26 November 2008
Historical fiction author Dianne Ascroft
Nonfiction writer Dianne Ascroft published her first novel this year, a historical set during and after World War II. Hitler and Mars Bars (Trafford Publishing) is the story of a lonely German orphan boy rescued by Operation Shamrock and taken to Ireland, where he must face more than the ordinary challenges of growing up.
Welcome, Dianne, and congratulations on the publication of your first novel!
Thank you! I’m pleased to be here today.
Although Canadian, you live in on a farm in Northern Ireland. That sounds very isolated. Have you found a community of writers there or a critique group, or are you completely on your own as a writer? How do you do your research?
There are quite a few writers in the county where I live, and we are loosely connected to each other through the Fermanagh Authors Association. The main aims of the group are to promote our work, individually and as a group, and to publish group anthologies. The Association doesn’t devote much time at meetings to critiquing each other’s work so I am on my own in that respect. That is one aspect of a traditional writers group that I miss.
There was a lot of research involved in writing Hitler and Mars Bars. Although the book is set only sixty years ago, it was before I was born so I don’t have any firsthand knowledge of the era. I did a lot of background reading about Germany and Ireland during that period. They were two very different countries—Germany a battle-scarred, industrialized nation and Ireland a quiet, mostly rural place. I read general histories as well as biographies.
I couldn’t find much information about the Irish Red Cross initiative, Operation Shamrock, except a chapter in one book about German-Irish relations after World War II and an RTE, Irish television documentary exploring the German children’s experiences in Ireland. So I had to do my own research. I spoke to people in the communities that hosted the children—the former evacuees, their foster families, their neighbours, their classmates, their friends, and the local clergy. I also requested information from the Hattingen Archives in Germany about the children’s lives during the war.
Period photographs, from both countries, were important to allow me to see what life was like and to get details such as how they dressed and what certain machinery looked like. Photographs helped me understand some of the information I found in my background reading.
Whenever possible I visited the places where I set the story. I wanted to get an overall impression of the areas. During these visits I often spotted little details that brought the place to life when I wrote about it.
Writing a historical novel takes a lot of research. How do you know when it’s time to stop researching and start writing?
I think the two go hand in hand. Even once you start writing you are always checking details and doing that little bit more reading to make things clearer. When I began my research, Ireland and Germany sixty years ago were completely foreign worlds to me. Though it involved more time and effort than I’d envisioned before I started, I tried to be as thorough with my research as I could. I have to admit that I didn’t really mind as I found the research fascinating. Sometimes I had to tear myself away from it to write.
Before I could begin writing I needed a good background knowledge of the historic events that related to my story and the era in general. Once I had a clear understanding of what was happening in both countries at the time, I was able to write about it. I spent a year doing the initial research before I started writing. As I’ve said, I continued to research as I wrote. There were always details that I needed to find—when was electricity installed in rural Ireland, how much was a farm labourer paid, what year was Dublin’s main street named O’Connell Street, how old were boys when they began to wear long trousers. The list of details that occurred to me as I wrote is almost endless, so the research was never done. But I did get to a point during the initial research when I felt I knew enough about life in the era to begin writing about it.
What was your favorite part of writing Hitler and Mars Bars?
As I’ve said, I really enjoyed the research. Some of the background reading I did was fascinating. I read quite a few biographies and autobiographies and loved learning about these German and Irish people’s lives. Ireland sixty years ago was so different from the Ireland that I live in. It was like stepping into another world. Memoirs such as Alice Taylor’s To School Through The Fields, Bryan Gallagher’s Barefoot In Mullyneeny, Sean McElgunn’s Charleyhorse Rider, and William K. Parke’s A Fermanagh Childhood opened up a new world for me. It was so absorbing that I had to drag myself away from it to write.
Once I did drag myself away from my reading, I loved getting the story down on paper. Initially writing each scene, before the revising and editing begins, is exhilarating. I can see the story in my head, almost like watching a film. Then I write down what I imagine. Although it will need editing later, the words just flow at this stage. It’s exciting to see the first draft of each scene finished and added to the manuscript.
Can you tell us more about Operation Shamrock? Do you consider it a success or a failure?
Operation Shamrock was an Irish Red Cross project, in co-operation with the German Save The Children Society, which helped hundreds of children recover from the deprivation in post-war Germany. After the Second World War conditions in Europe, including Germany, were appalling and many people were near starvation. Ireland was one of the first countries to send donations of money and goods to the damaged country. Irish people were particularly moved by the plight of the children, and, as a result, the German Save The Children Society was formed in October 1945. Its stated aim was to bring German children to Ireland to save them from starvation.
In March 1946 the Irish Red Cross, on behalf of both organisations, applied to the Allied Control Council to bring one hundred German children to Ireland. The request was approved on 31st May. On 27th July, 1946, the first eighty-eight children arrived. By April 1947 over four hundred children, aged between three and fifteen, were in Ireland. Most of them came from the devastated Ruhr area, which had been heavily bombed by the Allies during the war.
On arrival the children were taken to the Red Cross Centre at Glencree, Co Wicklow, where they were cared for by nurses and Red Cross workers. Malnutrition and other health problems were treated, and when their health improved sufficiently they were placed with foster families. Each child was fostered by a family of the same faith as himself. The children received good care and nourishing food. Most of these children formed strong bonds with their foster families and many were loath to leave them when the time came to return home.
