Places in mind…

I have always loved the countryside and spent a lot of time playing outside, as a child. I grew up on farms and nurseries and so, the appeal of the countryside has remained with me – and, particularly, the region in which I grew up and live now; West Sussex.

Writing Under the Yew Tree gave me license to remember the landscapes of my childhood and investigate further the activities and dynamics of the villages and farming communities I grew up with and worked within during my career.  I certainly had some key places in mind, whilst writing and several of my readers of Under the Yew Tree claim to recognise some of my landscape descriptions.

The village of Watersham itself in the book is a combination of villages local to where I live, in which you can imagine life in the 1940s; children walking to primary school; local shops and places of interest including the baker, the grocer, a tearoom, the church hall; and boys getting up to no good in the woods on the outskirts of the village!

Many of the descriptions of Downland views are based on areas of the South Downs outside Chichester, Arundel and north of Worthing, in West Sussex.

Village life in those days was a much tighter, closer-knit, and self-sustainable existence and I must admit, an element of that still appeals to me…

Wherefore art thou, Inspiration?

The question every author is asked, about every book they write: What inspired you? Where did you get your inspiration…?

Having penned my first novel, I know this is not such an easy question to answer. Few real-life incidents warrant an entire story or novel; most are mundane eventualities best forgotten! But if you start collecting them; noting them down, taking a photograph, recording noises, voices, programmers… they grow in substance.

My first thought about writing a novel was as long ago as 2009 but I’m still not sure what or why it happened. I have no idea what triggered it, but I woke one morning with an entire outline of a story in my head. It was so vivid in my mind that I jumped out of bed and wrote down the chapter headings so I didn’t ‘lose the plot’ – literally!

Writing it down enabled me to keep the thoughts together until I was ready to write. Honestly, until the day I published, the actual bare bones of the story didn’t change. But there was a curious development.

I thought my story was about the French resistance – it followed the same plot, but in my mind, it was set in France, not England. I was thinking about the French Resistance, yet something didn’t feel right. Until it clicked and I realised the story was about the English resistance. Then I thought of my father, some of the stories he told me, plus others I had heard and the whole thing flowed…

I know my father was in the Home Guard during World War II, during which he carried out night patrols. But why did he have a machine gun under the bed?! Was it really that bad?! I started my research and discovered how close this country actually was to an invasion – with Churchill’s ‘hidden army’ – and that set my imagination on fire!

So, I put my mind to it and started putting meat on the bones of my story, which I steadily padded out over the years, whenever I read, heard or saw something that might fit. I researched areas that interested me; collecting ideas, notes, images. We know a great deal about the French Resistance; the Spanish and the Italian, but what would we have done here in Britain? How would we have coped and defended our little island?

I imagined landscapes and countryside that I knew so well from childhood and once I imagined I was in the locations, I could feel the presence through my senses; hear the sound of the twig snap; smell the damp earth in the yew forest; feel the cool spring air… the pieces of the jigsaw fitted together, and the story wrote itself, as they say!

So, Under the Yew Tree was born. But there is more to come! The research continues; my creative juices are flowing and Ash before Oak is in progress…

The Art of Creative Writing

I’ve recently been asked a few questions about how I write; how I find my ideas; how I progress the story, mostly from business colleagues and I understand the intrigue!

Writing a novel is an interesting beast and for those familiar with business writing, in comparison, the ‘thing’ that is lacking from the start is structure, I suppose. If you write a business report, you know what your key chapters/ sections are but if you’re writing a novel, these could potentially be anything! The likelihood of going off on a tangent is huge, which could be seen as an opportunity or a risk, depending on how you see it.

Interestingly, the first thing I put down on paper when I started thinking about Under the Yew Tree, was a series of chapter headings. So, I suppose my business writing experience came to the fore in this sense. Each chapter then appeared to unfold as I wrote, although I would bounce between chapters, depending on where my creative juices were flowing – or where my characters were taking me!

With Oak Before Ash, due to be published later this year, I’ve found the story emerging in a slightly different way; making itself clear in my mind even before I had finished writing Under the Yew Tree. It’s hard to explain how this happens to those restricted by the format of a business report but that’s why they call it ‘creative writing’!

If you believe you ‘have a book inside you’, the one thing I will say to you is: just start writing. See where it takes you. If you need to pull it into a structure, you will. But have faith in what you’re writing. Even if you end up deleting the first draft, it will open the floodgates and your creative thinking will flow…

Good luck – and let me know how you get on!

Under the Yew Tree: A note from Sweden

The following is a review of ‘Under the Yew Tree’ kindly provided by Jon Kahn, a reader and fellow author in Sweden.

I have now read John’s book and I am very impressed, not least that he really did it! I promised a short review, and here it is, with pleasure:

‘Under the Yew Tree’ takes up the counter-factual theme about WWII, a theme that has been pursued by several famous authors from Kingsley Amis to Len Deighton and Stephen King to Stephen Fry and our Swedish Hans Alfredsson. The latter about an attack on a German train with soldiers in a wood in the south of Sweden and about a possible occupation of Sweden by the Germans.

