David Ebsworth: The holistic approach to historical novel research - from Alicante

I’m delighted to welcome the return of David Ebsworth to the blog as this week’s ‘writer abroad’.  DAVID EBSWORTH is the pen name of writer Dave McCall, a former organiser for Britain’s Transport & General Workers’ Union. He was born in Liverpool but now lives in Wrexham, North Wales, and in Alicante, Spain. David took up writing historical fiction full-time after his retirement and ‘A Betrayal of Heroes’ is his tenth novel.

Here he explains how he weaves the research for his novels, keeping his fiction within the limits of historical veracity and maintaining the balance between providing enough background to show all the necessary colour, yet not so much that it causes information dump.

Over to David!

Remember the Marseillaise scene from Casablanca?

Rick’s Café Américain. The Germans down below singing Die Wacht am Rhein. The conflicted faces of the bar’s French and refugee customers. Victor Laszlo’s defiant instruction to the band. “Play the Marseillaise. Play it!” And the band members looking up towards Rick, on the balcony above. Rick’s simple nod of agreement, worth more than a thousand words of dialogue and descriptive setting. The reaction of those onlookers, the trembling voices as they begin to sing the anthem. Their pride, the tears, the tragedy of France under the Nazi jackboot, the determination to be free once more. All captured in one brilliant scene. (You can watch the scene from the film here.)

Brilliance to which I can only aspire.

Yet, in my own way, it’s just how I try to write historical fiction. The protagonist’s story, the attitudes and events driving my main characters, the reactions of supporting players, the settings, must be specific to the age in which the novel’s set and themselves part of the story.

And it’s no coincidence that I chose the Casablanca scene to illustrate this point about holistic research.

My third Jack Telford novel, A Betrayal of Heroes, is published this month (14th July). I had to build a timeline for the relevant history thread from 1939 until 1945, and mainly – from 1940 onwards – the story of Free France. Then to research and plot Jack’s travels and trials through that history. From Casablanca itself to Brazzaville, from the beaches of Normandy to the Liberation of Paris.

This is also the story of Spanish Republican soldiers who, having survived their own civil war, went on to serve within the ranks of the Free French army, to continue their fight against fascism and Europe’s Nazis until the end of the Second World War. I’ve many personal connections to the Spanish Civil War. But I think of myself as an amateur Francophile, as well. So, here – a perfect storm. Spain, its civil war and the fight for the Liberation of France – all rolled into one yarn.

Telford, my protagonist, must survive in wartime North Africa. He must abandon his old life as a Sunday newspaper journalist to take up a new role as a war correspondent. And he must adapt to life with the military, a section of Leclerc’s Free French army.

It’s fairly easy to build accurate scenes of Europe during the Second World War. But Oran? Rabat? Brazzaville? The towns of Chad? It was getting to be a struggle, until I stumbled across the archive of maps in the University of Texas Libraries. These are detailed street maps produced in 1942 by the US Army Map Service for every major city in North Africa. Those maps led me to a similar cache of plans for the towns and cities of Gabon, the French Congo, Chad and so on. And from those maps I was able to construct the realistic settings for Jack Telford and his associates to populate.


For Jack’s career development, I studied the Second World War’s frontline journalists, men and women, so I could “teach” Jack how to be a war correspondent. I especially liked the work of American Pulitzer Prize-winning Ernie Pyle. I fell in love with Ernie Pyle’s writing – but it wasn’t Jack. And then I came across another winner of the Pulitzer for his war correspondence, Hal Boyle. I picked up a collection of Boyle’s writings, almost essays, almost Alastair Cooke.

From these I was able to build and research what, I hope, are credible pieces of journalism – Jack Telford’s own words but in the style of Hal Boyle.

General Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque (Photo: John Downey, US Office of War Information, public domain)

Finally, Jack and the military. He has to live and breathe among the men and women of Leclerc’s 2nd French Armoured Division for almost eighteen months. And, before that, with Leclerc’s flying columns in Libya – units a bit like the Long Range Desert Group.

Naturally, there were endless non-fiction histories and autobiographies for the period. But I learned so much more from another lucky find. Robert S. Coale – Bob Coale – is Professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Rouen. And Bob – with his encyclopaedic knowledge of Leclerc’s Division and the former Spanish Republican soldiers who fought within its ranks – helped to steer me through the learning curve.

There we have it. Just a few of our journeys to build and research a credible background while writing A Betrayal of Heroes.  I just hope folk enjoy reading it as much as I loved the writing. Vive la France!


Find out more about David

Website and blog:  https://www.davidebsworth.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/EbsworthDavid
Twitter: https://twitter.com/EbsworthDavid @EbsworthDavid

Read A Betrayal of Heroes

Swear,’ Leclerc shouted, ‘that you will never lay down your arms until our colours, our beautiful colours, are flying afresh on Strasbourg Cathedral!

Headstrong newspaperman Jack Telford’s weapon is his pen, but the oath he’s taken at Kufra will still bind his fate to the passions and perils of the men and women who shape his life – his personal heroes, like the exiled Spanish Republicans now fighting for Free France.

But from Oran and Casablanca to the heart of Africa, then into the cauldron of Normandy and the Liberation of Paris, Jack’s fate is also bound to those who will betray them, and to the enemies who want Telford dead.


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This is the last of the ‘writers abroad’ series and it’s a storming one to end on! But there are more guests in the pipeline…

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines and taste world the latest contemporary thriller Double Identity… Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

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