The Man in the Wall – a historical short story

Image by bassoon12345 from Pixabay

Liza wandered awe-struck through Lady Sarah’s house. It was more like a palace than a house, with a dozen rooms at least, most with their own fireplaces, fancy carved furniture and rugs on the walls. There was even glass in the windows, though not in the kitchen where Liza’s mother was talking with the steward. Glass was only for the richest people.

Liza walked quietly. She wasn’t meant to leave the servants’ rooms, but she couldn’t resist coming to see the glass, like squares of perfectly clear ice, rows of them filling each window.

She walked through a doorway and saw a man in a black dress standing by a fireplace, talking with Lady Sarah. There was a hole in the wall behind him, where a wood panel normally stood.

“Hello, who are you?” the man said, crouching to look at Liza.

“Oh God, the brewer’s daughter.” Lady Sarah’s hand darted across her chest like she was sewing four giant stitches. “What’s she doing here?”

“It’s alright.” The man smiled at Liza, and she almost believed that he was happy to see her. “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.”

“But the family aren’t—”

“What’s your name, young mistress?”

“I’m Liza.” She finally remembered to curtsy. Doing that felt fun. “Or Elizabeth.”

“Like the Queen.”

Liza smiled. The Queen’s house must be a lot like this one.

“What do we do now, Father?” Lady Sarah’s voice trembled. “If Topcliffe questions the girl we’re all undone.”

“We will carry on with our game,” the man said. “That’s what we’re doing here, Liza, playing a game. I’m hiding from some friends, who are looking all over the country for me. You wouldn’t spoil the game by telling them where I am, would you?”

Liza shook her head. “No, sir.”

“Not even if they ask very nicely?”

“No, sir.”

“Or if they ask very meanly?” He scowled comically.

Liza laughed. The man was far friendlier than Lady Sarah, who stared at her like a dog that might bite.

“No, sir.”

“Then I think we will be alright. God would not send an innocent to do the devil’s work.” The man walked into the hole in the wall, then turned and waved. “Goodbye, Liza.”

The wood panel swung into place and the hole was gone. Liza curtsied, then ran away before Lady Sarah could tell her off.

#

Liza was in the kitchen of the big house, watching her mother argue money with Lady Sarah’s steward, when men burst in with muskets, clubs, and swords. The fiercest of them wore armour on his chest and a fancy hat with a feather.

Liza’s mother pulled her close, holding on so tight that her fingers dug into Liza’s shoulder. The steward spluttered, but was silenced by a slap from the armoured man. Liza buried her face in her mother’s skirts, wishing that the men would go away.

“Spread out,” the armoured man said. “Search every nook and cranny. I’m not letting that damnable priest slip through my fingers again.”

“This is an outrage,” the steward said.

Liza opened her eyes a crack. Two men had the steward pinned against the wall, but the armoured man was looking at Liza’s mother, and that made her really scared.

“Where’s the priest?” he asked.

“I’m here on business,” her mother said. “We’re good Protestant folk, and I don’t know anything about a priest.”

“If you’re such a good Protestant, what are you doing in this den of papists?”

“Their money’s as good as anyone’s.”

“Good for buying silence, I’d wager.” The man’s eyes narrowed as he stepped closer, then looked down at Liza. “I bet you see things, don’t you, child?”

Liza tried to curtsy, but her legs wobbled and she almost fell. The man laughed.

“Do you know what a Catholic is?” he asked.

Liza remembered the church bells ringing the year before, and people telling stories about Spaniards, ships, and storms. The Catholics in those stories were terrible foreigners coming to kill the Queen.

“Bad men,” she said.

“That’s right. And one of them is hiding in this house. Have you seen him?”

That didn’t make sense. The man she had seen was friendly. He couldn’t be one of these Catholic devils. And besides, he had asked her not to tell.

She shook her head.

“Have you seen anything strange here?” The man took hold of her mother’s chin and tipped her head from side to side, staring into her eyes. The trembling of her mother’s hand passed into Liza’s shoulder. “Remember, bad things can happen when you lie.”

Liza didn’t want to tell the angry man about the friendly man. She had promised that she wouldn’t even if he asked meanly. But she had never seen her mother scared before, and that made her more frightened than she had ever been.

