel the compulsion to share my insights and inspiration with others, there would be no need to write them down, much less publish them. Yet for me personally, such a compulsion goes beyond the desire "to entertain." Entertainment is wonderful. We all enjoy it. It distracts us from our problems, cheers us up when we are glum, and chases away boredom. It is or should be pleasurable -- and is also mostly forgettable. "Mere" entertainment that distracts and amuses us before being superseded by the business of life -- or the next distraction.

When I write, I strive for more than entertainment. My ambition -- justified or not -- is to write books that are not forgotten the moment the last page is turned. My goal is to write books that will stay with a reader for the rest of their lives either by teaching them something or altering their attitudes and perspectives in some way. My hope is that my books can provoke thought, doubt, questions, and provide insight, new perspectives and even inspiration. In short, I want to share the things that move, agitate, concern or motivate me with others. 

I have drawn my inspiration from other humans -- from human actions through the course of history. Humans are so diverse and so complex that I have never felt the need to invent fantastical beings to supplement much less replace them. Humans have the capacity to create great works of art and technology. They have the capacity to do both immense good and devastating evil. They provide infinite inspiration.

In my travels and studies, I occasionally encountered individuals of particular courage, creativity or compassion. Some of these inspired me to write about them. In doing so, I strove to include as much biographical and historical fact as possible, while exploring psychological and spiritual components outside the historical record. My goal has always been to depict the humanity my heroes, making them more accessible to ordinary people, while highlighting their exceptional qualities as an inspiration to us. Let me give just three examples. 

Leonidas of Sparta hardly needs an introduction. He made the decision to defend the Pass at Thermopylae with his body guard of 300 Spartiates and 700 volunteers from Thespeia in order to enable the bulk of the Greek forces to withdraw and live to fight another day. Because of his sacrifice, the Greek coalition was able to field an army the following spring that definitively defeated the Persian invasion.

Yet while everyone knows about Leonidas' death, few know anything about his life. Leonidas is the subject of a three part biography, which seeks to explore what kind of man he might have been and what events (based on the historical record) combined to make him willing and able to make that heroic sacrifice. The trilogy consists of: A Boy of the Agoge, A Peerless Peer, and A Heroic King.

Balian d'Ibelin is less familiar to most, yet he was an important historical figure. Having defended Jerusalem against a vastly superior army with a garrison so denuded that there were 50 women and children for each fighting man, Ibelin negotiated a surrender that enabled the inhabitants to escape with their lives and freedom, but Saladin terms required a "ransom" payment for each person who walked free. Knowing that many people in the city were refugees, who had already lost everything, Ibelin also negotiated a lump sum payment for an estimated 8,000 paupers. When the day of payment came, however, there were 15,000 more paupers than had been covered with the lump sum (paid, incidentally, by the Hospitallers). So Ibelin offered up his own person to Saladin, surrendering his freedom until enough money could be raised from God-knew-where to pay for the poor. Saladin turned him down, but that does not detract from the profound compassion Ibelin had demonstrated.

Balian is the subject of four books that seek to reconstruct his development from a landless knight to the man Arab chroniclers describe as "like a king." The series includes his role at the Battles of Montgisard and Hattin as well as his  defense of Jerusalem in 1187 and his role as Richard the Lionheart's envoy during the Third Crusade. The final volume speculates about his life after the Third Crusade. The novels devoted to Balian are: Balian d'Ibelin: Knight of Jerusalem, Defender of Jerusalem, Envoy of Jerusalem and The Last Crusader Kingdom.

