Researching Your Family’s WWII History

Since The Light Over London has come out, I’ve received dozens of emails from readers telling me about their personal connection to the book. In several cases, the children of Gunner Girls have reached out to say that reading the book inspired them to dig in and research their mother’s history in the service. However, the research process felt daunting, and they didn’t know how to get started.

After sending several people information about accessing British service records, I thought it was probably time to write an article giving some guidance about how you can research your family’s wartime stories.

(Authors, a lot of these suggestions can be used if you are researching a WWII-set book.)

Getting started

We all know the expression knowledge is power, and starting a research project is no different. You likely already have some of the pieces you need to start your search, such as:

  • Name

  • Maiden Name

  • Date of birth

  • Hometown

  • Branch of service

  • Years served

  • Locations of service

  • Rank

The more information you have, the better. However, don’t be discouraged if all you know is your family member’s name and branch of service. You still have a good starting place. 

If your family member is still alive, I would recommend speaking to them about the war. Some of the richest stories you’ll find are the first-hand ones passed from generation to generation. 

If your family member served in World War II...

Here are some resource that can help you get started. 

In the UK

The Imperial War Museum has a great guide for navigating different databases and other resources.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission can help you find a war grave or a cemetery or memorial.

If you are looking for access to your own service records, this website can help:

In the US

The National Archives has an excellent page that highlights the various databases and lists of US service members. 

It also produced a brochure to show family members how to find information about a person’s participation in the war. 

CA resources

The Library and Archives Canada’s guide helps family members find service records, military medals, and more

If your family member was on the UK Home Front…

Obviously, not everyone fought in the war. People did many things on the Home Front to both further the war effort and maintain as much of their normal lives as they could. You may find it helpful to look to books and documentaries to learn more about living in Britain during the war to find out what you family family members might have experienced.

The 1939 Register was taken just after war broke out. It provides a look at the civilian population of England and Wales. You can use it to find out more about your family.

The Mass Observation diaries are an incredible resources to historians and curious historical fiction readers alike. A country-wide sociological experiment, people from a large swath of social backgrounds and geographical locations sent in records of their daily lives. This is a wonderful way to get a snapshot of the area your relatives lived in or the work they did during the war. I used the Mass Observation diaries when writing my upcoming book The Whispers of War.

And finally, the UK has been vigilant about recording as much historical accounts from people who actually lived the war. The BBC has something called the WW2 People’s War project with many different oral histories (some in audio and some in transcript form.) I actually used this resource to learn more about the Gunner Girls’ experience when I was writing The Light Over London.

Persistence is a big part of any historical research project, so don’t be disheartened if you feel like you hit a brick wall. Step back and try to think creatively about where you might look next. Keep talking to family members, digging into archives, and using resources like Ancestry.com and see what family history you can uncover!

7 World War II Books Set on the Home Front

When I started writing The Light Over London, I wanted to tell stories I hadn’t seen before. I discovered that there’s a rich tradition of books set on the home front—no matter where that might be. Here are seven historical novels to add to your reading list.

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

The first thing you should know about City of Girls is that it’s a blast to read. This is due in large part to Vivian Morris, the narrator, who takes you through her debaucherous younger years in New York City’s theater world. Then the United States enters World War II, and she’s forced to grow up quickly. The story becomes more complex, a little tragic, but also wonderfully touching. 

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Set in France during the war, this book tells the story of Vianne and Isabelle, two sisters who find themselves handling the German invasion of France in very different ways. Hannah’s writing is sometimes lyrical and she uses some beautiful turns of phrase to describe the sometimes impossible decisions the two women are faced with.

The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher

My love for this book is pretty well documented at this point, but I can’t mention World War II fiction without bringing it up again. The Shell Seekers is ostensibly about a woman named Penelope Keeling and her mostly horrible children who are trying to convince her to sell her late father’s painting, which is also called The Shell Seekers. However, it’s much more than that with a narrative that weaves through several time periods—including Penelope’s time in the WRNS during World War II. For Pilcher aficionados, Noel from The Shell Seekers gets something of a redemption tour during September, but I’ll leave you to decide whether he’s really earned it or not. 

A Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys

The war is a creeping threat in this book, set on an ocean liner bound for Australia on the eve of the German invasion of Poland. The main character, Lily, becomes fixated with a young man who is sailing with her. But the claustrophobia of the ship begins to take hold and bad thing happen the longer they’re out at sea.

The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard

I read the entire five-book Cazalet series between 2017 and 2019, and I would happily do it all over again. The books span the interwar period through to post-war austerity, but the war-time years are really the pivot point of the narrative, highlighting the way the war hurries along the slow descent of one very privileged family.