“There’s a man in the wall,” she whispered.

#

Liza watched through a veil of tears as the men smashed the wood panel with axes. The friendly man didn’t look scared as they dragged him out, not like Liza’s mother or Lady Sarah or any of Lady Sarah’s friends, who stood by one wall, swords pointing at them.

The man in armour had a terrible smile.

Lady Sarah stared furiously at Liza, but when the friendly man saw her, he only nodded and smiled a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Liza wailed.

“Don’t be,” the friendly man said. “None of this is your fault. Besides, I’m going to a better place.”

Liza hoped that place was a palace, like the one the Queen lived in. She hoped it had rugs on the wall, carved chairs, and those perfect squares of glass in the windows. She hoped the friendly man would be happy, no matter what a Catholic was.

***

During the 16th century, attitudes to religion got pretty screwed up in England. Fear and anger led to a brief period when Protestants were oppressed by a Catholic government, then a much longer period when the Catholics were oppressed by Protestants. There were covert religious services, a secret printing press, and a long, deadly game of hide and seek as the authorities hunted down priests sent to England from abroad. Those priests hid in specially built hiding holes in the mansions of sympathetic nobles, only to be tortured and executed if they were caught. Richard Topcliffe, the only real named person in this story, was among the more fervent priest hunters, and by all accounts a nasty piece of work. If you want to learn more, check out God’s Secret Agents, a very readable history of the period by Alice Hogge.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

Obeying Orders – a historical short story

Captain Baptiste’s voice was a saw blade cutting into Verdier’s chest, leaving his heart and soul exposed. As the captain finished reading the telegram from home, the base’s officers stared at him in stunned silence.

“You cannot be serious?” Verdier said, his throat squeezing tight around the words. “We are simply to give in and collaborate with the Nazis?”

Sand swirled through the doorway of the officers’ mess, blown in on the last gasp of the past week’s defiant winds. Out in the streets, ordinary Algerians were going about their business, oblivious to the turmoil inside the French barracks, oblivious perhaps to the war raging across Europe.

“Deadly serious,” Baptiste said. “France has fallen, but Pétain remains, a good military man. When our orders come, we will obey. Go tell your men.”

Verdier walked slowly across the parade ground, dragging the captain’s words behind him like a ball and chain. He had heard the rumours of a government in exile, of De Gaulle in London and the Free French rallying to fight on despite their country’s fall. But discipline was everything, order was everything, and as long as Baptiste was his superior, he had to obey.

He entered the barracks room and surveyed his men. Their open books and half-finished hands of cards were a charade, and their attention focused on him the moment he entered. Every brow was furrowed, every back rigid with tension.

“It’s over,” Verdier said. “An armistice has been signed. We are to collaborate with the Germans.”

“But…” It was the closest any of them had come to challenging him since their first days together. They knew better. This was the army. Discipline was life.

In the corner, one man let out a stifled sob. Another flung his book down in disgust. Private Plantier gathered up the cards he had been playing with, straightened the pack with a sharp rap against the table, and then stood up.

“What are our orders, Lieutenant?” he asked.

Verdier opened his mouth, then closed it. An unexpected realisation swept over him. There were no orders yet, not from Baptiste or from any other officer. Those orders could end up being almost anything, depending upon who was giving them. On the one hand, there was Baptiste, the wavering conformist. On the other hand, there was Major Chapelle at the next town over, an opinionated officer and old friend of De Gaulle.

“Load your packs with provisions for three days march,” Verdier said. “Then assemble on the parade ground.”

He saw their confusion as they bustled about, and the growing hope as they whispered to each other and glanced his way.

Ten minutes later, they stood to attention on the parade ground. Verdier completed the roll call, straightened his own pack, and turned to face the gate.

Once he did this, there was no going back. It wouldn’t matter that he had followed every order he was given, not to anyone but him.

Baptiste emerged from the officers’ mess. His eyes narrowed as he looked at Verdier.

“What are you doing, Lieutenant?” he asked.

“Going out for a march, sir,” Verdier replied. “Our presence should remind the locals of who is in charge during these chaotic times.”

Both statements were true. If Baptiste chose to interpret them as connected, that was his own fault.

