Let’s kick off the new year by meeting a fellow historical fiction author, Catherine McCullagh! I think you’ll find her background and inspiration for her stories very interesting, too. First a peek at her bio and then we’ll jump right in…
Catherine McCullagh grew up in Tasmania, Australia, with a love of bushwalking, reading and history. She initially trained as a history and languages teacher before embarking on a twenty-year career in the Australian Regular Army as a teacher, linguist and editor of military doctrine and military history. She then left the Army and established herself as a freelance editor, specialising in military history. Fifteen years later, inspired by the extraordinary stories that surrounded her, she embarked on a new career, this time as a writer. She has published three non-fiction works: Willingly into the Fray, a narrative history of Australian Army nursing; War Child, a poignant wartime memoir which she ghost-wrote; and Unconquered, the remarkable stories of athletes who competed in the Invictus Games in Sydney in 2018.
Catherine’s first historical novel, Dancing with Deception, was set in occupied Paris in World War II and published in 2017. Her second historical novel, Secrets and Showgirls, also set in occupied Paris, followed in 2021 and her latest novel, Love and Retribution, which unfolds in wartime Britain and Europe, was released in January 2022. Catherine’s next book, Resistance and Revenge, also set in wartime Britain, is due for release in early 2023.
Betty: What inspired you to write the story you’re sharing with us today?
Catherine: I found a tiny snippet in a history book about a German sailor washed up on the English coast during World War II. Then my imagination simply took off!
Betty: What, if any, new writing skill did you develop while working on this story?
Catherine: I think I honed my skills rather than developing any new ones. For example, I found it easier to work the setting into the story without it becoming too intrusive – and the setting is really important to this story. I also found it easier to deliver information to the reader via character exchanges, particularly conversations, rather than the classic information dumps.
Betty: Did you struggle with any part of this story? What and how?
Catherine: I changed the ending after my beta readers complained that I was being utterly unfair on two of the characters. The original ending saw Emmy’s dead husband return, but there were so many complaints that I opted to leave him heroically dead instead. That’s not to say I won’t resurrect him in a later story, but he’s gone for the moment.
Betty: Which character(s) were the easiest to get to know? Why do you think?
Catherine: My main character, Emmy, and the two chief male protagonists simply walked onto the page, probably because I had been mulling the story over in my mind for a little while before committing it to paper. The other characters, Emmy’s mother and brother and Max’s brother, also followed fairly easily, possibly because I already knew their place in the story quite well by the time I came to write them.
Betty: What kind of research did you need to do to write this story?
Catherine: This was a very research-heavy book. I spent a great deal of time reading up on wartime England, rationing, shortages, the ‘make do and mend’ policy, the Women’s Institute and the impact of Lord Woolton, the Minister for Food, on daily life. Then I had to tackle the war in the Atlantic and U-boats. I had to study both the U-boats themselves and the base at Saint Nazaire where Max was headquartered and then, of course, he moved to Bergen in Sweden and finished up at Wilhelmshaven. Fascinating but complex. I also studied the Hamburg War Crimes Trials, the German military intelligence organisation the Abwehr, and the bombing of Hamburg. Then, of course, the characters travelled, so that opened the entire category of air and road transport during and immediately after the war. How amazing that you can find airline schedules for 1944 and railway timetables for 1945 on the net!
Betty: How many drafts of the story did you write before you felt the story was complete?
Catherine: I generally write one draft and then edit it several hundred times. Sometimes I write little excerpts when I’m trying out an idea and then, if I think it will work, I add it to the story and edit the flow from then on. It took me almost two years to reach the stage at which I thought it was ready to show my beta readers.
Betty: How long did it take for you to write the story you’re sharing with us? Is that a typical length of time for you? Why or why not?
Catherine: Two years is pretty average for me, although I spent far more time researching this book than its predecessor or the one I have just finished writing. Love and Retribution was ambitious because of the scope of research required, but I loved every minute. I learnt so much (who knew that U-boats had anchors?!) and discovered more little snippets of history that might just inspire further stories (watch this space).
Betty: What rituals or habits do you have while writing?
