Don Pugnetti’s historical novel, A Coat Dyed Black, may be set during WWII, but unlike many novels written about the same time period, his characters are not from countries like Germany, America, England, or France. Instead, Pugnetti’s protagonist, young farmer Bjørn Erliksen, is a Norwegian who wants the rest of Europe to leave his homeland out of their squabbles. After all, Norway was officially neutral during WWI. Why should this new conflict be any different? But just because Erliksen and his neighbors want to keep to themselves, that doesn’t prevent the war from coming to their doorstep, as Pugnetti demonstrates in the opening pages:
Public sentiment in Norway after the Great War had called for peace at all costs, and the government acted accordingly. Its budgets consistently focused on providing for the nation’s social well-being over defense. Norway’s military armament and troop strength had fallen to bare bones. Bjørn’s opinion that war wouldn’t come to Norway was no different than what he heard from his fellow villagers. To them, Hitler was simply a cartoon character appearing on the newspaper editorial pages of Oslo’s Aftenposten and the Bergens Tidende. They didn’t see him as their menace. Yet disturbing reports invaded Bjørn’s living room with increased frequency. Weeks earlier, there had been news about warship movements on the North Sea, ship sinkings by submarines, and the British navy chasing a German tanker into Norwegian waters to rescue three hundred English prisoners and seamen on board.
As Norway becomes swept up in the horrors of WWII, Erliksen chooses to join in the fight, and Kirkus Reviews calls his story “an exciting, high-stakes story skillfully told.” Erliksen travels to England to be trained as a soldier, delves into the murky world of undercover resistance fighting, and is eventually captured by the Nazis. His and his compatriots’ actions and experiences—all based on real stories—left Kirkus “awestruck at their bravery.”
Pugnetti, who lives in Gig Harbor, Washington, with his wife, Wendy, boasts a decadeslong career as a journalist. For many years he was a reporter at the News Tribune in Tacoma and has worked for a Washington state elected official as a speechwriter, strategist, and policy adviser. He’s also taught at the University of North Florida as well as Pacific Lutheran University.
With that kind of background, keeping track of sprawling historical details and political context was a natural fit. In fact, Pugnetti worked on A Coat Dyed Black for years, first approaching it as a nonfiction text. When he learned about his father-in-law’s experience with the Norwegian resistance during the Nazi occupation, he felt strongly that he needed to use his position as a journalist to bring those stories of heroism to light.
“It spawned a decade of research,” he says. “I read history books, made several trips to Norway, and compiled a great many transcripts of taped interviews of my father-in-law, family members involved in resistance activities, and others outside the family.” But Pugnetti realized his idea for a work of nonfiction might not come to fruition.
The problem was that while he found many people who were happy to speak with him about their actions and experiences, they also wanted to remain anonymous. “Their reasoning was that what they did was no more important than so many others. I respected that, and I honored it. There were other factors, too, and ultimately I shelved the project.”
For the next 30 years, Pugnetti kept all his materials safe but out of sight in various attics and basements. It wasn’t until he retired that he dug his research back out, decided to instead approach it as a work of historical fiction, and created the character of Erliksen, the young farmer who never wanted to join the war until he was faced with his homeland’s destruction. “Fiction enabled me to tell a compelling story, create dialogue, and fill in likely but unknown details,” he says. “At the same time, I used my research to paint an accurate overall historical picture of what happened in Norway during the war years. Consequently, the fictional characters are based on real people, and most of what happens is based on true experiences.” Kirkus picked up on this dedication to factual accuracy, noting that “it’s a credit to Pugnetti’s imagination and research that the reader may often forget this is largely fiction.”
But of course, fiction and nonfiction are different, even when the author wants to create a highly accurate depiction of historical events experienced by fictional characters. When Pugnetti decided to take that leap and write A Coat Dyed Black as a novel, he took the transition from nonfiction journalism to novels in stride. “Writing is writing,” he says. “Journalism really set me up for being able to write fiction and incorporate historical facts.” While many authors struggle with creative blocks and the seemingly endless stress of planning out a novel-length work and holding it to a standard of historical accuracy, Pugnetti found the experience fulfilling. “To me, it was seamless, and to write this book was pure joy. It was really a wonderful process for me.”
While Pugnetti’s dedication to research and deep interest in his story resulted in an enjoyable process, most of all he credits his wife as his creative partner. She used her own professional writing experience to help Pugnetti every step of the way with extensive editing and development work. “She really made this a much better book,” he says.
Right now, Pugnetti is fulfilling that role for a friend who is working on a memoir. Beyond that, he has an idea for a novel set in the Pacific Northwest, and then maybe he’ll pen another book about Norway’s resistance during WWII. He hopes to focus on the stories of female resistance fighters.
As a retiree, he wants to enjoy the process of writing more than anything else, and “right now,” he says, “I’m loving it.”
Chelsea Ennen is a writer living in Brooklyn.