Verdier tensed. His men stood stiff behind him, perfectly disciplined, their expressions giving nothing away. If Baptiste gave Verdier different orders now, would he obey them? Could he ever do otherwise?

Baptiste frowned, then nodded.

“Good idea, lieutenant. Carry on.”

They were halfway out the gates when Baptiste called after them.

“Verdier!”

Verdier froze, turned on the spot, and looked back at his captain.

“Yes, sir?”

There was a knowing look on Baptiste’s face, and a flicker of sadness. “Good luck out there.”

“You too, captain.”

***

I have a new comic out this week, an issue of Commando featuring Lieutenant Verdier in a tale of action and adventure set in the Second World War. So if you’d like to see what happens to him next, check out “Desert Vultures”, available on Comixology, through British newsagents, or as part of a bundle of issues via the publisher’s online shop.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

Crossing Bridges – a historical short story

1817, Waterloo Bridge.

Fred and John stood on the south bank of the river, watching as the excited crowd paid their tolls and stepped onto the new bridge. It stretched across the Thames in nine elegant arches, north and south banks meeting somewhere above the darkly flowing waters.

“Grand, isn’t it?” John said. “Like looking at the future.”

“It’ll be handy,” Fred agreed. “Much easier to get to those apprenticeships Master Brown offered.”

“Easier for me to see Sally, too.” A distant smile suffused John’s face.

“You know there are other girls in London, right?”

“Not for me.”

Fred rolled his eyes, but he smiled. At least they could cross the river together each day.

“If we’re going to train as masons, we might get to build things like this. We should go across, see what it’s like.”

“Well then.” John patted his jacket, and there was a clink of small coins. “Let’s try the future of bridges together.”

*

1831, New London Bridge.

“That’s good work,” John said, eyeing the new bridge. “You must feel proud.”

Like Waterloo Bridge before it, this was a series of granite arches, an elegant stretch of grey stone connecting the south bank to the north, the world of home to the world of work.

“It’s grand to think I helped make it.” Fred grinned. “But now I’ve got to look for other work. It’s not like building houses.”

John shrugged. “It won’t make me rich, but I need the reliability.”

“Come on, I haven’t tried my own handiwork yet.”

They joined the swell of people making their way across the bridge, some hurrying about their business, others taking time to watch the demolition of the old London Bridge.

“How’s family life?” Fred asked.

“Wonderful but tiring.” John smiled. “I haven’t had a night to myself in years.”

“I know.” Fred looked away, scowling at the demolition crew. “I’m proud of what we did here, but I don’t like the way the city keeps changing. It was good enough when we were young.”

“World’s got to change. You can’t keep crossing the same bridge every day, because the river changes underneath it.”

“I liked the old bridge,” Fred snapped. “I still like Waterloo Bridge too. Why do we have to leave them all behind?”

“To build a better future.”

“That’s just an excuse to abandon what you had.”

They reached the end of bridge and stood staring back across, unable to meet each other’s eyes.

“I should get to work,” John said.

“Good for you,” Fred replied, and strode away.

*

1862, Westminster Bridge.

Fred saw a familiar face, framed by hair that had mostly gone grey. He hesitated, caught between fond memories and bitter ones, then walked up to John and held out his hand.

“Hoped I might see you here,” he said.

John smiled back, a little awkwardly.

“New bridge replacing an old one, I thought you’d come and see, even if it’s not stone this time.”

“Got to see what the competition are doing.” Fred gazed at the sweeping structure of cast-iron beams, and nodded approvingly. “There’s a few years left in stone, and that’s all I need.”

“Want to give this one a go?”

Fred swallowed, then smiled. “Of course.”

They set out across the crowded bridge, working their way around riders, carriages, pedestrians, and the occasional hand cart.

“How have you been?” John asked.

“Not bad. I kept thinking about something you said, about the river not being the same. Realised I needed to change, so I set up my own business, working on those grand houses in Kensington and Chelsea.”

“No wonder you’re dressed so smart.”

Fred looked down at his tailored suit, then at John’s patched jacket. Doing well usually made him feel good, but not today.

“How’s the family?”

“My Alf worked on this,” John said proudly, tapping a foot on the bridge. “Iron work keeps growing, so that’s him and the grandkids sorted. Did you ever…?”

“No.” Fred shook his head. “That was one thing that didn’t change.”