The forest is also John Hall’s favourite environment. He is excellent in describing trees, smells, sounds, weather and not least, animals. John Hall is brilliant in describing the countryside. His description of how cows smell; ‘a strange mixture of grass, dung, warm hides and fermenting gases’ in ‘the overriding smell of warm milk and dusty hay’ is indeed excellent and better than what I have read before. John Hall knows his Sussex countryside, especially the southern slope of the South Downs with The Channel as something to enjoy the view of from a distance and he likes to describe that landscape.

It is in this setting he places a German occupation, which could well have come sometime after Dunkirk, if the Nazis hadn’t opened a second front to the East. But we are not very much informed in the book on these counter-factual historic and political details. The occupation of Sussex and perhaps some more of southern England is presented as a fact to the reader and this book is about how the villagers take it. We seem to be as much informed as the villagers are. They listen to radio from both sides, mainly BBC but know it is a lot of disinformation and bragging. One wonders what happens next and why the Germans were stalled in Sussex. Perhaps that is the next book.

In the centre is Joseph, a boy in his mid to late teens. The reader can see him as a typical teenager longing for love and confirmation and trying to do his best but he is also a classical hero. There is an established resistance movement already and most of the villagers seem to take part or at least sympathize with it. Joseph is one of the more active resistance men. Indeed there were resistance movements in many lands of German occupation but the Sussex resistance in this book seems stronger and broader than most. And why shouldn’t it be?

I like the way John keeps the story moving; this is a read that doesn’t require many pauses and I didn’t put the book down very often, even though some episodes are very hard to digest, not least the punishment of a collaborator. Having said that I also like that each chapter is like a short story in itself. There is a lot of action and blood amidst the deer and birds of the woods, but war is cruel isn’t it?

I, like John, love the Sussex countryside with its rolling hills and high trees on the side of roads, trees that also deepen and shift your perspective when driving or, as Joseph does, pedalling along them. I now have a much deeper understanding of this unique landscape. The book makes me long to be there more and I just hope I can stop short of imagining a Nazi soldier at the next bend…”

Jon Kahn

I’m humbled by the Foreword…

I am indebted to my friend Edward Couzens-Lake, writer and broadcaster, who has been kind enough to pen the Foreword to my first novel, Under the Yew Tree.

His words have touched me and I’m pleased to be able to share a few of them here, before my book is available, when of course you can enjoy the Foreword in its entirety!

“In Under the Yew Tree, John Charles Hall envisages how a Nazi controlled Europe would have impacted on the day to day lives of a small rural farming community. Not London, Manchester, Birmingham or Glasgow. And no visions of Nazi motorcades streaming down Pall Mall or vivid descriptions of how the great and the good of our Cities fell.  He looks much, much deeper than that, telling the story of enemy occupation as it affected the lives of ordinary people living everyday lives in a small West Sussex village, one that is more used to living in the benign shadow of the South Downs rather the sound of the jackboot.  People whose lives were utterly turned upside down, and who knew that their lives would never be the same again.

This is a story about how they met their fate, how they coped, how they tried to carry on their day to day lives.  And, slowly but inevitably and against odds that far exceeded the impossible, began to fight back.

The story is compelling because it is about people who had no right to anything other than to accept their fate and to remember England as it once was but which had now changed forever.  Yet fight back they did.  And this is their story.

John would, I am sure, have fought alongside them.  And with great gusto and a sense of what he was doing was the right thing.  Like his characters, John is a countryman. His love and appreciation of the Sussex countryside shines throughout this book.  He’ll take you there; you’ll share the same sights, sounds and smells as his characters; you’ll feel their pain, their fear and their hope.  This is a book you won’t just read, this is a book you will feel.  You’ll walk in Joseph’s footsteps.  Every inch of the way.  And you won’t want to put the book down until you see where, ultimately, they take him.  So, turn the page and start your journey with him now.”

Thank you so much for your support, Edward.

Under the Yew Tree – my inspiration

Having been born and lived all my life in and around the villages of the South Downs and the West Sussex Coastal Plain, I have a great love and understanding of these rural communities, and I have often wondered what might have happened had they been invaded and occupied during the Second World War. 

How would the British have coped, had the Germans invaded? Would we have lived in harmony with our ‘captors’, or fought with a similar resistance to the French? Where would our ‘Vichy Government’ have been located?

Any invasion by the Germans at the time would likely have come directly from France or The Netherlands and I was fascinated to understand how this might have impacted on the landscape of Sussex. Rich in wartime history as training grounds, aviation hubs and research facilities, Sussex is even now nationally vital for agriculture and horticulture, so how would these close-knit farming communities have coped?

Would they have pulled together should the invasion and occupation have happened? Or would they have worked against each other?Would everyone have resisted or would we have succumbed easily to our occupiers?