Worldbuilding the Past

Mike Kanner and I connected a few months ago over the topic of WWI trenches. Yes, connections can come from all sorts of places! With a military career behind him, Mike entered academia and ended with a Ph.D. in political psychology and a job as a lecturer in security and international relations. But he’s always been drawn to historical fiction and has contributed a number of stories to various anthologies and considers himself a student of WWI – hence the trenches.

Today, Mike discusses world building – one of the seven elements of historical fiction.

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World building is associated with science fiction and fantasy, but writing historical fiction, I have the task of rebuilding a world that existed one hundred years ago. For that, I reached back to the people that lived during that period. 

My interest in soldier’s diaries started when I wrote doctrine for the US Army Infantry School back in the 1980s. After reviewing a tactical manual, our general called me in and asked the question, “What happens in the last 100 yards of battle?” He said he had his own experience, but he was interested in any general lessons to be learned. This sent me to the Infantry School Libraries collection of first-person accounts from World War 1 to the Grenada Invasion. Unfortunately, I couldn’t answer the general’s question since soldiers could only account for what happened in front of them and to them. However, I was fascinated with the detail that some of these accounts had about the conditions on the battlefield. So, over the years, I collected diaries, first-person accounts and photographs from World War 1. 

Once I retired from the service and started to write historical fiction, I found these accounts to be both inspiration and information. The best way to illustrate this is by describing the research supporting a specific story. 

“White Feather” was recently published in Chiaroscuro: An Anthology of Virtue and Vice and was inspired by a presentation by the Western Front Association on conscientious objectors in World War 1. I knew I wanted to write a story of a pacifist that became an objector yet served on the front as their alternate service. The presentation and links provided gave me information on the process of asking for objector status, but what I wanted to focus on was what that would have meant for my main character. I got the technical aspects of being a stretcher bearer from my copy of the 1917 Service Manual for Sanitation Troops; however, I was more interested in what that duty would involve. For that, I turned to my copy of Ambulancing on the French Front by Edward Coyle.

Coyle was an American who, in 1917, decided to join the American Red Cross in France. In 1918, he published his diaries so Americans could know about the ‘true conditions’ in the war. Although this has been republished, I had an original copy including pictures of conditions at the front. This, and my collection of postcards of the period, provided the story’s visual elements. While the Sanitation Troops Manual told me how evacuation was supposed to be done, Coyle’s story told me how it occurred on the battlefield. In addition, the incident he related in the “Kamerad” chapter was the basis for one of the significant scenes in the story. 

Having set the plot and the visual framework, I wanted to evoke other senses. For these, I went to other accounts. Some, like Graves’ Goodbye to All That, are classics; others that I have were less known. Rereading their accounts of trenches, two conditions were evident – the noise and the smell. Common to all accounts was the constant background of artillery, even when a sector was not in combat. Based on my time in the service (especially at gunnery training), I knew my main character would also hear sounds from the troops in the trench. The result was the line, “There was nothing quiet about this ‘quiet sector.’ Distant artillery echoed off the clouds while the trenches were filled with conversations, snores, and the groans of the men in the Aid Post awaiting evacuation.” 

Next, I wanted to give a sense of the smells. Since trench warfare is not common, I could not call on my experience, so I again referred to the contemporary accounts in diaries. Officer accounts, such as Graves’, tended not to include descriptions of the smells; however, ordinary soldiers did. Typical to their descriptions was the presence of mud, rot, and rats. These were also present in sewers inspired me to write, “The trench smelled like the open sewer it resembled.” 

So while history gave me the skeleton of events, it was the personal accounts that let me add flesh and sinew to the body of the work

Many thanks, Mike. You’ve highlighted an important source for world building along with the significance of portraying each one of the senses.

Mike is a contributor to Chiaroscuro: An Anthology of Virtue and Vice

In art, chiaroscuro is a technique that explores the interplay of light and dark through stark contrasts. In the same way, this anthology explores virtue and vice and the interconnectedness between these two ends of the morality spectrum. A virtue taken to excess transforms into vice; a vice in the right circumstances becomes virtuous. Via poetry and prose, Chiaroscuro will take you on a journey through light and dark, right and wrong, good and evil, and the spaces in between.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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3 Responses

  1. Excellent insight and a reminder to those of us writing historical fiction to always looks for first-hand accounts from the time period we’re writing about. Thank you!

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