They reached the end of the bridge and stood in awkward silence while the crowd jabbered around them.

“I missed something out,” John said. “Back when I talked about the bridges always changing.”

“Oh?” Fred looked at him, catching the weight of emotion in his voice.

“All that change is easier to accept with the right person to talk to as you cross.”

Fred smiled. “Let me buy you a pint or three. We’ve got years to catch up on.”

*

1873, Albert Bridge.

Fred stood by the end of the bridge, an elegantly simple looking construction whose cables reminded him of the rigging of ships on the river. He used his walking stick to keep him steady as the crowd battered at him. It was harder to spot anyone these days. His sight wasn’t as good and he couldn’t look over heads any more. But at last, a familiar face emerged.

Except that it wasn’t. This face was younger, the eyes brighter, and for a moment Fred felt the decades fall away, before they came crashing in.

“Mister Jones?” The younger man asked, moving in to shelter Fred from the worst of the traffic.

Fred nodded and fought back a tear. He knew what was coming.

“I’m Alf, John’s youngest. He passed away two days ago. We weren’t sure how best to tell you, and…”

The words drifted off as Alf fought to control his own grief.

Fred gestured across the bridge with his stick.

“We were going to walk this new bridge together,” he said, a lump in his throat. “I think I’ll still go. Will you lend me an arm to lean on? I can tell you about your dad when he was young.”

Alf smiled and brushed dust from his eye.

“That would be grand. I always love to hear about the past.”

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

About “Out of the Woods”

This Thursday sees the release of my latest Commando comic, Out of the Woods. It’s a First World War story, telling the tale of Canadian brothers caught up in a gas attack at Ypres. But why tell this story?

The First Gas Attack

This April marks the 105th anniversary of the first poison gas attack on the Western Front. The German army had tried to use gas against the Russians that January, but cold weather had stopped the weapon working. It was at Ypres that the full horror of chemical weapons was unveiled.

The results of the attack were horrifying. Chlorine gas causes the lungs to fill with fluid, drowning its victims on dry land. Survivors were left with terrible damage. It was as terrifying as it was deadly.

That attack was the first of many. Rather than abandon these weapons in horror, each side escalated its efforts to develop killer chemicals. Phosgene, mustard gas, and Lewisite left men dead or forever scarred. Medical staff had to develop whole new approaches to save lives.

By the end of the war, these weapons had a sickening reputation. Countries that were happy to bomb and shoot thousands of young men agreed that chemical weapons were beyond the bounds of war. But for the men scarred in those battles, life would never be the same.

An International War

That first gas attack hit the French army, in particular Algerian troops stationed around the village of Neuve-Chapelle. These North African troops, already caught in a strange and bewildering environment, were hit by a weapon beyond their worst nightmares. Unsurprisingly, they fled in panic.

The gap in the line was filled by the Canadians, who were on the receiving end of the next chlorine attack. Knowing what was coming, and with improvised masks at the ready, they managed to hold out against the assault that followed, even retaking ground lost to the Germans.

This was one of the moments on which the Canadian army’s reputation was built. Like the Australians and New Zealanders, they faced some of the most deadly encounters of the First World War, earning themselves a reputation for toughness and courage. Modern Canadians might be known for politeness, but during that war, they were hardened warriors that the other side didn’t want to mess with.

That’s why the Canadians are at the heart of this story. Their part in the First World War isn’t widely recognised, but they played a crucial role, and on this occasion, they saved the day for the Allies.

That Name…

As for the title of this story, yes, it’s a Taylor Swift reference. My friend Al sings a modified and much more sweary version of the song at larp events, and when I was writing a story set in a wood, it ear-wormed me for hours on end. That made it the perfect title.

So here it is, a story of courageous Canadians and terrifying trauma, to a soundtrack of upbeat pop. Enjoy!

Making Stories from the Past

How do we turn the past into stories?

It might sound like a simple question, but the relationship between stories and real events is complex and messy.

The Nature of History

Last week, I received editorial comments on a history article I’m writing. High on the to-do list was making the article into more of a story. As soon as I read that, I knew what they meant, and I knew that they were right. I also knew why I hadn’t done it the first time around.