In June 1940, the fate of Western civilization hung in the balance. Nazi Germany had defeated and overrun Poland, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and France. In the United States, Congress and public opinion vehemently opposed "European entanglements." Great Britain stood alone and many in the British government advocated a negotiated deal that would have left Hitler in control of the continent of Europe for decades to come. That it did not come to that is thanks to just a few hundred RAF fighter pilots -- supported magnificently by ground crews and led brilliantly by some of the least-appreciated strategists of WWII. Yet the average age of these men was 20. Most were not old enough to vote. Many did not have a drivers' license. In their youth and naivety lay an irrepressible enthusiasm for life and as yet untarnished idealism. They could at times be remarkably juvenile, immature and irresponsible, yet they demonstrated mind-boggling selflessness -- again and again. Such heroes deserve tribute.

Which explains why there are many books and films about the Battle of Britain already! However, it noticed that the vast majority of novels about the Battle of Britain focus on a single pilot and his girl — or at most a single squadron. That is rather like trying to see a panorama through a keyhole. I chose to write a novel that widens the perspective by consciously opting for a large cast of characters and interweaving a range of plot-lines into the book. Thus, Where Eagles Never Flew isn’t just about RAF pilots on the front line, but also ground crews, controllers, the training establishment, British civilians, and Germans. RAF Battle of Britain Ace Wing Commander Bob Doe called it "the best book" he had ever seen about the Battle, adding that the book got it "smack on the way it was for us fighter pilots." 




Friday, January 14, 2022

Description: Part IX of a Ten-Part Reflection on Creative Writing

 Description is as at least as important in historical fiction as in any other kind of fiction. For an author writing about an unfamiliar period or environment (13th century Ethiopia, anyone?) descriptions are even more important because the reader cannot be expected to imagine things without more intensive assistance. In historical fiction, the author's words must often provide the images that are unnecessary in books set in our own time for which we carry around images already.


Admittedly, when talking about writing, the importance of good descriptive writing is often overlooked. I think this is because description is more a means to an end than an objective in itself. The key elements of a modern novel are plot, character and theme. We have novels that are compelling on the basis of plot alone (e.g. thrillers) and novels that are appeal solely on the strength of their characters (e.g. much literary fiction), but no novel can be convincing and successful simply because it has strong descriptions of a dull plot or uninteresting characters.

Yet good description can contribute materially to the success of a novel. Good descriptions enhance the other elements. Good descriptions also serve as a kind of mortar, binding plot, character and theme together. Good descriptions enable us to see and understand characters better, and to envisage the places/instruments/tools and events that constitute the plot.

Descriptive passages are those in which an author’s voice is most direct. Dialogue should give the characters their own voices, and plot elements are usually strongest when they are least embellished.

Last but not least, dialogue and critical plot developments are usually fast-paced. Description, on the other hand, is a means of slowing down a novel. Descriptive passages and paragraphs allow the reader to catch their breath and reflect on what is happening.

Broadly speaking, description falls into five categories:

1. Description of the setting/environment. Something that usually takes place at the beginning of a scene or change of setting/venue.

2. Descriptions of characters. Again, usually undertaken when a character is first introduced.

3. Descriptions of things. This can be clothes, buildings, means of transport, tools and technology. These kinds of descriptions tend to be particularly important in science fiction — and historical fiction, in as much as the author feels the reader is unfamiliar with, say, what a galley looked like or how people dressed in 16th Century Iceland.

4. Descriptions of action. This can either be narrative transitions from a previous scene, or intensive depictions of developments. (Plot)

5. Descriptions of mood. These are the most important descriptions in my opinion — once the baseline physical descriptions of people and places have been established.

Let me give an example of each of these from my most recent releases, Where Eagles Never Flew and Grounded Eagles.


This is from the opening chapter of “Lack of Moral Fibre” one of the three tales included in Grounded Eagles. It describes the setting of the entire book, the RAF DYDN Centre at Torquay, where the flight engineer Christopher “Kit” Moran has been sent after refusing to fly on a raid against Berlin in late November 1943. He is facing disciplinary action for “Lack of Moral Fibre” — that is cowardice.

