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Virtual Book Club: Dianne Ascroft introduces The Yankee Years

Today I’m delighted to welcome Dianne Ascroft to Virtual Book Club, the interview series in which authors have the opportunity to pitch their novels to your book club. 

Dianne Ascroft writes historical and contemporary fiction, often with an Irish connection. Her series The Yankee Years is a collection of Short Reads and novels set in World War II Northern Ireland. After the Allied troops arrived in this outlying part of Great Britain, life there would never be the same again. The series strives to bring those heady, fleeting years to life again, in thrilling and romantic tales of the era.

Her other writing includes a ghost tale inspired by the famous Northern Irish legend of the Coonian ghost, An Unbidden Visitor; a short story collection, Dancing Shadows, Tramping Hooves, and an historical novel, Hitler and Mars Bars.

Dianne lives on a small farm, in the western region of Northern Ireland, with her husband and an assortment of strong-willed animals. When she’s not writing, she enjoys walks in the countryside, evenings in front of her open fireplace and folk and traditional music. 

After the Allied troops arrived in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland during the Second World War, life in the quiet, rural county would never be the same again.

Q: What is it about The Yankee Years that you feel makes it particularly suitable for book clubs?

It is a collection of simple stories that I hope readers will be entertained by. They are also multi-layered and provide discussion opportunities in several spheres.

Firstly, the stories are placed within a familiar historical sub-genre, World War II Home Front fiction, but the setting is different from most books in the genre. Readers might consider how this alters their perception of the era. They might also compare the similarities and differences between this setting and stories set in other locations on the British Home Front. The layers of social and political conflict Northern Ireland experienced internally and as part of the Allied war effort might be another topic for discussion.

As well as being set in an unusual location, the story collection combines elements of romance, mystery and historical fiction. Readers may want to consider which genre the collection best belongs in – historical romance, historical fiction, historical mystery? Or should all the stories be classed as the same genre?

Elements in the plots of these stories raise ethical questions. Readers may wish to discuss where a character’s loyalty lies during wartime – with a loved one or their country. The ethics of subterfuge in wartime may also be explored, contrasting espionage to gather information about an enemy nation with acts by a neutral country which contravene its neutral status (i.e., building military facilities and gathering arms before declaring war). Is one act of subterfuge worse than the other?  

Q: What are the greatest challenges in working within a limited word-count? I imagine every word must count.

One of the greatest challenges is to tell a compelling story, one that will matter to the characters and the reader, using very few words. There must be a significant problem or conflict to solve and events must drive relentlessly forward until the problem or conflict is resolved.

Q: Does the method of developing character differ? Do you stick to a small cast?

Yes, I keep the cast of characters as small as possible in my short stories. The reader will only manage to get to know one or two characters at most. Before I begin writing, in my mind I develop my characters as fully as I would if I were writing a longer story. I want to know the reasons they act as they do, their backgrounds and details about their looks, personalities and life experiences. I probably will only be able to reveal a fraction of this information but I think I create more rounded, believable characters if I know all these details.

Q: Have you ever become so attached to the characters in one of your short stories that you have not wanted to let go of them?

Oh yes, I rarely want to let go of my characters. Readers will notice that the first two stories in this collection are about the same characters. After Ruth and Frank confronted the threat posed by a spy in their midst, in The Shadow Ally, the first story, I had to see what happened to them next so I wrote Acts of Sabotage.  I also have further adventures planned for them.

Q: Which brings me onto your short story collection, The Yankee Years Books 1-3. The 20th Century seems ripe for picking, but what is it that fascinates you about that era?

I think wartime fiction, especially set during the Second World War, fascinates readers. One aspect of the war that particularly intrigues me is the significant impact that the arrival of the Allied troops in Northern Ireland had on the quiet, largely rural country. County Fermanagh, where I set my stories, is far from Belfast and Londonderry, the largest cities in the province. At the outbreak of the war, the way of life in the county had changed little in generations. Then there was a huge influx of servicemen and women from several nations and the lives of the local residents were turned upside down. Army camps and flying-boat bases sprang up throughout the county, and approximately a quarter of the population were now military personnel. It must have been so different from the tranquil place I know. It’s exciting just to imagine it.

Q: One of the interesting things about writing historical fiction is that the reader has the benefit of hindsight, while the characters in the book do not. How do you use this to your advantage in The Yankee Years Books 1-3?