The past isn’t a neat narrative. It’s a jumple of people, places, and events. At one time these were facts, and what we’re left with is the evidence of what those facts might have been. It’s jumbled and disjointed, but also complex and confusing. Nothing about it is simple. Nothing happens for one reason.

One step removed from the past lies history. This is an attempt to establish facts from the evidence, to put those facts in order, and to squeeze meaning from them. It narrows the focus of what we’re looking at, asserts cause and effect, and prioritises some patterns over others. To do this, it draws boundaries about what’s included in any particular account of history, from the infinite variety of options available.

And then there are stories set in the past, whether told as fiction or non-fiction. These narrow the focus further, to individual people and what happened to them. It turns patterns into narratives, the mechanical procession of events into human experiences. It simplifies some things and exaggerates others so that they come to life for us.

In writing my article, I’d taken the jumble of facts and turned them into history, but I’d missed the next step. I had something that showed patterns in the past, but that didn’t engage well with our humanity.

Framing the Narrative

Whether you’re writing history or a story, there’s also another element to how this works, and that’s framing.

Take the First World War. It’s a messy business. It began and ended at different times in different parts of the world. It was fought in different ways on different fronts, in land and sea and air, was tangled in with events on the home front, and its effects linger with us a century on. Parts of France and Belgium are still inaccessible due to munitions from that war.

Last month, I saw Field Music perform their album Making a New World. Composed for the centenary of the armistice, it’s all about the knock-on effects of that war, from tanks to plastic surgery to sanitary towels. The album tells the story of the First World War not as a self-contained event from 1914 to 1918 but as the epicentre from which vast tremors of change erupted.

My upcoming Commando comic Out of the Woods tells the First World War from a very different perspective. To look at the introduction of chemical weapons, it follows two fictional Canadians from before they signed up through to the aftermath of the Second Battle of Ypres. There are many other ways I could have told that story – from the point of view of the Germans, of civilians, of communities affected for generations by the chemicals. I could have followed a medic, a general, even a gas cannister or a patch of ground. I chose the perspective that suited my purposes, but whichever one I chose, I would have had to cut down and rearrange the history, which itself cuts down and rearranges the facts, in each case forming a different pattern.

Telling Your Story from History

So remember, when telling a story from history, you’re never going to fit in all the facts. You’re already missing some of them and you don’t need them all for your goal. Explore the different ways you could look at the topic, pick a story that will bring the past to life in an engaging way, and let the rest fall by the wayside. You’re not here to tell history. You’re here to tell one story against its background.

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Deciding What History To Write

I’ve been writing a lot of historical fiction lately, both on this blog and for Commando Comics. I’ve also been writing articles for places like History.com. That raises an interesting question – how to decide what to write.

For me, there are several factors.

One is what I know about. With a few exceptions, I focus on topics I have plenty of sources for or already know a lot about. This narrows the field and helps avoid misrepresenting history I don’t understand.

Then there’s what’s interesting – both what I’m excited about and what I think other people will be intrigued by. That means finding novelty in the subject matter. For fiction, it also means finding an engaging character.

The audience I’m writing for comes into it. Commando readers mostly want stories about 20th-century warfare, especially World War Two, and they want them action-packed. While I try to make my Commando stories more diverse and varied than they’ve traditionally been, that has to come within the limits of what their readers will go for.

The format matters. What makes an interesting article is very different from what makes a visually exciting comic story, and both are very different from prose fiction, where you get inside a character’s head.

Then there’s the desire for variety. Editors want stories that haven’t been told, and I want to help show diverse stories and perspectives. That means I’ll sometimes pick a piece of history I don’t know quite so well because I think it should be seen.

Picking what history to write about is never as simple as just picking up a book and going with that. It’s a big challenge even before I set my fingers to the keyboard.

And that makes it part of the fun.

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Stealing Stukas

The Western Desert, 1941. When they find information about an abandoned squadron of German planes, RAF intelligence officer Captain Ian Thompson and daring Squadron Leader Samuel Westwell head out into the desert to steal a Stuka. But rising tempers and enemy action threaten to keep them from their coup…

My latest Commando Comics story, “Stealing Stukas”, is out this week. It’s a story of action and adventure set during World War Two. What’s most remarkable, given the story it tells, is that it’s inspired by true events.

