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Where the muse takes you…

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… is not always where you thought you were going

The exigencies of everyday life frequently eat into my writing time. Each day, I try to write for at least twenty minutes - even if all I get done is to read over the previous day's effort and fix the awfulness I find there. On one occasion, that correction resulted in nearly 1,000 words being cut. (The words are not lost forever; they end up in a 'cuts' file from whence some may experience resurrection.)

When I sit down to write, Through different Eyes (the sequel to my debut novel Through my Eyes. Again.) is where my focus should be - but that's not always the case. One scene I was writing recently required me to delve more deeply into the back story of a character - and as a result I found myself working on a second short story about another SOE girl to accompany Mrs Henderson's Limp. Let me explain …

The mother of the main character in Through different Eyes spent 10 years as a child and teenager in Nazi prisons but mostly in Ravensbrück concentration camp, the only all-women camp run by the Nazis. Through her forced labour there, she came into contact with several English girls who had been working for the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) as agents in occupied Europe. In the distorted circumstances of the camp, she was the only friendly contact these young women had - and she started to learn English. One day she arrived in the cell block to slop out the cells just after one had been led out and executed by an SS Officer. The officer taunted her for shedding tears over a spy. Twenty years after the war's end, the mother thinks she has seen that SS Officer's photo in a newspaper - and discovers she has not, as she believed, worked her way past the hatred stemming from those years.

Before I could write that scene, I needed to think through what had happened immediately before - and the best way I know how to do that was to write - write the execution. Strangely, it came out in the first-person point of view (POV) of the SOE girl. In this context, telling the story in the first person felt odd; but it almost wrote itself and, despite being about an execution, it is neither graphically violent nor unremittingly dark.

Satisfied that I had the setting and background I needed, I wrote the scene in the sequel - and carried on. But the SOE agent stood beside me for several days, quietly insisting I tell her complete story - until I acquiesced. This has involved significant research into how and where SOE operatives were recruited and trained, SOE operations in Europe - and the story is now over 9,000 words and I am splitting my writing time between these two projects.

The more I research, the more awestruck I am by these women. I can trace the start of this interest to a trip to Europe. I learned French and German at school and love travelling in Europe, made easier by my rusty but still usable languages. For many years I had resisted visiting a concentration camp, reasoning that I knew their dark story and did not need to visit places that would cast a shadow over me for days. However, on this trip, I found my wife and I were going to drive right past Dachau concentration camp. But that beautiful summer's day, we didn't drive past, we stopped and tried to prepare ourselves for what lay ahead as we walked down a tree-lined pathway filled with bird calls.

These are not pleasant places to visit: the aura of cruelty and death lingers - even though Dachau was a small camp, responsible for 'only' about 50,000 deaths. We saw the gates with their terrifying, duplicitous promise - Arbeit macht Frei - Work sets you free and started walking round the remaining buildings, execution walls and burial pits, each with their simple, stark explanatory signs in many languages - and I heard a German school teacher explaining all this to his teenage class. Passing the gas chamber, we arrived at the crematorium.

There on the wall is a plaque commemorating four SOE girls, executed on 12th September 1944.

In this place dripping in blood and tears, I am unable to say why this plaque has stayed with me. Is it because they are English and that somehow speaks to my English heritage in a way all the other deaths at Dachau do not?

But they are not English. Yolande Beekman was born in Paris to a Swiss father and English mother, Noorunisa Inayat Khan was born in Moscow to an Indian Muslim father and an American mother, Madeleine Damerment was French, born in Lille, Éliane Plewman was born in Marseille to an English father and Spanish mother.

I've pondered this plaque and its place in my mind and the only explanation I find is that these women represent humanity at its best in a place where humanity showed its worst. The SOE women knew the incredible dangers they faced in occupied Europe - and they still went, determined to play their part in the liberation of Europe from Nazi tyranny. Many of them, like these four, never returned. In a way, the short story I am writing is my tribute to these courageous women.

As a writer, I am more a 'by the seat of my pants' writer (a pantser in writing vernacular) than a planner and so I am used to scenes in a chapter going places I had not expected. But this is the first time I have had the experience of being dragged out of one story - by a character that does not even appear in the original - to write that character's story.

The muse really can take you to unexpected places.

Note: I cannot post the link to the plaque on the Dachau crematorium wall, but if you search for "SOE Dachau" and go to images, you will find it.