Sometimes inspiration whispers. Other times, it drips like a tap: you try to catch the drops, hoping you’ll suddenly hear a gush. Then, there are the odd, glorious occasions when inspiration chimes clear as a bell—often in the silences, when you’ve not been listening at all. Those are the times writers live for: when an idea comes as a gift, and you accept it gratefully.
I had one such day, four years ago, on holiday in Italy. Basically, I went up a mountain and came back with a novel set in World War Two. Except I wasn’t looking for an idea and I’ve never written historical fiction, but it seems the muse had other ideas.
I was in Tuscany, in a town called Barga. As soon as we got there, I knew Barga was special—it proclaims itself “The most Scottish town in Italy”. As the holiday progressed, I discovered that waves of Italian immigrants had settled in Scotland from the 18th century, driven first by poverty, then later by family ties. Over generations, folk travelled back and forth between the two countries, marrying, sharing and blending Barga into a place where, as you ask in halting Italian, “Un gelato, per favore?”, the Italian lady behind the counter replies in broad Scots, “Are yi wantin’ a cup or a cone, hen?”
One day, we walked to Sommocolonia, a hilltop village near Barga, which becomes very important in my novel. We only went for the view but, right at the top, tucked by a ruined fortress, I spotted a war memorial to Lieutenant John Fox, a US Buffalo soldier. Immediately, I was intrigued. I knew very little about events in Italy during the war, and even less about the Buffaloes. But I did know from the memorial that John Fox was African American and that he died far from home, fighting for a country that had not yet given him the vote. And I knew that Barga would have been full of Scots–Italian families and that some of their relatives might have been fighting for the Allies, while others would have been fighting for Mussolini. I began thinking about how far your loyalties could be split in war, when all the lines are blurred. How do you pick a side?
As I stood, looking over the view, I heard the bells of Barga’s Duomo ring through this quiet, beautiful place, and I thought about what other sounds this valley might have heard, what silences? In that moment, the idea for The Sound of the Hours arrived.
I’ve written seven novels now—and each have come in different ways. Initially, as a former police officer, I followed the mantra “write what you know”, and penned four novels set in the world of Glasgow’s police. But with each novel, I’ve been moving beyond “write what you know” to “write what you’d like to know”. You can’t keep mining yourself when you’re a writer. One: it’s boring. And two: soon there’ll be nothing left. After finishing a novel, it’s like there’s a dry, empty space in the centre of you, and it takes a while for the well to fill again.
Of course, every word you ever write will be filtered through you. There’s no escaping that. Your books come from what’s inside: your emotions, what you care about, all the experiences and insights that have shaped you. A writer’s job is to use this hinterland to create people and places that are not based on your own life, but are rooted in the honesty of what it is to be human.
So that’s how I approached The Sound of the Hours. Months of research unlocked a history I knew nothing about: how Italy had fought alongside Germany, then come out of WW2, with the king arresting Mussolini; how Mussolini was freed by the Germans, and reinstated in a “Republic” in the north, so Italy was literally split in two. It was the town of Barga that was on the fault line. I learned that Italians living in the UK were interned in prison camps. How must that have been, if you were living in Barga but had family in Scotland, and maybe a son in Italy fighting for Mussolini and another still fighting for your king? More divided loyalties; it felt like serendipity. That’s when the novel began to weave itself.
The experience of black American troops in Italy was another theme. I was inspired by John Fox after all. I needed to research as close to the source as I could get, but without stealing any individual’s life. I read many autobiographies by former Buffalo soldiers, again, thinking, what if this was me? I found negative historical records tainted with racism too, some of it from senior military figures. How might that feel, having your valour questioned by your own army?
Always, the inspiration for my story was that the people of Barga wanted to commemorate these men; they put up a memorial to their bravery and they honour the Buffaloes still today. This summer, I returned to present my book during Barga’s Scottish Week. Once more, I got to stand in Sommocolonia, and listen. Knowing what I do now about the sounds of war that once befell that place, I was even more grateful for the silence.
Scottish writer Karen Campbell’s latest novel The Sound of the Hours is set in Tuscany in WW2 and was published this summer by Bloomsbury. The novel tells the story of Frank Chapel, one of the US Buffalo Soldiers who played a pivotal role in the liberation of Italy, and Vittoria Guidi, a young Scottish–Italian woman caught in the middle of an occupied town and a divided family. Read more about Karen at www.karencampbell.co.uk and get your copy here.