Stumbling Into Inspiration

I’ve always had a soft spot for second-hand book shops. The smell of old paper. The unexpected books you stumble over. The certainty that you’re getting a bargain.

When I was writing for War History Online, I kept an eye out for second-hand books I could use as sources. Among them was Freedom’s Battle Volume 2: The War in the Air. This is a collection of first-hand accounts of the RAF’s role in the Second World War, edited by Gavin Lyall. It’s not a recent book, nor one that digs deep into historical cause and effect, but it’s full of interesting anecdotes about real experiences.

Bowman and Rozier’s Desert Adventure

Among the remarkable stories in Freedom’s Battle is one involving Wing Commander Bowman and Squadron Leader Rozier of the RAF, recorded by Squadron Leader George W Houghton.

Three Stukas in flight
Image by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J16050 / CC-BY-SA, CC BY-SA 3.0 de

In September 1941, Allied troops in North Africa found several crashed Stukas. These dive bombers were a widely feared weapon central to German Blitzkrieg tactics. The crashed planes indicated that a squadron had run out of fuel and been forced to land. Retrieving one of these Stukas intact would be a coup for the Allies.

Bowman and Rozier were given permission to hunt for the planes. They searched by land and air, with the help of a South African armoured car unit and some Italian prisoners.

After several days, they found one of the Stukas and got it working, only for it to crash land. The two men were stuck in the desert without supplies. It took a long trek and help from another South African unit to get them safely home.

Not to be defeated, they retrieved a technician, fuel, and spare parts, returned to the Stuka, and got it working again. At last, they flew the captured plane back to base.

Adapting History to Story

Bowman and Rozier’s adventure was intriguing, and I could see that it had potential for a war comic. But rather than stick with the real story, I took its basic parts and turned it into something else, with different protagonists and incidents that never really happened.

Why?

To tell a better story.

The real events had a lot of novelty, but not enough to fill a full-length issue of Commando. It’s a cool war story, but it’s not a complete narrative. Houghton’s account says almost nothing about Bowman and Rozier as people, so I couldn’t accurately portray them as characters. They faced some difficulties, but not the escalating challenges that make for a complete World War Two comic book. On top of all this, there was no antagonist.

Instead of misrepresenting real people for the sake of a story, I decided to create a new story inspired by them. Captain Thompson and Squadron Leader Westwell are fictional creations who I could shape as I needed. Ernst Schmatlock, a German pilot, takes the place of the Italian POWs, and in the process provides an antagonist. The nameless South Africans of the real account are now led by Lieutenant van der Walt and given more prominence. Bad situations are made far worse than they were, moments of tension and trouble more dramatic. Imagined personal conflicts add to the real challenge of retrieving a broken plane from the desert.

The Challenge of Historical Fiction

There is no perfect way to fictionalise a real historical story. In “1066“, I stuck with reality but added an extra character. There, the real story is important and well-known. The whole point was to tie into it.

For this story, I don’t think I could accurately depict the real people involved, who may still have living relatives. Nor could I tell the story I wanted while sticking to the truth. So I wrote my own version.

Even when we make up historical stories, it’s important to remember the reality behind them. Two RAF officers achieved something remarkable, far from home and in difficult circumstances. Thanks to Gavin Lyall, Bowman and Rozier’s names are still remembered. And thanks to a trip to a charity shop, they’ve found a new place, as the inspiration for a comic book.

Story’s Story – a historical short story

William Parker led the way up the gangplank and onto the ship sitting at Antwerp dock. She wasn’t a big vessel, but she was what his small band of men could afford, and it wasn’t as if they needed much cargo space.

“This way, Master Story,” he said.

The man who followed was dressed in a better tunic than he was. His hair was better kept, as was his beard, which was going to grey. John Story was many things – scholar, Catholic, servant of the Spanish crown – but he was not scruffy.

“Why aren’t the crew here?” Story asked, peering suspiciously around.

“Taking on their last supplies,” Parker said, the lie tumbling casually off his tongue. “I offered to keep watch for them.”

“And you’re sure there are Protestant books on board?”

“Oh yes.”

Story’s narrowed gaze roamed the boat.

Parker swallowed. If Story grew too suspicious, this could all go horribly wrong. The Spanish owned the Netherlands and they were unlikely to show mercy on an English agent here.

