Tuesday 17 May 2016

Weaving Fiction Around the Tale of the Lusitania

Last year, I was lucky to be involved in the inaugural MM Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction. The award was won by Greg Taylor's Lusitania R.E.X.; today then we venture far, from from the Georgian era and learn a little more about this remarkable tale.

Tomorrow we return to the 18th century and the enormous coronation feast of George IV!


My odyssey writing a novel of historical fiction was launched when I turned to an author friend that was driving us along the Dover coast to a party and announced, “I am going to write a book about the sinking of the Lusitania.”  He nodded respectfully, thereby acknowledging my ambitious intent without having to express any misgivings of my inadequate grasp of what it would take to execute this task.  By the time we were walking uphill to our hotel in the warm summer sunrise that broke up the party, I was explaining to the weary revelers why I considered the tale of the Lusitania a worthy subject for historical fiction.

Weaving Fiction Around the Tale of the Lusitania

On May 1st 1915, the day the Lusitania sailed from New York, local newspapers carried a warning from the German Embassy.  Passengers confident the fastest ship in the world could outrun German submarines ignored this.  Among them was Alfred Vanderbilt, who exemplified the dashing, refined sportsman of his day.  Although I didn’t know yet, two years of research later, Alfred would emerge as my main character and occupy much of the following two years of writing and rewriting Lusitania R.E.X.

The facts are already dramatic: After being hit by a single torpedo on May 7th 1915, the Lusitania sank in only eighteen minutes.  A second, larger explosion ripped the ship apart and she sank with a list so severe that only eight of the forty-two lifeboats were launched.  Experts have debated the cause of the second explosion ever since and Imperial Germany immediately claimed the ship was loaded with explosives destined for the front. 

The factual evidence already suggested to me plenty of intrigue, such as the manipulation of testimony by the Admiralty during the official inquiry in order to make sure all blame fell on Imperial Germany.   The Admiralty had withdrawn the Lusitania’s escort ship and it was known that First Sea Lord Winston Churchill had remarked that the loss of an ocean liner might bring American into the war.  

However, I wanted more for my book.  I identified all the facts I found the most compelling and began to weaver around them a spy thriller dimension to the story, building on the factual record.  This included the experiences of one of its most famous victims, Alfred Vanderbilt, which became an uplifting story of Alfred’s personal development and a plausible explanation for the tragedy.

Alfred was only twenty-one years old and travelling in the Orient when he received the news of his father’s death. Alfred returned to the family’s Newport mansion, The Breakers, to learn that his older brother had been disinherited for choosing the wrong bride, leaving him, the third son, heir to the greatest fortune of the age.

Weaving Fiction Around the Tale of the Lusitania

I was immediately aware of the dramatic potential arising from Alfred’s membership in Yale’s Skull and Bones secret society.  In 1911, when my story opens, this society included Percy Rockefeller, Harry Whitney and other scions of America’s wealthiest families, as well as the President of the United States, the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Treasury.  Gold dust.  

Alfred’s love of horses and coaching meant frequent trips across the Atlantic.  Once he even shipped a hundred horses to London for the Olympia Horse Show. In May 1915, Alfred booked passage on the Lusitania in order to attend a meeting of the International Breeders Association.

In my book, Lusitania R.E.X, Alfred has another reason to travel to England.  In my fictionalised account, he is smuggling aboard the ship a prototype rocket clandestinely developed with his Skull and Bones friends. Alfred believes this rocket technology has the potential to end World War One.  After the arrest of three German stowaways as the liner sails from New York, the Germans realize their plan to steal to rocket with help from Irish nationalists has failed and the Lusitania is targeted.  While this is fiction, the rocket technology existed and the group that funds the project are all real members of Skull and Bones, including the American President.

I had a terrific time doing the research for my book, sometimes losing all track of time and glancing at my watch only to realise I was due for dinner in half an hour and still in my pajamas after a full day pursuing leads.  My efforts ranged from reading everything I could find about the Lusitania to digging through old newspapers in the basement of the New York public library and the Imperial War Museum in addition to visiting all the locations of the book.  

Weaving Fiction Around the Tale of the Lusitania

The highlight of my research, however, was making contact with the grandsons of two of my characters.  I was fortunate to develop a relationship with Alfred G. Vanderbilt’s grandson, Alfred G. Vanderbilt III, who shared with me original material and personal anecdotes about his grandfather.  I also made contact with the 11th Duke of Marlborough, whose father and grandfather play a role in the story through their kinship with the Vanderbilts.   The Duke kindly wrote the forward for the book.

It was a huge commitment of time and resources but through dogged determination I eventually finished my book after four years of work. I benefitted enormously from the support and encouragement of my family and friends as well as new acquaintances equally fascinated by the tale of the Lusitania.  To those considering undertaking a historical fiction, I offer you all my encouragement and best wishes for your success.

Written content of this post copyright © Greg Taylor, 2016.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Sounds amazing! I assume it will be available in ebook? You aren't the first to use the Lusitania for a thriller. Agatha Christie's Secret Adversary began on that ship with an American agent handing some vital papers to a countrywoman. ;-)

Demetrius said...

Interesting. As I am from a Liverpool family, with some at sea in that period and we had near cousins, Doyles from Co. Wicklow on board. They were in the engine room rather than in the first class cabins. Two of my great grandfathers earlier were in engine rooms as well, one in the Inman Line "City of Berlin" when it took the Blue Riband in the 1880's who was closely related to those Doyles. My grandfather, who I knew well had done time in engine rooms, was otherwise engaged in France at the time. Good luck with the book.

JazzFeathers said...

This sounds like a wonderful job. I love when an author is able to write the story he/she wants while respecting history as it happened.
Fantastic! :-)