It was disorienting to be in what had evidently been a hotel. Although now outfitted with standard-issue RAF furnishings, remnants of its former grandeur lingered in the ceiling mouldings and gracious, bay windows. If it hadn’t been sleeting, there might even have been a view to Torbay. Instead, visibility was so bad that everything beyond the windows was just a blurry white and grey. That backdrop highlighted the gloomy interior. The lobby furnishings were run-down, and four years of war had marked the inhabitants, too. Unremittingly dressed in Air Force blue, their averted faces were strained and prematurely lined.

Kit took the key, shouldered his kitbag, and found his way up two flights of stairs to room 24. While the lobby had been overheated, the hall was bitterly cold. He unlocked the door and found himself in a modest room with two twin beds. He was taken aback to find one of the beds already occupied by a man wrapped in blankets.

“Sorry! I must have the wrong room!” Kit started to back out.

“No,” a voice rose from the bed. “They double us up like this.”

“Oh, of course,” Kit nodded to himself. Why hadn’t he expected that? He’d expected far worse. He entered and closed the door behind him before introducing himself, “I’m Christopher Moran, but I go by Kit.”

“Oliver Huckle, and if you don’t mind, I don’t want to talk.” His roommate rolled over, offering his back.

“Fine by me,” Kit muttered. He didn’t particularly want to talk himself. He tossed his kitbag on the vacant bed and started unpacking his things. He’d done this countless times on countless RAF stations for almost four years now. This was just another move, one more posting. Except it wasn’t.

Kit went to the window. Sleet pelted the glass, making a high ticking sound before melting and slithering down the slick surface. His breath rapidly steamed up the inside. Kit raised an index finger to write in the condensation: LMF — for Lack of Moral Fibre.


This description introduces the main protagonist of “A Rose in November,” the second novella in the Grounded Eagles trilogy. Rhys, the son of a Welsh miner, is now a senior NCO in the RAF and a widower with two teenage children — and he’s about to get sucked into an unexpected love affair with an upper class woman.

As Rhys stared into the mirror he couldn’t grasp that he wasn’t still that overly-thin young man with black hair and eyes, but rather a man whose face had become square with flesh and whose hair was silver-grey. He’d always been short (came from generations of crouching underground, his Mum said), but back then, he’d been as frail as a jockey as well. Now he’d grown stocky. Not fat, he told himself, sucking in his stomach and squaring his shoulders for the mirror. But he’d have to watch it, he reflected as he turned sideways and considered his figure more objectively. At least his hair was still thick, he thought resignedly, as he scraped away at the crop of stubble on his cheek, careful to leave his thick, drooping moustache untouched.


The aircraft that won the Battle of Britain, the Hurricane and the Spitfire, both feature prominently in my Battle of Britain novel, Where Eagles Never Flew, but most of the characters in the novel are already pilots familiar with the aircraft and to describe it at length when in their POV would feel like the author butting in. The visit of the lead protagonist’s girlfriend to a training station, on the other hand, was a perfect opportunity to describe the Spitfire in greater detail:

Emily felt her heart in her throat for a moment as her bottom sank onto the worn seat, and she was enclosed by the smell of metal and oil and aviation fuel. Directly in front of her was the confusing instrument panel and, beyond, the snout of the mechanical beast loomed up, cutting off her view. Before she knew what she was doing, her feet settled on the pedals, and with an audible clack the rudder shifted. She jumped slightly and yanked her feet back guiltily.

“Not to worry,” Robin assured her from where he stood on the wing root. He pointed out the various instruments and the ‘joy stick.’ Emily’s thumb slid over the trigger. How easy it must be to push, she thought. The thought frightened her. She pushed herself back up and gave her hand to Robin. “Take me up in the other plane, please.”


This example of describing action is from “Lack of Moral Fibre.” It describes Lancaster engaged in the RAF night bombing offensive against the German capital and is based on primary sources, although the characters are fictional. Note: RAF bombers did not fly in formation as the USAAF, but rather flew independently to the target, navigating their own way there and back but according to a tight schedule that put them all over the target within a short timeframe of 20 to 30 minutes.