After the Party by Cressida Connolly 

This book starts out like a domestic novel about the county set but quickly twists in ways that—if you don’t know the context of the story—will feel shocking. After the Party is immaculately researched and beautifully written.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

Does The Alice Network happen during World War II? No. Is that going to keep me from putting it on this list? No, because this dual timeline book takes place during World War I and right after World War II. This book stands out for me because Quinn beautifully portrays the danger and brutality of the women working as spies behind enemy lies in World War I.

The Light Over London Is Now in UK Stores!

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It’s an exciting day over here in London because The Light Over London is finally out in UK bookstores!

Last week, US readers got the chance to buy beautiful, dark blue copies of the paperback and now UK readers can get their hands on the UK paperback edition. 

If you need some help finding it, check out these fine UK retailers:

Amazon UK | Waterstones | WH Smith | Apple Books | Kobo | Google Play

The Light Over London Is Now Out in Paperback!

If you’ve been waiting to get your hands on the paperback of this dual timeline historical fiction, now’s your chance!

This World War II/present day-set book has:

  1. A long-forgotten diary

  2. A dramatic family mystery

  3. Brave, badass women who are as loyal as they are smart

  4. Some swoony love stories

  5. Twists and turns that will keep you guessing until the last chapter

I love all five of those things in any and all of the books that I read, so it’s no surprise that when I went ot write my first historical fiction I wanted to make sure I hit all of those sweet spots.

You can pick up your copy of The Light Over London wherever fine books are sold, including:

AmazonApple Books | Kobo | B&N | Google Play

Another Epic World War II Story Is Coming Soon

I've been hinting at what my next historical fiction would be about and finally (FINALLY) I can start talking about it. 

I’m very proud to introduce you to The Whispers of War, a book that explores how far friendship and loyalty can be pushed during a time of war.

Here's a look at what you can expect:

In August of 1939, as Britain watches the headlines in fear of another devastating war with Germany, three childhood friends must choose between friendship or country. Erstwhile socialite Nora is determined to find her place in the Home Office’s Air Raid Precautions Department, matchmaker Hazel tries to mask two closely guarded secrets with irrepressible optimism, and German expat Marie worries that she and her family might face imprisonment in an internment camp if war is declared. When Germany invades Poland and tensions on the home front rise, Marie is labeled an enemy alien, and the three friends find themselves fighting together to keep her free at any cost.

The Whispers of War comes out almost a year to the day after The Light Over London, and although it isn’t a sequel to The Light Over London, I think you’re going to enjoy returning to the same world for another story of extraordinary women.

The Whispers of War will be on sale in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook at all major retailers on January 14th in North America and January 16th in the United Kingdom.

United States

Amazon | Apple Books | Kobo | B&N | Google Play | Books-a-Million

Canada

Amazon | Apple Books | Kobo | Indigo

United Kingdom

Amazon | Apple Books | Waterstones | Blackwells | Kobo | Google Play

You can be sure to stay up-to-date with all the latest news about all of my book by signing up for my newsletter. As a thank you, I’ll send you an exclusive epilogue to The Light Over London that answers the question “What happened after the war?”

The Light Over London Gets a New Look!

Sometimes change is good, especially when it means the start of something new. 

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While I adore the The Light Over London's hardcover cover with its beautiful turquoise and yellow, I was pretty thrilled when I saw what Gallery Books had in mind for the US paperback edition!

This beautiful, rich blue cover will be on sale in the US starting on September 24th at all major retailers and many of your favorite indie bookstores, but you can preorder it today to make sure it ships as soon as the book comes out:

Amazon | Apple Books | Kobo | B&N | Google Play

And UK readers will start seeing The Light Over London in stores in October 3. You can preorder it here:

Amazon UK | Waterstones | WH Smith

Sharing Long Ignored Stories This Women’s History Month

Lili’uokalani, the first queen regent of Hawaii and last sovereign of Hawaii

Lili’uokalani, the first queen regent of Hawaii and last sovereign of Hawaii

When I was starting university, I had doubt what I wanted to study. For years I had been telling people I wanted to pursue a PhD in history and eventually become a university professor. That career ambition lasted all of three semesters as I quickly realized that academic life wasn’t for me, but my love for the actual study of history never wavered.

History for me has never been about dates and facts—the often dry approach that can so easily turn people off from the subject in school. It’s about story, and since my main focus was on social history it’s always been about the story of people.

In my freshman year, my eventual advisor nudged me toward studying gender and sexual during the Victorian era. I fell in love with this rich area of history, mostly because it was filled with stories. Women’s stories. History had slowly been waking up to the value of telling the often ignored stories of women throughout history, but what I was studying still felt new, exciting and—sometimes—dangerously subversive.

