Today I have a guest post from Clare, as part of the blog tour for her wonderful new book “The Escape”!
Read on below…
“Its not a holiday!”
God bless biographer Antonia Fraser for inventing ‘optical research’, which is a technical sounding term for going somewhere and wondering about, getting a feel for what it must have been like for a character to live there. So far in my writing career, optical research has taken me to London, Paris, and Berlin. However the one place that sticks in my mind is the tiny Polish village I visited when creating my new book, The Escape.
The Escape is a two-timeline story, set in Germany in 1945 as WW2 ends and the so-called ‘iron curtain’ falls, and in 1989 as the Berlin Wall is broached and the iron curtain begins to rise. It’s about two women who share a history and a secret – and I can’t give away too much more without spoilers, except to say that the stepping off point for the wartime plotline was a real life story of a young German woman who fell in love with an escaping British prisoner of war in January 1945.
One of the first things I did when I began the writing process was to discover a little more about the reality behind the inspirational memoir that sparked my idea for The Escape. I wanted to find the actual village where the young woman had lived and her story began. The problem was that what had been eastern Germany in January 1945 was now Poland, due to the borders being redrawn in the postwar era, and all the place names had changed. I had to do a spot of sleuthing, but nevertheless, I managed to track down my starting point, and set off in February 2017 to Poland. Heading off to Europe for a weekend’s research may like an excuse for a tax-exempt jaunt, but I can tell you that Poland in February is no holiday!
I flew from Luton to Wroclaw (called Breslau when it was part of Germany), a beautiful old city with a rich history. Although Wroclaw/Breslau doesn’t appear as a location in The Escape, it was worth spending an afternoon in the museum and discovering more about the region’s heritage, in particular what it was like when the Russian Red Army besieged the city in the last winter of World War Two. It was fascinating to see photographs and artefacts from that time, and to try to imagine what it would have been like living through such a cataclysmic moment in history.
For an author nothing beats actually walking round in your protagonist’s footsteps, however, so the following day I drove south from Wroclaw to find the village of Łosiów (or Lossen, as it was in 1945). For an hour or so I travelled through the featureless Silesian plains: snowy fields stretching out beneath winter white skies. I tried to imagine what it would have been like for refugees trudging up this road, fleeing the incoming Red Army, or later, clogged with T34 tanks and Russian troops advancing towards Breslau, and Berlin.
Łosiów is a tiny village, much of which was destroyed in the 1945 Allied liberation.
However the village’s old schloss (manor house) and the Catholic church do still exist, and look much the same as they would have done in WW2. I parked my hire car outside the church. The church is very distinctive, outlined in terracotta paint, and with an onion-shaped spire. The Catholic church was unpopular with the Nazi regime, which believed (not without evidence) that many priests held anti-Nazi views and allowed their churches to be used as safe houses for prisoners on the run. Łosiów’s church and the schloss are key locations in The Escape.
Getting out of the car, it was impossible not to notice how bitterly cold it was: breathing was like inhaling needles. When I visited Łosiów it was about minus ten degrees centigrade, but I knew that the winter of 1944/45 was a particularly cold one – it could have been as much as ten degrees colder still for my heroine. Opposite the church I noticed an old beech tree with a hole in the trunk – as soon as I saw it I knew would end up featuring somehow in The Escape. I crunched my way along an icy track, past the church and up towards the woods. I could see the curved portico of the schloss between the trees.
What’s wonderful about actually visiting a place is all the sensory detail you get. My feet slipped on icy puddles, and the freezing air sliced down my throat. As I walked off the path my shoes caught momentarily on the icy crust, before sinking into powdery snow beneath. When I looked up I saw green mistletoe orbs dangling from naked silver birch branches. The schloss was, wonderfully for me, open but empty. I was able to see the varnished balustrade, gilt-framed oil paintings and view from the window out over the frozen parkland.
I was only in Łosiów for an hour or so. But every moment of that short visit makes its way somewhere into the opening chapters of The Escape, and I’d like to feel that all the elements from my freezing foray give an authentic feel to my tale of a wartime winter nearly 75 years ago.
“The Escape” is published by Simon & Schuster and out now in paperback, e-book and Audible. You can catch up with Clare, and find out more about her and her other books here:
Until next time,