At the end of the planned duration of the three-year project, between April and September 1949, most of the children were returned to their families in Germany. They returned home healthy and happy though many missed their foster families. Approximately fifty children, for various reasons, remained in Ireland permanently.
I would consider the project a resounding success. Its stated aim was to save German children from starvation in the aftermath of the war. Over 400 of these children were brought to Ireland and cared for. There were very few reports of mistreatment. The children were well fed and cared for. They returned home much healthier than when they arrived in Ireland. The Red Cross did exactly what they set out to do and many children, who may not have done so in their homeland, survived and thrived. Operation Shamrock was a very worthwhile humanitarian aid initiative.
Did your experience writing nonfiction for newspapers and magazines help or hurt when you began writing a novel?
A bit of both, really. My experience researching articles, as well as my history studies at university, taught me how to do the research I needed for my novel. I was well prepared to get my material together. But then I had to learn to let go and fictionalise the facts I had. Because the story is loosely based on real events, I wanted to portray Operation Shamrock accurately. So sometimes I hesitated when I moved the storyline away from the real events.
You chose to self-publish Hitler and Mars Bars with Trafford Publishing. What did Trafford do to market your book? What are you doing to market it?
Trafford’s active marketing efforts focus on the book’s release. They send out press releases to their mailing list, announcing the release. They are able to reach a larger circle then I would be able to do. In their ongoing program they provide a Webpage for the book, in their online catalogue, which includes information about the book, the author and review excerpts. Additionally the author can choose to list the title in printed catalogues and/or have the book displayed with other Trafford titles at major book fairs, including the London Book Fair and the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Trafford’s marketing program is a general one. I have had to target specialised groups that fall outside their standard contacts list myself.
Hitler and Mars Bars has been released for just over six months now, so I’m still finding out where best to target it. But I know that personal recommendations are important for any market. Nothing can beat them. Positive reviews and comments from others in the writing world and the media are vital for my marketing efforts. So, before I undertook any promotional activities, I sought reviewers. I received favourable reviews from many regional newspapers as well as a Belfast daily paper, The News Letter, and the BBC broadcaster and journalist Brian D’Arcy. I quote from them in my publicity material; their comments have been very beneficial to my marketing campaign.
I approach my marketing in manageable segments—moving outwards in ever widening circles. Initially I concentrated on the counties of Ireland where most of the book is set. Now I’m widening the circle to include the rest of Ireland and Irish communities elsewhere. I sent press releases to the media, especially the newspapers, to encourage them to write articles about the book. As soon as they printed articles I contacted bookshops and libraries in the area to offer the book for sale. The media coverage is crucial to arouse interest. Many people won’t buy a book if they haven’t heard of it. Even if they see it sitting on the shelf and it seems appealing, it won’t tempt them unless they know something about it.
The Internet is also very important to my promotion efforts. It gives me the opportunity to publicise the book to a much broader audience around the world than I would have direct access to. So I have a Website and a blog, and I am always willing to visit other sites to talk about Hitler and Mars Bars. And because the material stays on the Internet indefinitely, the entries on these sites will continue to publicise the book for me.
So I have found that a combination of targeting specific markets where the book is particularly relevant and trying to reach the broader reading public is a good strategy for me.
What is your writing regimen? Would you recommend it to aspiring authors?
As is the case for many writers, writing has never been my primary occupation. I’ve always held a day job and written in the evenings after my household and farm chores are completed. I don’t manage to write every evening but I usually spend a couple hours, several evenings each week, writing. I’m up early each morning, but I have chores to do so I don’t manage to do any writing before I leave for the office. I do carry with me the piece I’m currently working on and spend any quiet times during the day revising it. When I sit down to write later, I look over what I’ve already done and then continue on. On the weekends, after the chores are done, I also spend as much time as possible writing—that’s usually no more than a couple hours at a time.
I would love to spend more time writing but I have to balance it with the rest of my life. I would advise aspiring writers to spend as much time as they can writing. If they don’t have a lot of time available, then plan ahead carefully so that writing time will be spent writing and not organising files or thinking about what to write. With organisation you can make the most of your writing time even if it isn’t as much time as you would like to have.
What will your next novel be about?
When I finished writing Hitler and Mars Bars I didn’t know what would happen to Erich next. But about a week after I finished writing ideas started popping into my head, and Erich’s future started to take shape. So I would like to write a sequel to Hitler and Mars Bars. It would begin in 1955, when this book ends, and probably continue through the rest of Erich’s teens and into his twenties. I have some definite ideas about what I would like to see happen in the next book—but I’m not giving anything away yet!
Thanks again, Dianne.
It was my pleasure, Shauna. Thanks for hosting me!
You can learn more about Dianne and Hitler and Mars Bars by visiting her Website at http://www.geocities.com/dianne_ascroft/ and her blog at http://dianneascroft.wordpress.com/. Her book is available from Trafford Press and Amazon.com.
I’ll be speaking on “Myth and Folktales in Science Fiction and Fantasy” at the Orange County Science Fiction Club on Wednesday, November 26 (the night before Thanksgiving), at 7:30 in Fullerton, California. Everyone is welcome to come. For directions, please see http://www.ocsfc.org/ocsfcmap.htm.