As they turned south for Berlin, however, the fierce winds were on their tail, pushing them southwards. Sailor warned that they would be over the target as much as 30 minutes early. Hamed pointed out that if that were true, the Pathfinders wouldn’t have laid down the target indicators yet. So, Selkirk throttled back and started flying long, slow zigzags across the sky to the north of Berlin to slow their southward progress. This had the advantage of giving the gunners a better view below and behind them. Yet the sky remained eerily empty until Ramsey reported: “Flares! Mid-Upper gunner to pilot: Flares to starboard.”

Selkirk banked the heavy bomber toward the flares. “Pilot to navigator: How many minutes to the target.”

“Eight to ten if we go straight in.”

“Please give me a time hack.”


“Wireless operator to pilots: Bomber Command has moved Zero Hour forward by five minutes.”

They heard Selkirk sigh over the intercom as he swung out in another lazy sweep away from the target.

“Berlin looks — Sorry — Rear gunner to pilot: Berlin looks like its on fire already.”

They turned back toward the city which was, they noticed, partially covered by cloud. This layer of rumpled fluff was rapidly turning red and yellow as if there was an inferno burning underneath. Had the other bombers gone in early? Had the raid been moved forward not five but fifteen minutes?

Without comment, Selkirk turned back toward Berlin and opened the throttles. Suddenly, another Lancaster cut across their bows no more than 100 feet away. They missed the tail fins by what felt like inches. It happened so fast that no one aboard Y-York had a chance to say anything.

After Moran’s pulse had returned to almost normal, a cold fear settled on the back of his neck. The winds had disrupted everyone’s navigation to the point that 800-something bombers were scattered all over the sky and flying every which way to get back to the target for Zero Hour. He supposed that made the risk of collision about 800 times higher than during a normal operation.

The closer they came to Berlin, the more confused the picture became. Rather than clear target indicators, there appeared to be two different flare paths, leading in divergent directions.

Hamed was the one to figure out what was going on. “Skipper! Ignore the flares at 2 o’clock! Them’s a German diversion! Can you see? Them’s some Jerry bomber laying ‘em out.”

“Well done, Teddy,” Selkirk praised.

They followed the Pathfinder flares. Strangely, the searchlights, which usually didn’t bother on a cloudy night, were probing the under-bellies of the cloud. Here and there they broke through gaps in the clouds to light up a cone of the night sky, but it was impossible for them to coordinate and triangulate on a bomber. Which seemed like a good thing until Teddy called up from his bubble. “Bomber aimer to the rest of ye: the light below the cloud is like background lighting to a puppet show! I can see dozens of Lancs out there — perfect silhouettes against the light — and so can the wild boars. We might as well be naked on a big stage!”

“There they are! Seven o’clock,” Rhodes called from the tail followed by the chattering of his guns.

The fighter were, in fact, all over the place, and soon the sky was illuminated by the flames of burning aviation fuel as one after another RAF bomber ignited.

Y-York lined up on the bomb run. Hamad was calling out: “Left. Left. Steady. Right. Steady.”

Just then a wild board homed in on a Halifax flying to port. First one and then a second engine burst into flame. The Halifax veered sharply toward Y-York, and Selkirk just managed to avoid a collision by yanking the Lancaster upward and banking away.

“You call that straight and level, Skipper?” Hamad shouted furiously. “This is supposed to be—”

The rest of his words were lost in the explosion that erupted with such violence that the Lancaster’s tail was flung upwards. They started to dive. Before Selkirk recovered control, they were engulfed by waves of molten smoke washing over the Lancaster from behind. Bits and pieces of debris rained down on their fuselage. They all heard Sam Rhodes yelp.


