People often ask me when I began to write and why. Well, the answer is, it crept up on me. My first desire to write cropped up during my English lit degree with the Open University. For those of you familiar with the OU, one chooses which module they wish to study from a selection of courses relevant to the degree. I was in my third year, and at a crossroads. None of the options appealed to me, so I chose creative writing. Well, I thought I love to read, so why not? And that was that. With my love of history and a particular interest in WW2, I was hooked.
For me, it was a defining moment and I have not stopped writing since my degree years. It is fascinating how even the smallest of events define us, often altering our life’s path, encompassing great change. Perhaps we are drawn to the historical past because many events, situations remain current, and so people can identify with the past, and feel a certain connection.
My interests in military history range far and wide, but having come across an old biography written in the 1950s, about Nancy Wake, I was mesmerised. Later, I bought the memoir she wrote herself, published in the 1980s. While it was a captivating read, it mainly detailed her life in France on the eve of war and during. I learned about her time as a journalist in the 1930s, her first encounter with her future husband, Henri Fiocca, a wealthy industrialist, her courageous work as a courier with the Resistance, and finally, her life as an SOE agent.
All accounts talk of her war work, and I often read about this fierce Guerrilla fighter, a leader of seven thousand maquisards, who could drink any man under the table and still be sober enough to recall every detail. But instinctively I knew there was more to this fearless lady. Yes, she was strong-willed, she was angry, so ferociously angry with the Germans, and for a good reason. Mad enough to have the will to do something about their cruel ways.
Nancy was a lady who enjoyed the finer things in life, beautiful clothes, and dining. She was as far removed from the fighter she became when she first stepped onto French soil in 1933. Once I’d read all about her, a picture formed in my mind, but it was one mined with gaping holes, where secrets lay, buried, forgotten, and I had to uncover them to get to the heart of this amazing woman.
Nancy Wake was a frivolous, decent, young woman when she decided to study journalism in the early 1930s. She’d left her home in Sydney, unhappy with family life, embarked on a cruise, docked in England at the finale, and had to make a living. So, having completed a six-month course, armed with the basics in reporting and typing, she was fortunate enough to be offered a post in Paris, working with the Hearst News Group. In the beginning, life was idyllic.
She had suitors, dined out, and enjoyed the jet-setting lifestyle of a reporter, travelling the breadth of France, venturing across borders into Europe. It was her travels where she began to hear and see for herself, the ugliness metered out by the Nazi Party. Like so many at that time, she was intrigued by Adolf Hitler, but when she finally witnessed the brutal treatment of Jewish people by the SA in Vienna, she’d seen enough. It was a turning point in her young, gentile life. A defining moment. Hatred of the Nazis began to burn in her soul, one that would burn until her dying breath. What she witnessed in Vienna defined her in a heartbeat, and she would seize her chance when it sailed along, making a decision that would change her life forever.
The Nancy I went searching for, was a young girl in Sydney, having moved there with her family at the age of two. Originally born in New Zealand, her mother was descended from the French Huguenots and Maoris, her father from the British. Nancy had a tough upbringing, and her parents divorced when she was six years old. Sadly, her father sold the family home, effectively leaving his wife and children homeless. A new home elsewhere beckoned. Nancy was the youngest of all of her siblings, and so childhood was lonely at home. But when she went to school, she found friends and was a bit of a tomboy by all accounts.
It was this innocent child that drew me in because I began to picture a girl who had been shaped by hard family life, disappointment, rejection, an apparent lack of parental affection, and scarred by the absence of her father. As she once said, ‘I adored my dad, but he was a bastard.’ Nancy never saw her father again.
As people, we are so complex, and Nancy was no different. It seemed essential that I discovered every detail possible, to truly know the subject of my novel. Not all detail needed to be included in the book, it’s more about finding the person. After much digging and trawling genealogy sites, I’d gathered as much information as I was likely to find. Finally, I’d found Nancy. And she was quite different to the figure in those biographies.
Once we find what we are looking for, we must make sense of it, and things aren’t always as they seem. Nancy was often quoted as saying that she was never afraid. She was too busy to be scared, or her hatred of the Nazis flowed so deep that eclipsed all else. Well, you see, I believe Nancy was afraid, and, quite rightly so. I think what she genuinely realised was that fear would not be a barrier. She really was far too busy to dwell on it, and, like most people, simply got on with things. As a writer, we have an option to exercise some creative licence when writing about real people, while taking care to be as factually correct as reasonably possible.
As any writer of historical fiction knows, the research phase of writing can be exhausting, producing mountains of notes, many of which are never utilised – at least not in the written sense. But much of what is uncovered is used in other ways because the writer is now informed, and such insight informs their writing, characterisation, voice etc. It is the light bulb moment – a defining event. And it’s exciting, and satisfying when that finally happens.
Madame Fiocca is available to buy now from Amazon as an e-book. It is also available to read for FREE via KindleUnlimited – mybook.to/MadameFiocca