How do we find the stories, the ideas for our novels or how do they find us?
I am always on the lookout for ideas, for seeds that might grow like flowers into fully-realised stories. We writers are always digging about for nuggets. Magpies, we are, looking for what shines. Sometimes, the work involves weeks, months, of research, grappling with a vague idea for ages, knowing that it might or might not crystallise, until we are at the point of giving up and moving on to something else. On other occasions, a story, a voice, a person leaps out at you and you know – as much as in our guts we know anything for sure – that this lead will be the one we need to follow.
So it happened with me a long time before An Act of Love was thought of. I was at work on one of my Olive Farm books and took a short journey inland to visit some of the small hill towns that are situated in the hinterland up behind the city of Nice.
One of the Alpine towns, Saint-Martin-Vésubie, instantly drew my attention. I walked about its hilly medieval streets with its coloured houses and its astounding views in every direction within the Mercantour National Park. I knew nothing of its twentieth-century history at that time. Of its Second World War deeds of generosity and courage. Of the suffering, nor acts of humanity that had been lived out in this modest settlement. I chanced upon its tiny museum. It was there I hit upon the seed to my future story.
By the autumn of 1942, the greater number of the thousands of Jews who were living in France had fled from the German-occupied territories into the non-occupied zone, the Zone Libre or Free Zone. In May 1940 as the German army marched into Paris, more than one hundred thousand French-born Jews (known to the French as Israelites) fled Paris and the north, escaping to the south to avoid capture and deportation. Aside from the nationals, there were also the hundred of thousands of immigrants who had arrived from other parts of German-occupied Europe. They were fleeing their conquered lands, seeking refuge – a refuge that was looking less and less dependable.
By the autumn of 1942, both French and foreign Jews were beginning to fear that their chances of survival were slim. Thousands had made it to the Free Zone in southern France but even there, their options were diminishing because by November of that same year, 1942, the Germans who had occupied the north and the southwest as far as Spain were ordered by Hitler to cross from the Occupied Zone into the Free Zone and take control of it.
Until November 1942, those Jewish French citizens as well as the thousands of foreign refugees, most of whom were without legitimate papers and therefore stateless, who had found their way to Nice and the resort towns along the French Riviera had been living in a relatively relaxed freedom. However, in November 1942 a turn in the war in favour of the Allies, ironically, brought a dark cloud upon the lives of all those hiding from the Nazis.