“Inspirations and Influences” is a series of articles in which we invite authors to write guest posts talking about their…well, Inspirations and Influences. The cool thing is that the writers are given free rein so they can go wild and write about anything they want. It can be about their new book, series or about their career as a whole.
Today’s guest is Elizabeth Wein, YA writer, author of a cycle of Fantasy novels drawing from Arthurian legends (starting with The Winter Prince) amongst others. Her newest book is Code Name Verity a Historical YA about two friends during WWII – and it is AWESOME. To celebrate its release, we invited the author to talk about inspirations and influences.
Please give it up for Elizabeth!
The Literary Inspiration Behind Code Name Verity
‘Fräulein Engel, you are not a student of literature,’ he said. ‘The English Flight Officer has studied the craft of the novel. She is making use of suspense and foreshadowing.’
Golly, Engel stared at him. I of course took the opportunity to interpose wi’ pig-headed Wallace pride, ‘I am not English, you ignorant Jerry bastard, I am a SCOT.’
Engel dutifully slapped me into silence and said, ‘She is not writing a novel. She is making a report.’
‘But she is employing the literary conceits and techniques of a novel.’
—Code Name Verity
When people ask me about the background reading I did for Code Name Verity, I usually gush about biographies and documentaries and obituaries of amazing real life World War II spies and pilots, mostly women. But Code Name Verity is fiction, and that’s where it has its real roots. ‘Verity’ herself is obviously an avid reader—off the top of my head I can think of her referencing (and often quoting) Peter Pan, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Kim, A Tale of Two Cities, Down and Out in Paris and London, ‘Tam o’Shanter,’ Kidnapped, A Little Princess, The Silence of the Sea, Narcissus and Goldmund, Faust, and (obliquely) ‘The Wasteland’. She reads fiction in three languages, four if you count Scots. When she is given a writing task, she constructs it as a story.
In actual fact, Verity’s literary background is not exactly the same literary background that influenced me as a writer. Verity’s cultural literacy is carefully constructed on my part to match her character. So what are my literary influences, the ones that are hiding behind the obvious ones that appear on the printed page?
The flashpoint novel that set me reeling in the direction of Code Name Verity was Mary Ann Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. There are two things about this book that really caught my attention. The first was its World War II setting; I was already thinking about writing a story about an Air Transport Auxiliary pilot, so I was paying close attention to the period details. The other was the incredible heroism of the Elizabeth McKenna character. Elizabeth is probably the most influential and vivid person in the whole darn book, and yet she never actually appears ‘on stage’. I was as smitten with her good humour and bravery and intelligence as were her fictional counterparts, but I was also a little irritated by her. This kind of heroic ideal is unfair on us normal people, was my thought. I want to be like this woman. But I could never live up to her impossible standard.
Then I thought in rebellion: I should write a book about a coward. Someone spineless—and yet likeable. Maybe someone who has caved in under pressure—someone who is WRITING A CONFESSION…
Then the whole structure of Code Name Verity fell into place. If you read it, you can decide for yourself whether or not I succeeded in my noble goal of creating a cowardly leading lady. As Robert Burns would say, ‘The best laid plans…’ But that is how the fledgling plan for the book took wing.
Code Name Verity shares something else with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and that is its meta-existence as an actual manuscript. Shaffer’s book is framed as an epistolary collection of letters. Code Name Verity is framed as a kind of forced journal—it is a fictional written account which exists on fictional paper, pages and pages of hotel stationery and sheet music and recipe cards and prescription forms and school notebooks. I really loved playing with this form, and took my original inspiration for using it from The Documents in the Case by Dorothy Sayers and Robert Eustace. The Documents in the Case is not a collection of letters but an actual collection of documents, letters included, but also bills, newspaper articles, depositions, and testimony, all arranged in such a way that together they form a murder mystery. Although it’s not my favourite Dorothy Sayers book, I am a huge admirer of how cleverly it is put together, and I consciously tried to pay homage to that in putting together Code Name Verity.
Familiarity with the works of Dorothy Sayers came in handy for appropriate period detail as well. While it is true that her books do not take place in wartime, they’re good sources for appropriate language, customs, travel arrangements and society norms. Other contemporary books that were fantastic for giving the right feel to my narrative were Noel Streatfeild’s Saplings (one of her adult books, describing the gradual decay of middle class family life in Britain as a result of the war); N or M?, which is a mystery by Agatha Christie published in 1941 and set during the Battle of Britain; Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky and The Silence of the Sea by Vercors, both fictional accounts of German-occupied France (Némirovsky was murdered in Auschwitz before she finished writing; Vercors was the pseudonym of Jean Bruller, writing for the undercover printing press Éditions de Minuit); and the wonderful I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, which I didn’t actually read until I’d finished the first draft of Code Name Verity. It’s set before the war but was written after the war, and is full of excellent minutiae comparing American and English contemporary speech in the 1930s/1940s. Who knew doing research could afford so much reading pleasure?
I’ll mention one more book that I haven’t mentioned anywhere else, because it’s probably the most influential in the creation of Verity’s character. Technically it’s autobiography rather than fiction, but I read it with the happy abandon of reading fiction. It’s a slim volume by Christian Miller (a woman) called A Childhood in Scotland. It tells the story of the author’s aristocratic but somewhat dysfunctional family and her early years growing up in a castle in the Scottish Highlands in the 1920s. Miller is extremely cautious about revealing any clues that might lead the reader back to her real home, so I won’t either; but this lovely little book (complete with ghosts) gave me a framework for the background of ‘Verity’s’ childhood. A Childhood in Scotland is back in print now after many years, and if there are any I Capture the Castle fans out there, you must go and read this book NOW. It’s the perfect complement to Dodie Smith.
And now I will fall silent or I’ll be at this till tomorrow. Attached below is a list of the books mentioned above, in addition to a few others that have been extremely helpful or influential in writing Code Name Verity. Dive in and enjoy.
And thank you so much for the opportunity to ramble about books!
Paul Berna, The Horse without a Head
Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place
Agatha Christie, N or M?
Christian Miller, A Childhood in Scotland
Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française
Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night
Dorothy Sayers & Robert Eustace, The Documents in the Case
Mary Ann Shaffer, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle
Noel Streatfeild, Saplings
Noel Streatfeild, When the Siren Wailed
Vercors, The Silence of the Sea
Robert Westall, The Machine Gunners
Robert Westall, A Time of Fire