Catherine: I don’t have any rituals as such – I would love to just write all day long, but I also run a busy household, so I fit my writing in where I can. I do become obsessive when my story starts to take form and that can mean that I scribble on bits of paper, old notebooks and pads wherever I am as I try hard to chase my evolving plot. As I was starting to actually write this book, we took a trip to visit our daughter who dances on cruise ships. I found myself scribbling madly all through a long-haul flight and filling copious notebooks as we cruised the Arabian Sea. I will forever associate this book with airline flights and cruise ships!
Betty: Every author has a tendency to overuse certain words or phrases in drafts, such as just, once, smile, nod, etc. What are yours?
Catherine: Certainly, clearly, slightly and softly are my main offenders, to the extent that I search for each of these during my proofreading phase and check how many times they appear. Large numbers often apply! I have to keep my thesaurus handy as these words are often difficult to replace. Sometimes I have to rewrite the entire sentence. Conversely, I never use the word ‘said’ as I don’t think it says anything!
Betty: Do you have any role models? If so, why do you look up to them?
Catherine: I absolutely love good writing and tend to muse over passages from Rebecca West, John Wyndham, J.G. Farrell, Vita Sackville-West, John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and others. These are all classic authors and the only modern authors I have discovered who come close are Amor Towles in his A Gentleman in Moscow and Philip Kerr in his Bernie Gunther detective series. These are authors who know how to construct a clever sentence and also to use descriptive prose at its brilliant best.
Betty: Do you have a special place to write? Revise? Read?
Catherine: I have a study with walls of bookcases, two lovely, light windows and a tree outside where the birds love to play. It’s my sacred place.
Betty: Many authors have a day job. Do you? If so, what is it and do you enjoy it?
Catherine: I edited for the last twenty-five years and thoroughly enjoyed it. But I gave that up to devote myself to writing and I have never regretted it. Mind you, I would give up housework any day!!
Betty: As an author, what do you feel is your greatest achievement?
Catherine: Just finding a publisher is an achievement these days, but finding one who will publish all my books has been a triumph of monumental proportions!
Betty: What is your favorite genre to read?
Catherine: Historical fiction followed by military and social history non-fiction. I suppose I’m always looking to research the next book. I should read more fiction, but I’m really fussy, probably abnormally so. I hate that feeling of being disappointed in a book and I never finish anything that I’m not enjoying. Life is too short!
Betty: Success looks different to different people. It could be wealth, or fame, or an inner joy at reaching a certain level. How do you define success in terms of your writing career?
Catherine: People actually reading my books and occasionally leaving good reviews. I don’t care about the money – it’s best not to as you never make money out of writing unless you’re Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. I also don’t care about fame – also a bonus as having someone follow you on Instagram is about as famous as most of us are likely to become. But I love seeing my books in bookshops, I would be thrilled to have a book club read and discuss one of my books and I long to stumble across a stranger in a park somewhere deeply ensconced in a book that I wrote. We all dream, don’t we?!
It’s July 1943 and the world has been at war for almost four years. One morning young war widow Emmy Penry-Jones discovers two men washed up on the beach below her house in western Cornwall. But these men are not like any of the shipwrecked sailors she has rescued before and Emmy is soon drawn into a web of intrigue that will test her ingenuity and her patriotism. Rocked by accusations of war crimes against a man she knows to be innocent, she launches a desperate bid to defend him. The trial marks a turning point and Emmy is drawn further into the deadly cycle of post-war retribution from which only one man can save her.
Love and Retribution is a story of wartime love and loss, of deceit and betrayal, of courage and heroism. From the fishing villages of Cornwall, the story transports the reader to a U-boat base at Saint Nazaire, the British War Crimes Trials in Hamburg and the chaos of life in a post-war London still gripped by rationing. The novel is dominated by the fight to survive, not just the conflict that has devastated Europe, but the destructive pursuit of revenge that poisons its aftermath.
Author note: this book is written for a British readership and all spellings are British, not American. They are not spelling mistakes or typos, they are British spellings.
I love that you’re from Australia, Catherine! I’ve always wanted to visit that country and finally will get to this year. The breadth and depth of research you’ve done for your stories is inspiring as well. I wish you all the best!
Award-winning Author of Historical Fiction with Heart, and Haunting, Bewitching Love Stories
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