A lot of people whine that all WWII/Shoah books are the same story over and over again, that writers only choose this setting because it’s popular or we’re lazy, and that they refuse to read these books because they’re so “overdone” and “depressing.” As someone who’s chosen to write many 1940s historicals, I have to disagree with this ignorant dismissal of an entire subgenre of historical fiction.
If you’re writing about this era, however, you do need an original angle to set your book apart. Here are some ideas for how to do that:
1. Set your book outside of Europe and North America! So many other countries were involved in this world war. How about Japan, China, Korea, India, Burma, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel in its pre-state days, Armenia, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, the Dutch East Indies, Turkey.
2. If you do want to use Europe, try a country that hasn’t been represented much in the popular literature. Try Greece, Norway, Italy, Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia, Croatia, Latvia.
3. You can set your book in a country that was neutral but still felt the war, like Sweden or Switzerland.
4. Everyone loves a story about someone who fights back. Try writing about a resistance fighter, partisan, or someone who joins one of the Free Forces in Europe.
5. Many people don’t know about the Ustashi horror in Croatia and Serbia. Even the Nazis thought the Ustashis were sadistic punks, which is saying a hell of a lot! There were less than 100 survivors of the brutal Ustashi camp Jasenovac. The female lead of my hiatused WIP Newark Love Story, Svetlana, her mother, and her four sisters, are among the small band of survivors. They escaped in a mass revolt at the end, armed only with weapons like bricks, hammers, and poles.
6. Most of the books about the Japanese-American experience to date have been non-fiction. We really need more fiction about both the internment camps and Japanese-Americans in the military.
7. How about showing a family who’s not Jewish, politically active, or part of any other unpopular or persecuted groups in Europe? We need more novels showing what it was like to just be part of an ordinary family experiencing the war and occupation.
8. We need more books about the Pacific Theatre and the China-India-Burma Theatre.
9. Too many novels and memoirs stop soon after the liberation, when an equally-compelling story was just beginning for the survivors. My hiatused WIP The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees goes from late March 1945 to sometime in 1948 (with some unrealistically long monologues to be turned into a Part II that’s a flashback to June 1944-June 1945). It focuses on nine teens and two twentysomethings as they navigate this strange new world and relearn how to be a part of humanity and try to feel normal again. I’ve also got several other books planned to cover the early postliberation years.
10. The story still didn’t end after the survivors immigrated to Israel, America, Canada, Australia, England, and elsewhere. That’s also an entire story in itself, learning how to adjust to a new country and live among people whose worse wartime experiences were rationing and worrying over loved ones in the service.
11. An interesting angle would be to write about people who came home to stay after the war, instead of going to an interim country and waiting to immigrate. There actually were some survivors who resumed their lives in places like Germany, Poland, France, Hungary, and Austria.
12. I can’t seem to think of any books about Americans who were anti-war. Though they were a small minority, there were people who opposed our involvement in the war, and even went to prison rather than be drafted.
13. My planned book Righteously Unorthodox (which already has some scenes written, as part of my Max’s House books) starts in Poland but quickly moves to Denmark and then Sweden. It focuses on the consequences of young teen Elzbieta’s unorthodox but 100% consensual relationship with the 29-year-old Nazi who saved her life, and how she turns the consequences around into a beautiful blessing she has to keep secret from her siblings. You can just write a regular storyline about characters who escaped to a safe country.
14. Instead of writing about an American, Canadian, or British soldier, you could try writing about a Japanese or German soldier.
15. You can write about foreign nationals who were visiting or studying abroad when war broke out, and were unable to come home.
16. Not everyone who managed to escape before the Nazis devoured them went to England or North America. Many people went to South America, Shanghai, Curaçao, Switzerland, Turkey, etc.