“Does it pay well?” he asked, looking to occupy Story as he led him towards a hatch. “Searching out illegal books, I mean?”

“I don’t do it for the money,” Story said stiffly. “I do it to save souls from heresy. It’s bad enough that our own country has fallen to Protestantism, but now it’s being exported?”

Parker nodded. He might not share Story’s faith, but he liked the man’s conviction. He was up front about his views. It would have been hard to put up with his company the past week, if he hadn’t liked something about him.

Parker opened the hatch and walked down a set of steps into the gloom of the hold. Story hesitated, looking down after him.

“Are you sure there’s no-one else here?” he asked.

“We’re perfectly safe.” Parker took a hooded lantern he’d hung from a hook, slipped back the shutter, and illuminated the path towards the back of the boat. “Just as we were safe under Queen Mary. Weren’t you a man of influence then?”

“That I was.” Story followed him into the darkness, stairs creaking beneath his weight. “A lecturer at Oxford. A servant of the crown. I helped try that heretic Cranmer. Then our glorious monarch died and her bastard sister took the throne.”

“Couldn’t you have stayed in England? Argued for the true faith?”

“How do you think I ended up in prison?”

That made Parker wince. He’d never been locked up himself, but he knew men who had been, whether waiting for trial or struggling to pay off debts. He pitied anyone who went through that.

They approached the door to a private chamber at the back of the ship. Parker produced a heavy key from within his tunic, unfastened a hefty padlock, and slid back the bolt. The door creaked open, revealing a dark room with a set of chests at the back.

“The books are in the chests,” Parker said.

Around them, the ship swayed and its timbers let out the ghost of a groan.

“This place has too much the reek of the cell.” Story peered in but didn’t step through the doorway.

“True,” Parker said. “But you escaped a cell once before, didn’t you?”

“True.” Story grinned. “They couldn’t keep me. I was out of their prison and out of the country before the axe could fall. They called me a heretic and traitor, you know, because I wouldn’t accept Elizabeth and her faith.”

“You’ll show them now,” Parker said, smiling at the man’s bravado. “Imagine the looks on their faces when they hear that you caught more of their books.”

“Ha!” Story walked into the windowless cabin and crouched by one of the chests. “I’ll teach them all a lesson.”

He lifted the lid on the chest.

“You’re sure it’s these boxes?” he asked, a note of suspicion in his voice.

“Oh yes.”

Parker followed Story inside. He was just opening another of the boxes when he heard a creak behind him.

Story whirled around, a moment too late to stop the door being slammed shut and the bolt flung into place.

“Damnation!” Story flung himself against the door, but it was no use. The timbers held solid. “It was a trap.”

“No!” Parker sank to the ground, doing his best imitation of a broken man. “But that means…”

The ship creaked more loudly as it cast off from the docks.

Story turned a steely gaze on Parker.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I escaped them once. I’ll do it again, and take you with me. The executioner won’t have you.”

That he won’t, Parker thought. I’ll be held long enough to keep my cover, then I’ll be let out. You, on the other hand…

He blew out the lantern.

“Best to conserve our light,” he said.

In the darkness, he smiled. He’d enjoyed hearing Story’s life’s tale, and he would enjoy ensuring it had a dramatic ending.

***

The kidnapping of John Story was a real operation by British agents in 1570. Story ended up imprisoned, questioned, and executed. Parker spent some time in prison to maintain his cover, had a bit of a breakdown, and then went back to spying.

If you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Get Informed and Get Voting

I don’t normally get political on here, but today’s an exception. Today I’m going to encourage you to vote.

Wherever in the world you live, if you can vote then there will be people who literally died to give you that power. They might have been revolutionaries fighting dictatorships. They might have been activists protesting inequality. They might have been journalists risking everything to speak truth to power.

I’m lucky. I live in something approximating a functioning democracy. Sure, the British system could do with some improvement – proportional representation would be a good start. But ignoring politics won’t fix it, whereas voting pulls the politicians and the debates just a little towards what you want.

From the Peterloo protestors to the suffragettes, Britain has a proud tradition of uppity sods forcing the powerful to listen. As someone who gains both pleasure and cold cash from history, I’d be doing them a disservice to ignore that. And as someone who lives in this country, I’d be doing myself a disservice by not taking one small walk down to the polling booth, making my mark, and making my voice heard.