Now, well into my writing career, it’s no surprise that women’s stories thread through all of my historical fiction. I’ve written about Victorian governesses, artists, and shop owners. I’ve written about Gunner Girls in World War II who manned anti-aircraft guns and threw themselves into danger to help Britain win the war. Each of these characters were based on real people who left behind fascinating records of their lives, if only we cared to look.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to qualify as a physician and surgeon in the United Kingdom

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to qualify as a physician and surgeon in the United Kingdom

The extraordinary thing about all of this isn’t necessarily the way these women lived their lives—often they were just doing what it took to survive or make their way in the world. It’s how many people don’t know their stories. The Gunner Girls are truly heroes of World War II, but when I begin to tell people about the plot of The Light Over London, I’m usually met with “Oh, I think I’ve heard something about them” at best and “I had no idea” at worst.

It feels a bit absurd that it is 2019 and we feel a need to designate a month to women’s history in 2019 when—to paraphrase a woman famous for making her own history—women’s history is history. Still the lack of general knowledge of women’s contribution to every aspect of world history is undeniably widespread. This is only compounded when looking to women from different racial or cultural backgrounds.

And so the need for a Women’s History Month each March persists. This year, I’m celebrating with 31 days of stories, photographs, videos, and songs on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest that highlight a woman who made a significant contribution to or is notable for her place in history. My hope is that men and women alike will stumble upon these and their interest will be sparked to learn more about these extraordinary women.

The Woman With the 5 Million Franc Price on Her Head

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In researching my book The Light Over London I was continually amazed at the many—often unsung—ways women contributed to the war effort in Britain during World War II. The Lightseekers is an ongoing series of articles that highlights some of their work and the ways they brought light to Britain in one of its darkest times.

One of my favorite bars in London is called the American Bar in the Stafford Hotel on St. James Place. You can imagine my delight then when I realized that the American Bar was also a favorite haunt of Nancy Wake, one of the most dynamic, fascinating spies of World War II.

Born in New Zealand in 1912 and raised in Australia, Wake ran away from home at 16. She used £200 that she’d inherited from an aunt to get herself to New York City and London where she trained as a journalist. In the 1930s, she was a European correspondent for the Hearst newspaper group, and while she was working in Vienna she witnessed the rise of the Nazi party and its terrorism of Jewish people.

Wake was living in Marseille with her French industrialist husband, Henri Edmond Fiocca, when Germany invaded in 1940. As an interned person, she quickly became involved in the fight against the Germans as a courier for the French resistance. At this time, she also began to work for Captain Ian Garrow’s escape network, which smuggled Allied internees, POWs and other people out of France to Britain.

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Wake’s status as the wife of a wealthy industrialist afforded her privileges others didn’t have including the ability to travel more freely than most people. However, Wake also freely admitted to using her sexuality to move through German checkpoints, calling herself “a flirtatious little bastard.”

“A little powder, a little drink on the way, and I’d pass their posts and wink and say, ‘Do you want to search me?’”

Wake was so successful as an agent that the Gestapo began calling her the “White Mouse” because, despite suspecting her of working for the resistance, the Germans could never catch her doing anything criminal. To try to catch her, they tapped her phone and began to intercept her mail. Wake was eventually arrested in Toulouse but released after four days after one of her fellow resistance fights lied about her being his mistress, claiming that they needed to hide her identity from her jealous husband. (None of which was true.)

By November 1942, Wake was the most wanted person in Marseille with a 5 million franc price on her head. Garrow had been betrayed and arrested, but he was able to escape France into Spain. Wake continued his work, but eventually her life was in so much danger that became necessary for her to flee. She also escaped from France into Spain through the Pyrenees after seven attempts. (For those who have read The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, this is the crossing that is described in harrowing detail during parts of that narrative.)

After her escape, Wake made her way to Britain. However, her husband stayed behind and was captured. Despite being tortured, he refused to betray her, and the Gestapo executed him. Wake didn’t learn of his death until after the war.

In Britain, Wake joined the Special Operations Executive. She was a good shot, fearless, and fiesty. Vera Atkins, who oversaw all SOE agents in France, called her “a real Australian bombshell” who “put the men to shame by her cheerful spirit and strength of character.”

“A little powder, a little drink on the way, and I’d pass their posts and wink and say, ‘Do you want to search me?’”

Wake would go on to prove that strength of character over and over. She once parachuted into Auvergne where she was discovered tangled up in a tree by Captain Henri Tardivat who ran a group of rural guerrillas fighting against the occupation (a maquis). He reportedly said, “I hope that all trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year.”

