Mixing in History to Thicken the Plot

Author Anne Clare is back with a new novel, releasing Nov. 1, set during the WWII Italian campaign. So happy to have her guest blog, “Mixing in History to Thicken the Plot”. Take it away, Anne!

Thank you so much for inviting me to stop by, and for the opportunity to write on the theme of plot. It was good for me to take a step back and think about how I formulate mine! 

I write fiction set during World War II, and I find that my research tends to drive the formation of my stories. While a good plot is much more than a series of events, the true events from history often direct the paths my stories take. 

Perhaps the easiest way to describe this is to use my upcoming release’s plot as an example. 

I knew that I wanted to write a story set in WWII Italy. I also thought that I’d like to set it on or around the Allied beachhead on Anzio. For those of you unfamiliar with the Anzio campaign, in brief, the Allied advance up Italy had stalled, so Allied planners decided to send a force by sea up behind the German lines to land near the town of Anzio. The idea was that with the beach landings from behind and an assault from the main force in the south, the Allies would break through and march on to Rome. It didn’t work. The 70,000 or so troops and personnel who landed on Anzio were stuck on the beachhead from January until May, taking punishing German fire from the heights.

 I hadn’t really gotten beyond planning the setting when I came across an off-hand comment in one of my research sources. As the Germans and Allied lines were so close on the Anzio beachhead, it was not uncommon for soldiers on both sides to be taken prisoner, escape, and just walk back to their own lines. 

This caught my attention and imagination. What would this look like? Surely the escapes wouldn’t be quite as easy as these couple of sentences made them sound. 

Now I had a setting and the start of a plot—the story would deal with a POW escape. I’d most likely need to include a capture which might be a good place to put the story’s “hook.” Imprisonment and an escape with some obstacles would fit naturally during the “rising action.” I still had to decide how the climax of the story would look, and if the escape plans would be successful—but sharing more of that would include spoilers! 

Now, while my imagination took over, filling in the characters and details, I still needed to study the history to make sure that my fledgling plot would be plausible. (While my books are fictional, I try my utmost to make certain that the events could have happened.) A couple of other real events were major influences on my writing.

In mid-February, about a month into the Anzio campaign, the Germans launched a major offensive which cut deeply into the Allied beachhead and threatened to push them back into the sea. The offensive lasted for almost a week. It occurred to me that this would be a prime time for taking prisoners. And what if, with the offensive keeping the German man-power busy, some of the prisoners couldn’t be transported further back to POW camps immediately but were temporarily held closer to their lines. That could work…

Another piece of the plot fell into place. 

Characters also influence the plot, and history provides a wide and varied selection of fascinating characters. Some of the names associated with the Anzio area that might be familiar are Audie Murphy, (the most highly decorated American soldier of WWII) cartoonist Bill Mauldin, and the Tuskegee Airmen.  

Not all of the people serving on Anzio were involved in combat. Generally, the chain of evacuation for wounded soldiers was quite long with the field hospitals far behind the front line. On Anzio, the beachhead was so narrow that the front line was only about ten miles from the sea. Huddled together by the coast at Nettuno, just south of Anzio, the hospital area was well within German firing range. Unfortunately, although the hospital tents were marked with large red crosses in white circles and off-limits to attack according to the Geneva Convention, the area was hit often and badly to earn the nickname “Hell’s Half Acre.” Six nurses and many other medical staff and recovering patients lost their lives there. While their names might not be as familiar as some, their service and sacrifice must be remembered. 

While I do not include real people in my fiction except in off-hand references, learning about the real people who served and sacrificed in these areas helped direct my story and enrich my characters. 

For a final example of history influencing plot, one—somewhat lighter—story about the nurses’ experiences caught my eye as I was reading Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee and Evelyn M. Monohan’s fantastic book, And If I Perish: Frontline U.S. Army Nurses in World War II. (On a side note, I’d highly recommend this book to people interested in this era. The stories of the courage of the women who served in often appalling conditions are inspiring.)

The anecdote went something like this: When some of the first nurses landed on the beachhead, they were to be transported to their hospital area to set up. However, their driver must have gotten turned around and the further he went, the more anxious he became, especially as German shells began falling. Finally, he stopped the vehicle, told the nurses to get out, and drove away, promising that someone would come for them. 

The nurses took shelter in a small chicken house, and eventually saw men crawling toward them from two directions. Recognizing them as British and American soldiers, they approached. The soldiers were astonished to see the women and informed them, “We’re the front line, and you’re in front of us. That puts you in no-man’s land.” (Page 252.) 

Eventually, the nurses did make it to their hospital. I’m not sure what happened to the driver. And the incident solidified some ideas I’d already had for where my work of fiction might go. 

Writers, what real things influence your stories and their plots? Incidents from history? Things that happened in your own lives? 

Readers, do you enjoy reading stories with plots based in real events? Are there eras or places that you find particularly compelling? 

Again, many thanks to JPC Allen for hosting me today, and to you for stopping by! 

Thank you for explaining how you use mixing in history to thicken the plot. Best wishes with your latest release!

If you’d like to read Anne’s previous guest blogs, click here.

*****

Wonderful cover!

When she had signed up, she’d thought she was ready. Ready for a combat zone. Ready to prove that she could be brave. The sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, stronger and longer lasting than any bout of seasickness, foreboded that maybe she had been wrong.

1944

Lieutenant Jean Hoff of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps and infantryman Corporal George Novak have never met, but they have three things in common.

They are both driven by a past they’d rather leave behind.

They have both been sent to the embattled beachhead of Anzio, Italy.

And when they both wind up on the wrong side of the German lines, they must choose whether to resign themselves to captivity or risk a dangerous escape.

Where Shall I Flee? follows their journey through the dangers of World War II Italy, where faith vies with fear and forgiveness may be necessary for survival.


Anne Clare is a native of Minnesota’s cornfields and dairy country. She graduated with a BS in Education in 2005 and set out to teach in the gorgeous green Pacific Northwest, where she and her husband still live. She also serves as a church musician, singing in and occasionally directing choirs, playing piano, organ, and coronet (the last only occasionally, when she forgets how bad she is at it.) After the birth of her second child, she became a stay-at-home mom, and after the birth of the third she became reconciled to the fact that her house would never be clean again, which allowed her to find time to pursue her passion for history and writing while the little people napped. Although she’s back to teaching part-time, she continues to write historical fiction and to blog about WWII history, writing, and other odds and ends at thenaptimeauthor.wordpress.com. You can also follow her on her FB page.

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