The election is less than a fortnight away. Please, if you’re British and have the vote, go read up on the parties and your local candidates, consider the issues, and get out to vote on the 12th. And wherever you live, remember, your vote might be one in millions, but so are all the rest, so when the time comes, make it count.

Winston Churchill or Lord Bath? The Power and Problems of Historical Analogy

“Trump is like the Nazis.”

“Johnson is like Charles I.”

“Corbyn is Stalin all over again.”

“Nice parliament you’ve got there. Would be a shame if someone was to shut it down…”

Every time political news breaks, it’s accompanied by a raft of historical analogies. Whether it’s comparing immigrant internment camps with those used against the Boers and Jews or comparing the British Prime Minister’s policies with those that triggered the Civil War, these are powerful images.

I’m always pleased to see people learning from history, and perhaps becoming better informed through these comparisons. But I’m also very wary of these analogies. They’re powerful, in both good and bad ways.

How Analogies Help the Individual

Historical analogies can be really useful to us as citizens.

Firstly, they help us understand what’s happening. Familiar stories and recurring patterns give us a way to wrap our brains around events. Past examples create expectations for the future, reducing uncertainty.

Man carrying heavy crate
An analogy would be so much lighter.

Then there’s the emotional weight they carry. Not just the alleviation of uncertainty, but the summoning of other feelings. Analogies give us an instinctive feel for whether an event is good or bad. They tap into existing feelings, and so do the emotional heavy lifting for us.

Together, these factors mobilise us to action. That might be protest, it might be voting, it might be sitting back in pleased acceptance. Whatever the outcome, the analogy helps get you there.

How Analogies Help the Politician

Analogies are also incredibly useful for politicians.

Because they’re heavy in information, they can convey a complex message in a simple way. That’s an important tool when trying to either persuade or inform citizens.

For politicians relying on shaky logic, analogies can be particularly useful. Once people accept that situation A is like situation B in one way, they are more likely to assume that it’s similar in other ways. That saves the politician from explaining how A will actually reach a particular outcome – it will get there because B did. This smooths over contradictions and logic gaps.

This is a great way to justify policies. “You know what happened last time we ignored a country backing religious extremists…” is a great excuse for kicking off on Iran. But it ignores the differences between Iran and “the last time”, as well as the religious extremists we’ve left alone.

The Weakness in Historical Analogies

This leads into the bigger issues with historical analogies.

“What the hell? No-one ever cites me in blog posts! Couldn’t you find a picture of Churchill?”

Firstly there’s the pretense of objectivity that historical comparisons bring. Which analogy you choose is subjective and based on what point you want to make. Whether you compare Boris Johnson to Charles I, Julius Ceasar, or Lord Bath is a matter of political choice. Johnson’s attempts to make us think of Churchill have been almost comedically blatant.

It’s possible to choose from many different good analogies to any situation, which can teach valuable yet contradictory lessons. It’s also possible to pick bad analogies and have people accept them.

Analogies are dangerous because of the simplifications they bring. The analogy itself usually ignores nuance and difference. The vision of the past period it summons is usually a simplified, stripped-down one, ignoring debates, uncertainties, and complications about what happened. By extension, it makes the current situation seem simpler than it is.

Any analogy comes with assumptions about cause and effect, based on common historical understanding. “X was followed by Y, so if Z is like X than Y will happen again.” But what if X didn’t cause Y? Or what if, as is usually the case, it was caused by multiple complex factors? In that case, Z could have very different results.

Every situation is different from every one that came before, if only because we know about the previous ones.

Should We Ignore Historical Analogies?

So should we ignore historical analogies?

Of course not. And I don’t just say that because I write about history for money.

Historical analogies are very useful. They can provide perspective and understanding. They can motivate us to action, if only to ensure that the outcome is different this time, that the analogy breaks down and we free ourselves from history’s heavy hand.

But we should be very careful with analogies. We should be aware of their limits. And we should watch out for when they’re used to manipulate us, by our political allies as much as our opponents. Because the insidious analogies aren’t the ones we laugh at or decry. They’re the ones we unquestioningly accept because they feel right.