Foreshadowing isn’t an effective tool for me as the reader’s hindsight is obviously based on his knowledge of past events and the majority of readers, outside Northern Ireland, won’t be familiar with the history of the region so they won’t immediately grasp the significance of certain events that happen in the story. I usually have to give readers enough historical detail so they understand what’s happening.

Northern Ireland experienced many aspects of the war differently than England, Scotland and Wales and readers may not be aware of this. For instance, because of the threat of insurrection by anti-unionist organisations if conscription was introduced, enlistment in the military was voluntary only.  Related to this, the province was on alert against the threat that the terrorist organisation, the Irish Republican Army, would attack strategic locations in Northern Ireland while the military and police were occupied with the war. So they were waging an internal war as well as standing with the rest of the United Kingdom against the Axis countries. I would have freer rein to use devices such as foreshadowing if I set my stories in London during the Blitz.

Q: The key trick in writing historical fiction is transporting readers to another time and place without overloading them with historical information. So how much detail is too much?

I want to evoke a place so well that the reader feels like she is there. But I try not to be too wordy, and I follow the guideline that, if a reader is likely to be familiar with something I’m describing, I don’t need to go into great detail about it. A passing reference will do. But, if I’m describing an historical object or a place that won’t be familiar to most readers, then I try to show exactly what it was like.  By evoking the sounds and smells as well as visual details, I can bring it to life in the reader’s mind.

Q: How important is historical accuracy when writing fiction and how faithfully does your short story collection stick to the written record?

I feel that historical accuracy is very important. I won’t alter key historical facts to suit my story. I have occasionally altered minor details of a setting to facilitate the plot of a story but not the historical facts. When  plotting these stories, I referred to the timeline of World War II to reacquaint myself with the sequence of events. I also researched what was happening at the time in the locality where I set my stories. Then I chose relevant details to incorporate into my stories. I never alter known facts to fit my plots so readers can be assured that they are stepping into a past that I’ve recreated as accurately as possible. I want them to believe that the story could have happened so I don’t lose their trust.

Q: Did you unearth something genuinely surprising when carrying out research and, if so, did it change the course of the novel?

One thing that really surprised and intrigued me was that the United States was preparing to join the war months before the attack on Pearl Harbor forced them into battle. And they weren’t only devising strategies on paper. They were already secretly building military bases throughout the United Kingdom, including several in Northern Ireland. It was a huge operation to undertake in secret and, if it had been discovered by the Axis countries, it would have pushed them into the war long before they did enter the conflict. This rarely discussed fact inspired the plot for The Shadow Ally, the first story in the collection. The story’s plot revolves around the threat posed by an espionage plot.

Q: One of the difficulties I’ve had in researching historical pieces is not finding out the so-called facts, but trying to work out how many of the facts were in the common domain and what the average person would have known. How do you fill in the gaps?

I rely heavily on regional newspapers. If it’s in the regional newspaper, I can be certain the average person knew about it. I also consider what I know was happening at the time that wasn’t reported in the newspapers and weigh up whether I think a particular fact would be common knowledge or not. Because I’m writing about a very rural area, where some people would have little interest in events outside their locality, I often include one or two characters who are very ignorant of world events that others in their locale would have known, as this adds another layer to the narrative and accurately reflects the place I’m writing about. 

Q: And what about characters? How do you deal with the issue of blending historical characters with fictional characters?

I am particularly interested in ‘the little man’, the average person, rather than those higher up the social, political or military hierarchies, so most of my characters are fictional. I sometimes bring one of them into contact with historic characters but, since they wouldn’t move in the same circles, the meetings are brief encounters and for a particular purpose. A couple of important historic figures appear in a novel that I’m currently working on, but there aren’t any historic characters with walk on parts in The Yankee Years Books 1-3.

Q: I’m interested in why you chose to bring the particular stories you did from the past into the present day.

The idea for this series came to me after I read Castle Archdale and Fermanagh in World War II by Breege McCusker.  It’s a history of County Fermanagh during the Second World War, and the flying boat bases on Lough Erne, the largest lake in the county. As well as reading the book, I heard stories from local residents about the era and was enthralled by the tales of the real servicemen and women stationed at the flying boat bases and army camps. It prompted me to research life in County Fermanagh during the war.  I was amazed by the huge change the arrival of the Allied troops brought to the rural county. I’ve heard some marvellous and unique true stories of those days yet this heritage isn’t being utilised by fiction writers. Very few wartime novels have been set in Northern Ireland. I think it’s a shame that such a rich heritage doesn’t receive more attention so I wanted to create stories that will keep it alive. 

Want to find out more about Dianne and her writing? 

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