For me, the most important function of description is to evoke mood. The same scene or place can be depicted in a variety of ways to pull the reader into the character’s skin and see it through his/her eyes coloured by his/her mood and feelings. This example is from “A Stranger in the Mirror,” the third book in the Ground Eagles collection. The protagonist David “Banks” Goldman is a former fighter pilot who was severely burned when his Hurricane was shot down. After extensive plastic surgery to restore his face, he has been sent on leave to regain some strength before undergoing more surgery.

After Mr Bowles left, Banks cleaned up and then went for a walk. He followed a narrow footpath that led down the slope on the far side of the barn behind the cottage — and got lost in the English countryside.

At first, it was only figurative. Banks stopped thinking consciously and just let the sights, sounds and smells lead him. As he wandered, the war was forgotten, replaced with fragments of poems and melodies and pleasant memories. When he discovered a creek gurgling contentedly as it carried off last autumn’s rotting leaves, he sat down on a rock and let the sun soak his face. He wondered if the different strips of skin would absorb the sunlight at different rates, exaggerating the effect of the patchwork or if a tan would help smooth over the differences. He dozed off for a bit.

Banks was awoken by a breeze that stirred up the debris of autumn and swirled it around him. Clouds were rolling in from the West and the temperature had dropped. He got up, stiff from the damp and the hard rock. He started walking back the way he’d come but soon came to a hedgerow he didn’t remember and couldn’t cross. He turned around and tried a different path. This brought him to a stone wall he had not seen before. He had utterly lost his way.

By then, the sky was almost completely overcast, and a cold, brisk wind was blowing. Banks decided to follow the wall, thinking it might lead to a house. It didn’t. In the distance, he spotted a road, and he crossed a muddy, ploughed field to reach it. By the time he stepped out onto the dirt road, his feet were soaked, his trousers muddy, and fog had settled over the entire landscape.

Banks was hungry and frustrated. All the pleasure he had experienced earlier while discovering the beauty of Ginger’s countryside had evaporated.

The Grounded Eagles Trilogy is available in paperback or ebook format. 

The three components of the trilogy can be purchases independently in ebook format:

Buy Now!                                                         Buy Now!                                                         Buy Now!

Friday, January 7, 2022

Dialogue: Part VIII of a Ten-Part Reflection on Creative Writing

 Dialogue is particularly tricky in historical fiction because this is when the characters, who by definition live in a different age and society, come most to life. Because characters are supposed to be embedded in their own time, it is tempting to put antiquated speech into their mouths in order make them sound like they are "historical." The problem with that is that most authors don't have a good grasp on how people actually spoke in times past, and the problems get greater the farther back in time a novel is set. It is useful therefore to segment the discussion into two parts: Novels set in the ancient and medieval eras, and novels set in the last couple of centuries.


Remember, the language of every book is the language in which it is written or into which it is translated. That is not necessarily the language used by the characters in the book. Any book written in a language not used by the characters is in effect a translation. Thus for novels written about periods in the distant past or lost civilizations, the dialogue cannot accurately reproduce the language of the time and place, it can only provide a modern translation of the language used in those places and cultures.

This does not mean, however, that readers want a book set in, say, Ancient Egypt to be littered with modern American idiom. If an ancient Pharaoh is depicted speaking like Donald Trump (crude, insulting, disjointed and juvenile) then most readers will see the book as a satire of America in the Trump era rather than a work of historical fiction.

In short, if a novelist wants his/her book to be read and treated as historical fiction evoking a past time and place, then the dialogue must have a “timeless” quality about it, divorced from the jargon, dialects, and “buzzwords” of today. It is not OK for a medieval knight to say “Gotcha!” and “Waste him!” or for a Roman centurion to say “Roger that!” and “Awesome.”

However, it is just as counterproductive to use stilted, antiquated language that is, ultimately, no more accurate than modern slang, yet equally distracting to the reader. So forget the “doths,” and “thees”. Don’t replace “my” with “mine” or place adjectives after nouns (“the evening dark had set mine lady’s heart afire…”) Unless you are writing about Elizabethan England, don’t try to sound like William Shakespeare — and maybe not even then as you will undoubtedly fail.

