Kid Reporters

The Write Stuff

TFK spoke with author LM Elliott about Across a War-Tossed Sea from her World War II series

May 09, 2014
COURTESY CHAMBERS FAMILY

TFK Kid Reporter Raphael Chambers meets with author L.M. Elliott near her home in Virginia.

Imagine leaving your parents and crossing a dangerous ocean to live with total strangers. That's just what two British brothers, Charles and Wesley, do in L. M. Elliott's new novel, Across a War-Tossed Sea. In London, England, during World War II, many children were evacuated during the Blitz—a period of bombings by the German army—and sent to live with families in America. Charles and Wesley join a large farm family that is already facing hard times. Both boys worry about their parents left behind in London.

Laura Elliott is the author of 11 books for both children and adults. Across a War-Tossed Sea is a companion book to Under a War-Torn Sky and A Troubled Peace. All three books deal with what happens to people who lived through World War II. Characters mentioned in one book have their stories told in another so that they are all related and create a full story of lives in Europe and America

Elliott met with TFK Kid Reporter Raphael Chambers near her home in northern Virginia, to talk about Across a War-Tossed Sea.

Across a War-Tossed Sea is the new book from author L.M. Elliott.
TYLER NEVINS
Across a War-Tossed Sea is the new book from author L.M. Elliott.

TFK:

Why did you decide to write about World War II in Across a War-Tossed Sea? Were members of your family, or friends, affected by the war?

L.M. ELLIOTT:

I was a senior writer with Washingtonian magazine for a long time, and I really hadn't planned on writing fiction. I'm an accidental novelist. About 15 years ago, I wrote a story for the magazine about my dad's homecoming from World War II. I received so many letters, so many phone calls, and so many queries asking me to write a book. I decided not to do a nonfiction adult book, which I had done two of, but, instead, to fictionalize what I had written about my father, for kids like you. If my dad were still alive today he would be 93, so it's hard to actually meet the men and women who fought in World War II.

TFK:

What research did you do?

ELLIOTT:

I read lots of memoirs, and I did lots of interviews. I went to France, and I read and read and read and read. I read more than 40 books for Across a War-Tossed Sea.

TFK:

In Across a War-Tossed Sea, the British brothers, Wesley and Charles, have waking nightmares about their experiences in London during the Blitz and crossing the Atlantic. They are very vivid. Are they hallucinations? Did you have them, or know someone who has them?

ELLIOTT:

Today we call it PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), but back then it was called "Flak Happy" because flak is the shrapnel that was thrown at the planes, so if you were nervous or "anxious" you were "flak happy"—not a very nice term; and they didn't really know how to deal with it. I read about eight memoirs by grown-ups about their experiences as children over here [in the U.S.], as evacuees, and a great many of them had horrendous nightmares and flashbacks. Anybody who was in those convoys, where a ship went down . . . it's pretty hard stuff, especially as a child.

TFK:

The family has a lot of kids – mostly boys. Did you grow up in a big family with lots of boys?

ELLIOTT:

No, I grew up in a small family with only one sister. The fact that Wesley and Charles exist came from this little paragraph that I read in a collection of news articles, which ran in Richmond in the 1940s. Some wonderful librarian put together every news report in the Richmond area, from 1935 to 1945, and it was a phenomenal resource. I saw this little two-sentence thing that said an Episcopal church was trying to place evacuees with Richmond families. I had already made Patsy come from a large family in the companion book Under a War-Torn Sky. I guess because she was a tomboy, I just . . . I don't know. I guess because my dad had siblings, and it was hard to run a family farm without a lot of kids in the 30s, so families tended to be bigger.

Kid Reporter
Raphael Chambers

TFK:

Kids today don't write real letters. Why did you decide to have the brothers write letters home to their parents? 

ELLIOTT:

It's the only way they had to communicate. That, and telegrams. That was it. No telephones, because there were no secure lines. It was really hard, and their relatives were completely cut off from the rest of their families.

TFK:

The brothers live with a family on a farm in Virginia. Did you grow up [in Virginia]? Did you grow up on a farm like the one they live on?

ELLIOTT:

I actually grew up in Fairfax County, [Virginia]. I'm a rare native, and I grew up on what had been my grandfather's dairy farm. I grew up on space, and I climbed trees and fell out of them. I was a real outside child. I had a lot of pets. People ask me: Why so much nature? It is because I was outside so much of the time, and I feel sorry for you kids who are not. 

TFK:

Wesley is studying American history in the story, so there is a lot of history in the book, both about WWII and early periods. How did you do your research? And why is there a lot of bullying?

ELLIOTT:

Well, in my research there was a lot of bullying, and the memoirs talked about that. They talked about studying American history and all the memoirs had big things about the history, how it was offensive. The Brits were the bad guys who massacred people in Boston. So you know you would be a little person like Wesley who came here when you were 10 years old and you would be treated like a bad guy. I also tried to think about the families who absorbed these evacuees. If you already had five siblings and then got another two, it means extra mouths to feed, shoes to share. That's a lot of space to give up. You add kids in need into a family situation and it becomes pretty heated. The middle child often gets lost and can often be a little unhappy about that. So if you got a middle child who secretly adores his older brother and his big brother has become best friends with the new kid, the middle brother gets annoyed. 

TFK:

I love all the British words and phrases that you included–like nerts, blokes, and God's Teeth. How did you learn how British and American kids spoke back then?

ELLIOTT:

A lot of different ways. I have British friends, so I had heard a lot of British euphemisms. I'd studied in England briefly; so I knew they were tripping up on Americanisms sometimes. And there is a website for everything. I found a website that had some British words, and I found another website for Southernisms; because I wanted to corroborate with all the wonderful things I grew up hearing, because my Dad was from Tidewater, Virginia. So part of it was from my ear from growing up with wonderful old people who spoke with these pictorial ways. They sat around and talked more than we do, because we're so busy. I also watched a lot of old movies and read books and radio recordings; I listened for the swagger and bravado of covering up fear.  Pilots did not say, "Don't come very close or we'll crash." They said, "I can get so close we can play poker on my wingtip."

TFK:

Do you have any advice for young writers starting their first novel?

ELLIOTT:

Create an outline of your world and your characters to work in, but you are not bound by it. Be sure to read, and really listen. If you aren't already writing a book, sit at a café, and listen to the people there, and pay attention to the way they are dressed, how they act, if they listen. If you are a really good writer, you are an Aeolian harp. An Aeolian harp is a lyre, like [the Greek god] Apollo's, and when it is hit by wind it makes chords and harmonies. If you are a really good writer, you can take a story and spit it back out. And learn to show, rather than tell. Find revealing details. For instance, in Across a War-Tossed Sea, in the first chapter, rather than my telling you that Wesley has bad dreams, I show you; I show you about the kid's preoccupation with salvaging, with the excitement about the tire; I show you that it is a rural life with them swimming around in a pool. 


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