S. Kensington found the idea for her debut novel, Just Another Girl on the Road, close to home: in her father’s World War II mementos. “There was a little Stars and Stripes newspaper clipping about the undercover phantoms,” she recalls. “I read it and I thought, ‘Oh, what was that?’ I started looking it up. But there isn’t a whole lot written about them because [the operatives] weren’t allowed to talk about it for a long time.” She had more questions, so she kept digging.

Her research led her to Operation Jedburgh, a covert effort of British, French, and American soldiers who parachuted into occupied territory to carry out acts of sabotage and guerrilla warfare against the Germans. Those soldiers, aka Jedburghs, caught her attention but also captured her imagination. An idea for a novel began to form.

She approached her subject with care to ensure accuracy. “My major horror is to have some World War II vet or the child of a World War II vet say I got something wrong,” she says. “It was the terror of making a mistake that helped my research.” She filled Post-its and napkins with notes as she gathered background info about the Jedburghs, but she also collected snippets on a range of subjects—Burma, merchant vessels, Portuguese fishermen. All of it would eventually find a home in Just Another Girl on the Road.

But even with all that meticulous work and the beginnings of an idea, Kensington didn’t know where to start. She had no plot. She did, however, have a character: Katrinka, the novel’s protagonist. The author recalls how, one day while she was driving, an image of the character appeared to her: an 18-year-old woman riding on horseback. “Katrinka was running away from something,” says Kensington.

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In fact, Katrinka does ride a horse in the opening pages. More importantly, she meets the Jedburghs. When German soldiers murder her mother and stepfather, then try to rape her, she’s rescued by Sgt. Wolf Farr and other members of the operation. Farr is immediately enchanted. His fate becomes further entangled with Katrinka’s when it emerges that she’s linked to the Jedburghs’ mission.

Farr and Wills Nye, a British operative, both fall for Katrinka. As Kirkus Reviews puts it, Katrinka “wrestles with many dangers and lingering demons and a growing attraction to both Nye and Farr, which all freely act on.” Kensington says she wanted Katrinka to be brazen and forward, “beyond the pale.”

Katrinka may not be conventional, but at heart she’s a classic romantic. Here, she is at sea, thinking not of U-boats but of the moonlight on the ocean:

A full moon was just rising over the dark water. It was majestic and immense, rolling out its light, as if inviting her to step out onto its silvery bridge and run across the waves. She leaned against the railing, mesmerized by the sight. She would sail like this forever, never setting foot on land again.

Though mostly set in Europe, this ambitious and engrossing novel globe-trots from France and London to the Pacific, Burma, and Okinawa. Kensington, a longtime expat, was able to draw on her own experiences living abroad. She spent time in Germany, London, and Burma; she lived in Okinawa for 18 years. “Those were heartfelt places,” she fondly recalls.

Kensington knows that in writing about World War II, she’s contending not just with history, but also countless other respected works on the subject. “We keep going back to it,” she says. “As a baby boomer, I grew up hearing about the war. It was an intense time. It was a great source of trauma as well. I became very absorbed in how people deal with trauma. My father was emotionally scarred, my uncles were emotionally scarred. How do some people make it and others don’t?” In the end, some people survive—ones like Katrinka. “She’s strong, she’s resilient,” says Kensington. “Whatever life throws at her she’s able to adapt to it. She’s a survivalist.”

Although she knew Katrinka well, Kensington confesses she had trouble figuring out what kind of book she was writing. She knew it was a book of war and adventure but also knew it would be a romance—and full of sex. “I knew from the beginning Katrinka’s sexuality was going to be one of her personality traits,” she says. Kensington also knew she’d have to campaign for the sex scenes. “My editor was fine with the violence,” she laments. “Nobody ever objects to the violence or children dying. They do object to people having good sex.”

The novel is indeed full of good sex. The book doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war, but it makes a point of reminding the reader that even under great duress—especially under great duress—humans are physical creatures who crave intimacy. “These people were put into extremely intense situations,” Kensington says of those affected by the war. “They had to consider [that] maybe the man, the woman I love won’t be here tomorrow. So of course they were making love! Of course they were having sex!”

Kensington admits it wasn’t easy to write about war or sex. But she knew she had to make the attempt. “I tried writing it as honestly as I could,” she says. She’s still not quite sure where it all came from. “I was in journalism. I never thought of myself as a novel writer.” If not for the newspaper clipping in her father’s belongings, she might never have begun this project. “I was on the verge of retirement,” she says. “And the novel just started coming out, oozing out of my pores.” A writer at heart, she found herself enjoying it. “I love the editing. I thrive on it. Erase, erase, erase; cut and paste. I hate to say how much I enjoyed it because it was also agonizing. But I really enjoyed it.”

Walker Rutter-Bowman is a writer and teacher living in Washington, D.C.

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