EXAMPLE ONE: In the following excerpt from Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer

the text uses words specific to Ancient Sparta such as “kleros”, “perioikoi” and “helot” as well as terminology from the period such as himation. The characters express contemporary — not modern — notions of morality. Yet the language used is neither antiquated nor modern.

“I wanted to talk to you about something,” Nikostratos confided.

It was pitch dark, and although it had been one of those sunny days that promised the return of spring, with the sunset winter seemed to have returned with a vengeance. Leonidas paused to wrap his himation more tightly around him.

“It is not good for you to keep that perioikoi girl, the one picked up for soliciting, on your kleros. People are talking about you.”

“People, or my brother Brotus?”

Nikostratos frowned and insisted, “People — including your brother Brotus.” He stopped and faced Leonidas. “You’re a bachelor, Leonidas. You can’t keep a whore on your kleros without people talking about it.”

“You mean it would be better if I were married?”

“Yes — because then your wife would be in charge of your kleros, and since no self-respecting woman would let her husband keep a rivl under her roof, people would recognize that, whatever else the girl did, she did not warm your bed.”

“I don’t see how the temperature of my bed is anyone’s business.”

“The morality of every Spartan citizen is the business of us all,” Nikostratos reminded him.

“The girl was thrown out of her own home for being a victim of Argive brutality, and you want me to throw her out again just because some tongues are wagging behind my back? Listen: if you hear someone say a word against me, tell them to say it to my face!” Leonidas was getting worked up.

“Stop being stubborn, Leo. This doesn’t have to be blown out of proportion. This girl isn’t your kin. She is perioikoi. You are not in any way responsible for what happened to her.”

“Aren’t I?” Leonidas stopped, making Nikostratos stare at him. “Aren’t we all? What happened on Kythera was our fault. We left it undefended, then took over a week to respond. All the while, the Argives were rampaging across the island — plundering, burning, raping and murdering. There were scores of girls who suffered what Kleta did, only most of them are now dead. Because we failed them.”

“We can’t be everywhere at once.”

“We collect taxes and tolls from the perioikoi, don’t we? We demand their absolute loyalty and require them to send their sons with us as auxiliary troops whenever we operate outside our borders, don’t we? e even expect them to help put down helot unrest if necessary.”

Nikostratos was frowning. “What are you driving at, Leo?

EXAMPLE TWO: This scene from Defender of Jerusalem

shows a confrontation between King Guy of Jerusalem and one of his most powerful barons, Balian d’Ibelin, Lord of Nablus. It is extremely tense because the King has called up the feudal army to attack one of his vassals, the Count of Tripoli. Ibelin knows that an attack on Tripoli will destroy the Kingdom of Jerusalem — and so does the King’s elder brother Aimery. The language is modern (although men are referred to in the medieval fashion by their titles rather than their names) and not fully sanitized, but it is probably not the language I would put in the mouths of contemporary leaders quarreling either. The period is evoked by the use of medieval forms of address (my lord, your grace) and references to feudal obligations not by creating artificially “old-fashioned” language.

When the squire was gone, Aimery confronted his brother. “Edessa’s clever plan may have opened the doors of the Holy Sepulcher, and Heraclius and Sibylla between them may have put a crown on your pretty golden locks, but a fat count, a stupid woman, and a debauched priest cannot keep you on your throne. More important: they cannot save your ass from Salah ad-Din! Do I make myself clear?”

Balian held his breath, knowing that Aimery was the only man in the world who could talk to Guy de Lusignan like this — even now the elder brother to the young brother, no matter that the young was an anointed king. Guy wat with his jaws clenched and his face flushed, but he did not interrupt or talk back.

Aimery continued, “You can either rip out your own guts by attacking Tripoli and leave two gutted carcasses for the Saracens to finish off, or you can reconcile with Tripoli and reunite this Kingdom.”

