Historical Notes for Overseas

Though I pounded out the initial draft in a few frenzied weeks, you might say I’ve been writing Overseas all my life. It combines the two worlds I know best: the British experience in the First World War, and modern-day Wall Street.

As the daughter of a British national, I spent my childhood absorbing English culture and literature, from Elizabethan plays to boarding-school slang. Even so, it wasn’t until I took a college seminar on turn-of-the-century Europe that the period 1900-1918 really began to capture my imagination. Halfway down the reading list, Vera Brittain’s Great War memoir Testament of Youth shocked me into awareness of a generation of brilliant young men who’d charged out of the trenches of the Western Front and into oblivion; I mourned Roland Leighton and the rest of Vera’s compatriots as if I’d known them myself. As the years passed, I twice made the trek to Leighton’s grave near Albert in northern France and engrossed myself in the lives of countless other lost soldier-poets, from Rupert Brooke to Wilfred Owen to Julian Grenfell, whose poem Into Battle was famously published in the Times on the same day as his death announcement.

When I began to fiddle around with writing as an adult, the Edwardian period (and the First World War in particular) made a natural starting point. None of my ideas really worked, however. Looking back, I suspect the trouble had something to do with the remorseless facts of history: my protagonists were all inevitably trapped into tragic clichés, while in my heart of hearts I wanted to free them. My story ideas lay there on the page, near-lifeless, gasping for hope.

Then, in the middle of a writing workshop one summer, my subconscious finally came up with a solution. The image of a Great War infantry captain popped fully-formed into my head, walking the streets of modern-day Manhattan. I tried to shoo him away, because I was working on another project and because he didn’t make any sense. How had he arrived there? What was he doing? And why?

Nothing clicked together, until one day I was browsing through my old writing files on the computer and came across a scene I’d scribbled long ago, in which a modern history student had found a way to travel back through time and warn a soldier of his impending death. At last, the pieces clicked, and I knew I had my plot.

In creating the character of Julian Ashford, I borrowed biographical details from a number of historical figures. Students of the period will recognize, among others, a sprinkling of Roland Leighton, a hint of Rupert Brooke and pieces of Julian Grenfell, who lent my fictional Julian both his Christian name and his birthdate (the latter, I swear, by coincidence). But Ashford’s habits and personality are completely his own. He leapt from my brain onto the page, and I hope he does justice to the men who, in dying, gave him life.