An Accidental Novella: Will’s War

I never really understood the concept of a novella; why a short book when a long one will do too? Yet in the start-up of such a long one I came to the surprising discovery that I had written a novella as a sort of side-effect.

The new instalment of the Wyrde Woods Chronicles is to be the novel Secrets of the Wyrde Woods. This was partially due to the popularity of the secondary characters from the Escape from Neverland and Dance into the Wyrd novels (the components of Lord of the Wyrde Woods): Joy Whitfield and Willick Maskall. I thought it might be interesting to visit them again and at a much younger age and wanted to combine that with some World War Two research I had been doing (see the post Origins of Secrets of the Wyrd Woods).

The ‘problem’ with Joy was that growing up in the Owlery in the Wyrde Woods meant it would take some time for her to notice the war. I therefore decided that Willick would be transformed into Will of Brighton and spent a first chapter there so I could establish that World War Two was definitely happening since Brighton was suddenly on the front line after the fall of France and had a first row seat with regard to the Battle of Britain. Will could then be suitably evacuated to the Wyrde Woods at some point.

In the meantime Joy would run into a London evacuee called Maisy. This was necessary because Joy was something of an oddity at school and she was bullied but I didn’t want to spend chapter upon chapter describing all the bully stuff. First of all most of us know what it is like to be bullied and secondly I didn’t want to push Joy in a victim’s role too much. Enter Maisy and a remarkable friendship. Initially I wanted to have Will step in to put up a fight for Joy at school in Wolfden but the girls weren’t having it, they said it was a typical male rescue fantasy and they were quite capable of handling the bully themselves. With Maisy came her grandfather Fred and I made him into a Maskall so that Will would have a place to go to and I wouldn’t have to describe too many family situations. Moreover, Joy and Willick’s popularity in Lord of the Wyrde Woods with older readers was partially because their kind (anyone over 21) often get a raw deal in YA books: Silly bumbling adults to laugh at a bit. Not so Joy and Willick. Now that these two were twelve years old again Fred would be a nice ‘replacement’ and I like him a great deal already and plan a hero’s role for him.

Writing in Broad Sussex has become a second nature and I didn’t have to consult my map as I returned to the Wyrde Woods, I know my way around their reasonably well now.

Brighton was a different situation altogether. I hadn’t thought about it before but a fictional setting like the Wyrde Woods is very handy when writing; if you need a suitable castle, for example, you just invent one and place it wherever you want. Not so a real city, moreover, a city I had only been to twice more than twenty years ago without doing any sightseeing back then. I tried to keep the city anonymous and faceless, it was just a city really and would serve no other purpose in the novel aside from helping me establish a war setting. There was another problem and that was that the timelessness of the Wyrde Woods is relatively easy to establish, but an English seaside town in 1940: I hadn’t a clue.

The solution was to keep the city anonymous and try and avoid as much historical representation as possible but that really broke with the strong setting I had established as a feature of the Wyrde Woods Chronicles. A fictional wood described in so much detail that readers ask me where they can find the place and then a real-life city in a different era without any detail would be too odd a contrast so I grudgingly set about conducting research. I soon discovered the daunting task which lay ahead of me because just about every other sentence required some research -if not a lot- if the wartime situation was to be described realistically.

It was at that point that I visited some Sussex history sites on Facebook and casually made some enquiries about any references people might have with regard to wartime Sussex and/or Brighton. I was totally overwhelmed by the response; I received scores of very useful links including the fascinating My Brighton and Hove website which serves as a digital centre of living history as well as the BBC’s My War series of eyewitness accounts. Apart from that I heard stories from people who had been children during the war or who recounted the experience of their parents, aunts and uncles or grandparents.

I had to scramble to make sense of it all and organise it into a reasonable narrative. I also had to change my timeline somewhat. The initial idea had been: Will lives in Brighton, war starts properly, he is bombed, he is evacuated. However, the actual sequence of events (Dunkirk to the Battle of Britain and then onwards) would require a much longer stay in Brighton.

So I created Will’s background: Where he lived, how he lived, which sweet shops he went to, where he drank milkshakes, who his best mate was, his gaffer’s favourite pub, which butcher his mum bought meat at when they could afford it etcetera.

For the wartime experiences I borrowed shamelessly from the sources mentioned above in order to make the story an authentic representation of the summer that was dominated by the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. That means a whole lot of experiences in the book really happened, though I have ascribed them all to Will.

To this I added the perspective of a twelve-year-old-boy and that was really easy as I more or less took myself at that age – and all the interests I had – and ascribed all that to Will too. I was delighted to discover Will could be a Sci-Fi fan, for example, and spent many hours watching 1930s Flash  Gordon and Buck Rogers serials because Will would have to transplant himself into the space boots of these gents on occasion when he wasn’t playing Cops and Robbers, Cowboys and Indians or Robin Hood and Ivanhoe.

The story started rolling and suddenly I had over 30,000 words. What was meant to be one chapter in a book now covered about a third of that book, leaving much less room for adventures in the Wyrde Woods. It seemed a shame to cut into it, as it had become something of a ‘history’ so I decided to publish it as a novella instead. It’s a very different style from the Wyrde Woods so far, a much more straight forward boy’s adventure story but part of the Wyrde Woods Chronicles none-the-less as it provides a detailed background for William – aka Will – aka Willick Maskall. It has also become a Brighton story and I hope it stands as a testament to that summer in 1940.

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