“How the hell can I reconcile with a man who refuses to accept me as his king?” Guy shouted at his older brother. In that instant, Balian saw Guy’s fear and insecurity and held his breath in hope.

“By begging him!” Aimery answered coldly, looking his brother in the eye. “Beg him on your knees if you have to. Tell him you need him. Thank him for his past service. Flatter him, cajole him, honor him, humor him. But stop treating him like an enemy and make him an ally!”

When Guy did not answer, Ibelin risked speaking up. Cautiously, he noted, “I have spoken to Tripoli, your grace. He called his agreement with Salah ad-Din ‘defensive.’ His wife expressed sincere fear that you planned to attack her lands—”

“Nonsense! Why should I attack Tiberias?”

“Why, indeed?” his brother answered pointedly.

Guy glared at him. “What I meant is, I have no quarrel with his lady. It is Tripoli who has refused to pay homage. Until he does—”

“No! Stop! He’s checkmated ou with the alliance with Salah ad-Din. He does not have to come to heel under the circumstances. All Ibelin is right about how strong Tiberias is. ith the forces you have, you’ll hardly be able to invest it. You cannot force Tripoli to submit. You need to give him a reason to bend his knee.”

Petulantly, Guy protested, “HE was demanding Beirut, and refusing to give account for his expenditure as regent—”

“Forget it! Forget all your grievances against him. Forget everything but the essential fact that you need his two hundred knights if you want to still be king six months from now.”

“You expect me to just capitulate? To grovel at his feet?” Guy whined, already sounding small and deflated.

Ibelin took a deep breath, and with a glance at Aimery noted gently, “That won’t be necessary. Tripoli knows how damaging this fight is. He loves Jerusalem. If you demonstrate our goodwill by disbanding the army and returning to Jerusalem, and then give him a bridge to walk over, he will find his way.”


In contrast, novels set anytime in the last century depict an era in which the language used is completely comprehensible to us today. We don’t actually need to translate the language of the characters in these books (unless they are set in a foreign setting) and the language therefore can be more authentic. In short, in novels set in the 20th century, authors should indeed make every effort to use the idiom of the period in which the novel is set.

Obviously, that still means that modern slang is inappropriate. People in the First World War did not talk about being “cool” or “chilled,” and attractive women weren’t “hot chics.” Equally difficult for some modern writers is that some terms that are now offensive were acceptable in the 1930s and 1940s. For example, in much of the U.S. adult black men really were still addressed as “boy.” Another ticklish problem is finding appropriate expletives and terms for cursing. Modern terms were simply not used, but the language then used (e.g. “bloody”) does not offend the modern reader — and so does not convey the emotion desired.

EXAMPLE THREE: Writing about the RAF in WWII required learning an entirely new vocabulary of terms — and using it correctly. I include a glossary in my novels set in this environment because not all the terms are intuitive. But it isn’t only the language itself that was different. Influenced by the use of radio communication, the RAF tended to speak in incomplete sentences — a staccato speech pattern that is well illustrated by the following brief exchange from Where Eagles Never Flew


Shakespeare woke him in the dark. “Time to get up, Robin.”

“What time is it?”

“Time to get up.”

“What time is that?”

“If you insist on the ugly details: 3:25 am. The lorry will be in the square in five minutes.”

“Dawn Patrol.”

“Isn’t that the name of a flick?”

“With David Niven, I think.”

“I don’t think it had a very good ending.”

“Not for everyone.”

EXAMPLE FOUR. This exchange, also taken from Where Eagles Never Flew, includes more of the RAF terminology and jargon, but it is also important for showing how language can convey the culture of an era or institution. The same incident if playing out at a USAAF squadron would sound entirely different.

“We thought you’d bought it, sir,” Woody admitted. He sounded more stunned than gratified.

“Not yet, so you’ll have to postpone the party. Is there tea anywhere?”

