I’m delighted to welcome Keith Stuart to the blog with a post about the research he undertook to write his new novel, Pied Piper.
I should say from the start that the novel grew from a very short piece of writing – almost a literary doodle – which I had no expectation of ever becoming a book. I certainly never sat down and said, “I’m going to write an historical novel.” Throughout the development from that initial scribbling into something bigger, it became clear that the historical backdrop offered the perfect setting for the themes I wanted to explore, themes which are contemporary, in fact.
I have long been fascinated by how notions of masculinity and male friendship have changed in my lifetime. I could count on the fingers of … well, two fingers how many times I can recall my father embracing me. As children he left demonstrations of affection to my mother and as adults we would greet each other with an uninhibited, fulsome handshake! That was not the case with my own two sons: if I ever held my hand out to greet or congratulate them, they would ignore it and throw their arms round me. I was often struck by how unashamedly demonstrative they always were with their male, as well as female, friends. Huge hugs and declarations of “I love you, man,” were open and genuine.
I am also aware that the biggest killer of males between the ages of 17 and 35 in the UK is suicide and I wanted to explore what the implications for all that might have been for a young man in that age bracket, at the time of my father’s youth. The thought of my children being whisked away, to who knew where, hardly bears contemplating and the evacuation, Operation Pied Piper, provided me with the scenario to explore those issues. To my knowledge it is an event most frequently told and visualised through the eyes of the mothers or children and yet how much it must have affected fathers, whom I suspect were less able to express their anxiety and grief.
So, off I set with my story, trawling my knowledge of ‘that time’ from history lessons, reading I have done, films I have seen, but I knew I had to get things right. Internet searches found specifics like the wording of leaflets that parents received through their letter boxes, instructing them about the evacuation: that, I felt would underline the enormity of the scheme on a personal level as well as the scale.
I knew that it all happened in a governmental (albeit understandable) panic and that many children had returned to London before the Blitz began a year later, but I had to get the timings right both of the story and the war-time backdrop. I needed to check out the weather that year and the timings of blackouts, readying of the undergrounds stations as shelters, etc.
I was, however, writing intuitively, telling a story which was evolving as I explored the emotions of the children’s father. Through lack of forward planning, particular events in the narrative took me into historical cul de sacs from which I could only extricate myself with research. Means of communicating, health care provision, transportation all needed getting right – even details of train routes. Internet searching solved each of these, accurately, I hope!
All the research was on a needs-must, at-the-time, basis. It is a period of history that does interest me, perhaps because I just missed it, but I wanted to know more to achieve authenticity. The real issues for me, however, were relationships, emotions, male bonding and friendship and mental health (as we now call it).
As I finished Pied Piper during the COVID pandemic, an irony relating to the novel, me and the issues, occurs. I thought I was going to be lucky enough to be part of a generation that avoided something like a world war. We skirted with the Cuba crisis and the Cold War but most political, economic and military crises in my lifetime have been short and not ones which have meant fearing for our lives for months or years on end. And then along comes COVID, though not on the scale of the two World Wars, there has been an extended period where the future of our lives has been in doubt. This current crisis has raised mental health to the forefront and it has reinforced my feeling that it was worth exploring through the main character in Pied Piper, a young father in 1939.
Thank you so much for sharing your research processes with me. I always find them fascinating.
Here’s the blurb
In September 1939 the British Government launched Operation Pied Piper. To protect them from the perils of German bombing raids, in three days millions of city children were evacuated – separated from their parents.
This story tells of two families: one whose children leave London and the other which takes them in. We share the ups and downs of their lives, their dramas and tragedies, their stoicism and their optimism. But. unlike many other stories and images about this time, this one unfolds mainly through the eyes of Tom, the father whose children set off, to who knew where, with just a small case and gas mask to see them on their way
This novel is free to read with #KindleUnlimited subscription.
Meet the Author
Keith Stuart (Wadsworth) taught English for 36 years in Hertfordshire schools, the county in which he was born and has lived most of his life. Married with two sons, sport, music and, especially when he retired after sixteen years as a headteacher, travel, have been his passions. Apart from his own reading, reading and guiding students in their writing; composing assemblies; writing reports, discussion and analysis papers, left him with a declared intention to write a book. Pied Piper is ‘it’. Starting life as a warm-up exercise at the Creative Writing Class he joined in Letchworth, it grew into this debut novel.
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