“Don’t give me that French shit,” she replied.

Wake recruited members to the maquis, and was involved in multiple attacks on key strategic points including bridges, convoys, and railway track. She once rode a bicycle 190 miles and back in 72 hours through German checkpoints in order to send a message to London when her wireless operator was killed. (She later called this “bike ride” her proudest moment.) She could also be ruthless, such as the time when she killed an SS man with her bare hands or when resistance men were dithering about killing a girl who was a German spy. Wake said she’d kill the girl herself if they wouldn’t. The men finally performed the execution themselves.

The maquis Wake operated in was such a thorn in Germany’s side that 22,000 soldiers were sent to defeat them. The maquisards suffered only 100 casualties. The Germans suffered 1,400.

After the war, Wake was widely decorated, receiving honors including three Croix de Guerre, the U.S. Medal of Freedom, and Britain’s George Medal. She continued to work in intelligence at the British Air Ministry—with a brief stint in Australia for a political career that never got off the ground—before marrying an RAF officer in 1957 and moving back to Australia.

Wake’s husband died in 1997, and in 2001 she moved back to London, taking up residence at the Stafford Hotel. It had been a haven for British servicemen and American GIs during the war, and the general manager of the American Bar at the time was a fellow resistance worker from Marseilles. She would visit the bar every morning for her first gin and tonic of the day, and there is now a plaque commemorating her in the bar.

At the end of her life, Wake moved to a home for ex-service men and women, where she lived until her death in 2011 at the age of 98. Her ashes were scattered at a ceremony in the woods outside Verneix in France. Determined that it should be a celebratory occasion, Wake left instructions that there should be a boisterous drinks party afterward.

Wake wrote about her extraordinary experiences in her autobiography The White Mouse. If you are interested in reading more about her and other women spies in World War II, I would recommend The Women Who Spied for Britain by Robyn Walker.

Read every story of the The Lightseekers in the series archive. You can also learn more about their stories by following the hashtag #TheLightseekers on InstagramFacebookTwitter, and Pinterest.

Your Questions Answered

One of my favorite things about being an author is talking to readers. With The Light Over London launching on both sides of the pond, readers have been emailing me with all sorts of questions about the book. I’ve decided I want to pool those questions and answer them during a Facebook Live video this March.

So, tell me, what do you want to know? Where did I get the idea for The Light Over London? What's it like living in London? Who are my favorite authors?

Just leave your comment on this post. (It’s okay if you just want to say hi.) Then be sure to like my Facebook Page so that you won't miss my Facebook Live with all of the answers!

Love Is in the Air (So Let's Celebrate with Free Books)

February is the month of love, so I’m happy to show my love for my readers by announcing another Goodreads giveaway for The Light Over London!

All you have to do to enter is click on this link and keep your fingers crossed for a Kindle edition of the book. This giveaway runs until February 22nd and is open to US readers only.

Good luck, and happy reading!

The Light Over London Is Out at UK Retailers

UK readers, the wait is over! If you’ve been waiting to snag a hardcover copy of The Light Over London, it’s now available for you to purchase. You can buy the book from these fine retailers:

Amazon UK |Waterstones | WH Smith

I would love to see you guys reading your copies of The Light Over London. You can do that by using #TheLightOverLondon on social media or joining my reader Facebook group.

Speaking Event: "How To Write Romantic Novels and Get Published" at Pimlico Library

London-based readers, I have an author appearance to tell you about, just in time for the release of The Light Over London in the UK.

If you’ve ever wanted to write romantic fiction, I will be speaking at Pimlico Library with Brigid Coady on writing the genre and getting your books published. This is a great chance to ask lots of questions about ideas, structure, and writing process. You’ll also have the chance to ask about the publishing both in the US and the UK.

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“How To Write Romantic Novels and Get Published” with Brigid Coady

Tuesday, February 12 from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

Pimlico Library, Lupus St, Pimlico, London SW1V 3AT

The Light Over London Is a Canadian Bestseller!

Release weeks are always exciting, and none was more exciting that that for The Light Over London because I found out that the book debuted at #8 on the Toronto Star’s Original Fiction list.

Even better? The book rose a spot this week to #7!

The love that Canadian readers have been showing to this book is just extraordinary, and I wanted to say thank you from the bottom of my heart!

Making The Light Over London Come Alive Through Research

For The Light Over London, I got to immerse myself in a number of histories of the ATS, the Blitz, women’s roles in the British military, and more. I’ve included a few mentions of these books in my author’s note at the end of The Light Over London, but I wanted to mention a few more titles in case there are any readers who want to learn more about this fascinating time period.