“I’ll get you some, sir,” Ginger offered, ducking back into the dispersal.

The others were still staring. “I understand you got a Heinkel, Woody.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well done. Donohue?”

“I got is some good bursts at a 110 and saw the starboard engine catch fire, but didn’t see him go in. Got distracted by a Messerschmitt.”


‘There was a bloody great free-for-all after you — I mean — we came out the other side of the bomber formation and got jumped by a hoard of Messerschmitts. F/O Ware tried to climb into them, but they were already coming down, and one cut in from of me. I got in a good squirt and when I looked back, there he was streaking down with a long tail of smoke. I know he went in.”

“Very likely, but the 109s were coming down because they’d been bounced by Spitfires at higher altitude,” Priestman pointed out. “You probably shot at an already dead pilot.”

Eton frowned. “But, sir, he passed right through my sights.”

“What speed do you think he was going?”

“400 mph at least, sir!”

“And how far away was he?”

“Maybe three hundred yards — four at the most.” The others burst out laughing.

Priestman waited for them to quiet down. “Eton, do you want to step inside and let me give you a short lesson on the Browning machine gun.” It was not a question, and the boy looked decidedly disheartened as he stepped into the comparatively dim light of the dispersal hut.

“Trigonometry wouldn’t hurt either, sir,” Sutton called after them.

“Oh, and, sir?” It was Donohue.

Priestman stepped back to the door and looked out expectantly. “I just wanted to let you know that I am not a virgin.” There were guffaws of laugher from the others, and Priestman shook his head and turned away. “Eton—”

The telephone rang. Paralysis.

“606 Squadron Dispersal.”

The clock ticked. The wind blew. The pilots of 606 hung in suspended animation. No one was breathing.

“One moment, sir.” The clerk turned to Priestman. “It’s the Adjutant, sir. He’d like to speak to you.”

Priestman took the receiver. The others exhaled and resumed their activities. Eton fussed with is silk cravat. “Priestman.”

“Congratulations, sir! You’ve just been awarded the DFC. The wire’s just come in — and they didn’t even know about the two you got today. I’m so pleased for you, sir! I’ve rarely known anyone who deserved it so much!” Mickey sounded so sincere, Robin was touched.

“Thank you, Mickey. Could you do me a favour?”

“Of course. What would you like me to do?”

“Organise something. A dance. With a real band. Something everyone can enjoy. The erks, too, and the WAAF, of course. Not in the Mess; the cooks and stewards are overworked as it is. Do you think you could do that?”

“For tonight, you mean?” Mickey sounded overwhelmed.

“No. There’s no rush. What day is it today?”


“All right. Thursday or Friday.”

“Don’t worry, sir. I’ll fix something up.”


There was a commotion going on outside. Robin pu his head out the window to see what it was about.

Kiwi was towering amidst the others, still in his Mae West and parachute. The latter was dragging along behind him and occasionally billowed up as it caught the wind. “Down, boy, down!” Kiwi admonished the chute when it tugged at him. “Behave yourself!”

“Where the devil did you come from?” Priestman asked, very relieved to see him.

“Ahhhh!” Kiwi reacted as if he’d seen a ghost. “You were the one who blew up!” He crossed himself.

“I did nothing of the sort, but I hear you collided with a bomber and wrecked your Hurricane. That’s what comes of not keeping your distance as ordered.”

“I get your point, Skipper.” Kiwi grinned at him, and then turned to admonish his parachute, “Behave! You’re in company!”

“And Kiwi, get out of that useles ‘chute and collect a packed one.”

“See! You’ve got yourself posted!” Kiwi told the parachute. “I warned you not to much about in front of the CO!”

Robin shook his head and withdrew back inside the desperal hut to give Eton his lesson on the effectiveness of gunfire from different ranges. But the telephone was ringing again.

“Bloody thing!”

“606 Squadron Dispersal…. SCRAMBLE! SQUADRON SCRAMBLE!”

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