As a novelist, I have often been asked how I select the topics I write about -- and, indeed about every other aspect of writing. In response, I will dissect the key aspects of my most recent novel, Moral Fibre, using it as a case study to describe my -- highly individual -- approach to each component.
I have never been able to write a novel "on command" or "on commission." Nor have I ever been able to embark upon a novel based on a rational analysis of the book market or popular trends.
My novels all come from within me, and they usually start with a
flash of inspiration. Many times, a visit to an historical venue has
ignited my imagination. Other times, I have stumbled over a character, an event or simply a photograph quite by accident when researching something else. Whatever it
is, something triggers an emotional response that transforms itself into
the seed of a novel.
I can still vividly remember the moment that the idea for Moral Fibre overtook me. It was a winter evening. I was having a glass of wine in front of the fireplace with my husband. I had been working on a manuscript for a book that paired two novellas. Each novella was too short to stand alone, but related enough to make a pairing possible. I was comfortable with the concept and pleased with what I had produced up to this point. The project was nearing completion and almost ready for the editor. Then abruptly and without any apparent catalyst, I knew that I was wrong and that a story was missing. That the two novellas were not enough, a third was needed, and not just any third story but Kit's story.
At that moment, I didn't know a lot about Kit. I simply knew that he had been posted for "Lack of Moral Fibre" after refusing to fly on raid to Berlin. So the next day I started researching the phenomenon of "Lack of Moral Fibre" (LMF), why, when and how it was applied. Simultaneously, I needed to research Bomber Command's offensive against Berlin. Suddenly, I was 100% into research mode, and the more I learned the more fascinated and inspired I became. There was so much material here -- drama, emotion, and meaning. Particularly attractive was the growing realization that popular images and notions were not well-aligned with the evidence presented in solid academic sources and memoirs. My novel, as so often, increasingly took on a educational dimension alongside the purely human interest aspects of the tale.
Initially, I was excited about using the novella format to approach the story in flash-backs. The idea was to start with Kit being declared "LMF" and then slowly, like peeling an onion, reveal to the reader why he had refused to fly on a certain operation in November 1943. The format, being unusual for me, was challenging and got my adrenaline going. I was so pleased with my work, I entered it in "The Page Turner" awards -- and it was long listed! I also had one test reader tell me that it was "the best book" he had read "in years. Period." I was thrilled and energized.
Meanwhile, since I was doing all this research on Bomber Command anyway, I thought I'd see if I could find a little more about my uncle Ken, who had been lost over Berlin in March 1944. When living in Berlin, I had made a point of leaving a rose on his grave in the Commonwealth War Cemetery at infrequent intervals. I did it for my uncle Jack, who had survived, more than for his elder brother, Ken, who I had never known.
My haphazard research led me to the squadron association website, and there to a documentary film that had been made a decade ago. It was called "Last Flight to Berlin" and it had been made by a professional film maker, whose father had been a pilot with Bomber Command and been killed when he was only a few months old. He had never known his father and set out to find out more about him with this film.
Easter Sunday last year (2021) I finally had a copy of that film and settled in to watch it on my laptop at my desk in my office. It told the story of a farm boy from Western Canada, how he volunteered for the RCAF, trained in Canada, fell in love, married. It had pictures of his honeymoon in NYC, and from his years as an instructor in Canada. Then the orders came transferring him to an operational squadron based in England. There he "crewed up" with six other young men. A photograph of seven young men grinning at the camera appeared on the screen. The narrator starting giving the trades and names of each. "The navigator: Ken Heaton." It was like being hit by icy lighting. It was my uncle. Of all the hundreds of crews that had flown with that squadron during the war, the one the film made was about was Uncle Ken's. I couldn't believe it, and it still gives me chills.
But what did this have to do with my novella? The first draft was finished. The editing was on-going. It was without doubt one of my better works. It had already garnered praise. But when I tried to sleep that night, I recognized that the novella was actually only the teaser. The real story was what happened afterwards. And the concept for Moral Fibre was born.
Next week I will explore the protagonist: Kit Moran.
Riding the icy, moonlit sky— They took the war to Hitler.
Their chances of survival were less than fifty percent. Their average age was 21.
This is the story of just one Lancaster skipper, his crew,and the woman he loved.
It is intended as a tribute to them all.
Flying Officer Kit Moran has earned his pilot’s wings, but the greatest challenges still lie ahead: crewing up and returning to operations. Things aren’t made easier by the fact that while still a flight engineer, he was posted LMF (Lacking in Moral Fibre) for refusing to fly after a raid on Berlin that killed his best friend and skipper. Nor does it help that he is in love with his dead friend’s fiancé, who is not yet ready to become romantically involved again.