9 World War II Novels That Will Make You a Better Writer
Good writers read.
It's the excuse I give myself when I walk out of the library with a heavy stack of books.
But it's also advice that's been given to writers for decades. The best way to write better is to read a lot. So before you hunker down to study dialogue or plot structures, make sure to carve out time to read widely in the genre you'd like to write in. You'll likely start to pick up on best practices without even realizing it.
Below are ten books about World War II that you might find interesting if you write about this topic (or even if you don't and find it fascinating, like me!). Every book can teach us something on how to write better, even if the book wasn't written well.
One of my favorite study practices I've adopted is to purchase the book (whether on Half Price or Amazon) and mark it up like I would a textbook, highlighting sentences and scribbling notes in the margins with ideas I can incorporate in my own writing. I hope these help you!
Note: The Amazon links below are affiliate, which means that I earn a small commission if you purchase from those links at no additional cost to you. Thanks for supporting my book addiction!
And one more thing: I only recommend books that I think will improve your writing, even if they aren't always written well (in my opinion). If there are any significant triggers, such as violence or sex or language, I'll make mention of them. But, I don't support/approve/endorse everything in all recommended books!
Library of Legends
In history class, I primarily studied World War II’s effects on America and Europe. But the war ravaged the rest of the world, too. Library of Legends narrates the destruction China felt. College student Hu Lian must flee from Mingua University when Japanese bombs destroy the town of Nanking. But with her fellow students, she’s also tasked to escort a 500-year-old library of books on myths, called the Library of Legends. Dodging bombs to save both their lives and the books, the parade of students march to the western provinces of China. On the journey, Lian falls in love with another student. But his strange and loyal companion reveals a startling truth about her love interest that spins everything for her. Part-romance, part-fantasy, set in a historical background created an engaging read for me. This beautiful book was one of my Book of the Month selections during a COVID lockdown (and postpartum recovery!), and I gobbled it up in only a few days.
Writing Tip: I'd recommend watching how Chang keeps the mystery going through her novel. Several elements keep the reader guessing; make note of how she does that.
All the Light We Cannot See
Good gracious, this treasure of a book claims a top spot on my list of most beautiful reads. I usually shy away from 500+ page books, but this one gripped me and never let go. This Pulitzer Prize winner tells the story of two children who grow up in different countries, on different sides of the war, as they struggle to come of age. Marie-Laure, who went blind at the age of six, must flee to her strange uncle’s home in the French countryside when the Nazis invade Paris. With her father, they carry a prized jewel that the Nazis are hunting to find. Meanwhile, Werner climbs the ranks of the Hitler Youth as a talented radio operator but struggles with the morality of the war. The two finally meet where they discover their surprising connection.
[Content warning: The German and Russian soldiers use a few curse words; and, there’s also a rape scene towards the end. It’s signaled to the reader early on, so you can skip it.]
Writing Tip: It's intimidating to try to analyze a Pulitzer Prize winning book in a few short sentences. However, one of Doer's many talents is in his characterization. He doesn't overdo their emotions while still bringing his characters vividly to life.
The Women in the Castle
In the aftermath of WWII, three German widows attempt to pick up the pieces of their lives. Set in a Bavarian castle, this book weaves together these women’s stories as they process the devastation from the war. One woman, whose husband failed in an assassination attempt on Hitler, resolves to find and rescue as many children from her husband’s friends as possible. But all of the women must reconcile with their actions in the war and decide how—and if—they can move on.
Writing Tip: This book uses several flashbacks in order to tell these women's stories. If you're writing flashbacks, watch how Shattuck does it.
This book resurrected my reading life from the dead. For years, I lost faith in good fiction until this novel reminded me stories matter, and now I keep it on my desk to study Kristin Hannah’s brilliant skills. While war looms over France, Vianne attempts to protect her idyllic life with her husband and daughter. Meanwhile, her sister Isabelle naively longs for the romantic adventure of war. As the two try to survive Nazi occupation on their own terms, the world around Vianne continues to crumble. Her husband is called to the front; a Nazi occupies her home; and her Jewish best friend fears for her life. Both Vianne and Isabelle must gain courage to face their demons and rely on their fragile sisterhood in order to survive.
Writing Tip: I could go on and on about the beauty of this book (and may just have to write a whole post on it!) but my biggest takeaway from the Nightingale in terms of writing is how she weaves together two women's stories flawlessly. She uses excellent pacing without letting the story drag or feel nauseatingly fast. She inserts scenes of domestic life in between dangerous acts of courage. Study everything you can from this book.
Beneath a Scarlet Sky
With over 40,000 reviews at 4.5 stars on Amazon, this true story of an Italian spy fascinated me. Pino is a normal teenager pulled into the chaos of World War II. His parents force him to join the German Army in the hopes of protecting him, but he unfortunately lands the job of driver to one of Hitler’s top leaders. Pino hates the Nazis, and he smuggles Jews out of the country when he can. As a hopeless romantic, Pino also pines for Anna, a widow six years older than him, and dreams of a life with her after the war. Like most World War II books, prepare yourself emotionally and grab a box of Kleenexes for this one.
Writing Tip: Sullivan's book is a perfect example of how to write a biography in a compelling way. We can taste and smell what Pino does. We're with him the whole ride and no one wanted to jump off.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
A refreshing take on the aftermath of the war, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society shares the story of a struggling author through a series of letters. When she’s contacted by a stranger looking for more information on a book, she discovers a resilient group on the Island of Guernsey who created the “Potato Peel Pie Society” to break curfew during the Nazi’s only occupation of British territory. The more she learns about the people, the more she falls in love with them, and the original sender of the letters, despite her manipulative and powerful boyfriend’s attempts to pull her away. The unique storytelling twist kept me listening to the audiobook and chuckling along the way.
Writing Tip: If you're writing a book with multiple POVs, this sweet book is an excellent one to study. Changing up the narrative form can also take a cute novel to the next level.
The Splendid and the Vile
Hunker down for a long, but worthwhile, ride with this one. The Splendid and the Vile details a narrative nonfiction of the London Blitz through the lens of Winston Churchill. New characters, intriguing facts, and thorough journal entries from London citizens kept me flipping through this 500-pager. I read it during the first COVID lockdown, which gave me perspective. Though a pandemic raged through the country, at least I wasn’t consistently in danger of a bomb dropping through my roof.
Writing Tip: For all of the narrative nonfiction writers, Erik Larson is one to study on how to make history compelling. He includes all of the senses and keeps his chapters short so you keep reading.
The Chilbury Ladies' Choir
The women of Chilbury stopped singing in the choir once the men all left for the war. But when one bold woman steps up and suggests they continue anyway, all of their lives will never be the same.
Jennifer Ryan tells the story of the town through the diary entries and letters of four women. It felt a little like the small town of Anne of Green Gables met the narrative story telling of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
Writing Tip: If you're writing a book with multiple POVs, Chilbury Ladies' Choir can give you some helpful tips on how to add personality and variety.
The Girls of Atomic City
While the world raged with war, the women back at home were looking for something--anything--to help the cause. So when mysterious job offers landed on the doorsteps of several women, they jumped at the opportunity, no matter how mysterious the work. For years, they toiled away at jobs without knowing their purpose, never daring to ask questions for fear of losing their employment. It would only be years later, when earth-shattering news dropped, that they would finally learn the truth.
Writing Tip: Although I found the content fascinating, the structure of this book confused me, largely because of the number of characters. If you're hoping to include lots of characters in your book, this could be good to read to get an idea for how you want to introduce them well without confusing your reader.