Used for The Light Over London

These are the books that had the greatest impact on me while writing Louise and Cara’s stories. I don’t think it would’ve been possible to write the detail of the 1941 story without Barrett and Calvi’s excellent history of a Gunner Girl (as well as a Wren and a WAAF) or Green’s extensive research into the everyday lives of women in the ATS.

Girls in Khaki: A History of the Second World War by Barbara Green

The Girls Who Went to War by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi

The Secret History of the Blitz by Joshua Levine

Woman at the Front: Memoirs of an ATS Girl by Sylvia Wild

Additional Resources Used

From time to time, I needed to get a greater context of what was going on in Britain or Europe during the war. For that, I turned to several of these books. Certain titles also were invaluable for giving The Light Over London texture in the fashions and hairstyle or learning about social attitudes to things like love and marriage during the war.

Britain’s War: Into Battle 1937-1941 by Daniel Todman

The Blitz: The British Under Attack by Juliet Gardiner

Debs at War: 1939-1945 by Anne de Courcy

Forties Fashion: From Siren Suits to the New Look by Jonathan Walford

The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War by Lara Feigel

Historical Fiction Set on the Home Front

If you enjoyed The Light Over London and are interested in reading more books set on the Home Front during this time period, I recommend the five-volume family saga by Elizabeth Jane Howard, The Cazalet Chronicles. Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers also touches on World War II in Cornwall and the Wrens in a charming historical and contemporary narrative.

If you’re a reader of books set in Britain during WWII, I’d love to hear your recommendations. Please feel free to leave a comment below.

To the Readers of The Light Over London

Dear Reader,

To live in London is to always have the memory of World War II with you, a whispered reminder of the unfathomable destruction and incredible bravery that was seen on the streets of this great city. 

When I moved to London, the omnipresence of the war drove me to read as much about it as I could, trying to understand how it had shaped this place. It was when I picked up a book about the Gunner Girls and other British women who went into service, a seedling of a plot for The Light Over London began to grow. If you’ve never heard of the extraordinary women of Ack-Ack Command who manned the anti-aircraft guns defending London’s skies during World War II, it’s my privilege to introduce you to them.

Made up of the women from the Army’s Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the Gunner Girls were formed to fill out the ranks of the Royal Artillery’s anti-aircraft batteries stationed in Britain and across Europe.

By parliamentary decree, women were not allowed to load or fire the massive guns, but they did everything else. Each battery had a spotter who could identify German aircraft, as well as a team of women to operate the sophisticated instruments used to aim the weapon and set its fuse. These teams moved fast, executing a complex set of adjustments in a matter of seconds. 

Working primarily at night, the Gunner Girls formed a special bond held together by the incredible danger of their jobs to shoot down enemy aircrafts amid air raids. They were also united in their knowledge that they were doing something few women had ever done before—standing down the enemy right in the path of bullets and bombs. 

More than 350 Gunner Girls lost their lives during World War II, and their contribution and sacrifice when their country needed them most to win the war cannot be ignored. The Light Over London is my way of honoring the women of Ack-Ack Command and their incredible stories.

Sincerely,
Julia Kelly

Goodreads Hardcover Giveaway

If you haven’t picked up a copy of The Light Over London yet, or you’re a digital reader who also wants a hardcover for their collection, you’re in luck! There’s a Goodreads giveaway for the book running until January 22nd.

All you have to do to enter is click on this link and keep your fingers crossed. This giveaway is open to US readers only, but keep an eye out for some international giveaways coming soon.

Good luck!

The Light Over London Is Here

A forgotten diary, a forbidden love affair, a desperate fight to save her country

2017 When Cara Hargreaves discovers a diary from the 1940s, its contents will change her life forever...

1941 When Louise Keene meets dashing RAF pilot, Paul Bolton, she is swept off her feet. Then Paul is sent to war and Louise, defying her mother's wishes, ends up a gunner girl in London.

Watching the pitch-black skies for bombers, Louise finds comfort recording her dreams in her diary. And as Cara reads her words, decades later, she learns that hope can be found even in the darkest of times, she just needs to take a chance...

 

After months of teasing, I'm now happy to say that The Light Over London is now available in stores. This is a romantic, heartbreaking historical novel about love, loyalty, and redemption.

If you're a US reader, this book is in your local bookstore and online in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook right now.

Amazon | Apple Books | Kobo | Barnes & Noble | Google Play

If you're a UK reader, you'll have to wait just a little bit longer for a hardcover (February) but you can start reading the ebook today.

Amazon UK | Waterstones | WHSmith

You can share your thoughts about the book by using #TheLightOverLondon on social media or joining my Facebook Group just for readers!