The idea for my newest novel, If I Were You, began as many of my novels do, with a true story that someone told me: A young British woman met an American soldier when he was stationed in England during World War II, and they fell in love. The only problem was, he had a sweetheart back home who was waiting for him. But he decided to break up with his longtime sweetheart and marry his new British love. The war ended, and the soldier shipped home. Months passed before the new war bride received the paperwork that allowed her to set sail to be with him. But just as her ship docked in America, she received a telegram saying that her husband had died in a tragic accident.
What should she do?
What would you do if you were her? Return to the home and family you had left behind in England? Or stay in America without your husband, living with a family you’d never met? Remember, at least one person in her husband’s hometown had a good reason to hate her.
Authors love to ask these what-if questions when we’re plotting our novels, and this real-life dilemma became the catalyst for my newest novel, If I Were You. I also happened to know a genuine British war bride—a very dignified, tea-drinking lady with a charming accent. She was the mother of a good friend, and she always reminded me of the queen. Wartime romances intrigue me. They’re often fueled by the idea that life is short, so we should live for today because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. For many young women, a wartime romance that was forged in life-and-death circumstances is a love so strong that it compels them to leave everything behind for a new life in a new land.
As I began researching what I called my “war bride” novel, I quickly saw my story going in new directions. The British people suffered greatly during the war. All the other European nations collapsed in quick succession before the unstoppable Nazi forces, until the British people found themselves standing alone against them. I’m sure many people were tempted to give in to tremendous fear. But then Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave his famous speech, encouraging them to “never give in, never give in, never, never, never . . . Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” Fear or courage? It was a choice everyone faced, including my characters. The prime minister’s words galvanized most of the population, and they rose to the challenge, showing tremendous courage in the years ahead.
My fictional heroine would have been drafted to serve her country, doing “a man’s job” so that every able-bodied man could fight in combat. She might have driven an ambulance, for instance, and learned to do basic truck repairs like Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II) did. She would have certainly spent hours huddled in a bomb shelter while tons of enemy bombs fell, wondering if she would survive and what would remain of her home and the people she loved after the all clear sounded. During the six long years that the war between England and Germany raged, she would have had plenty of opportunities to become a very fearful or a very courageous woman.
My research also revealed that England during that time period had something America didn’t—a more pronounced class system. The prewar image that the TV series Downton Abbey paints of titled lords and ladies living pampered lives, while their servants scurry around behind the scenes living drab, harried lives, is mostly an accurate one. But the war brought a shattering end to that way of life. I’m a huge fan of the television series, so what began as one fictional war bride became two very different women once I started writing—one from the upper class, one from the servant class. The title, If I Were You, reflects the fact that there are things each woman envies about the other throughout their lifelong friendship. As the saying goes, “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Or is it? If nothing else, the war became a great equalizer, as women from both classes faced the same fears, the same dangers, the same losses.
And then the invasion came—not the long-feared Nazi invasion, but an “invasion” of more than 1.5 million American servicemen in preparation for D-Day. The popular opinion of them at the time was that the GIs were “overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” As if their lives weren’t already challenging enough, my fictional heroines would now face some new and very interesting ones.
Readers tell me that one of the things they enjoy most about my novels is that my main characters are women of great inner strength. These women don’t always see themselves as strong, and most of them aren’t strong in the beginning, but they allow the obstacles they face on their journey through life to work together to change them into different people. The two heroines in If I Were You certainly fit this pattern. But what sort of women will they become? How will their wartime experiences change them? Will their friendship endure or become a casualty of their envy?
I hope my book will allow readers to experience a bit of life in England during World War II along with my heroines. I’d like readers to put themselves in my heroines’ shoes and ask, “What would I do if I were you?” And I hope that when they reach the end, readers will take time to reflect on how they are being changed and transformed by the challenges they face each day of their own lives.
Oh, and by the way, the final version of If I Were You bears very little resemblance to the true war-bride story that was the catalyst for it. I haven’t given away any spoilers by telling it at the start of this article. So, what happened to the real British war bride in that true story? I asked the person who told it to me what the bride decided to do when she learned that her husband had been killed. Can you guess? She was no doubt a fearless woman of great courage because she decided to stay in America.