Writing historical fiction has been my ‘thing’ since 2006 when I first began a novel based on the lives of my grandparents. I was so enchanted by the challenge of writing and the research required that I’ve now written four more historical novels. Three are published, one is on submission, and the fifth is in limbo while I decide whether to scrap it or do a significant rewrite.
Novel six – working title You Don’t Know Me – is contemporary. The process of writing it has had its own enchantment. What have I learned?
the requirement to transport a reader is time and place becomes a requirement to focus on place. In my case this has involved Boston, New York, a lake house, and the dunes along the Atlantic coast near Plymouth MA.
dialogue is easier to write
getting into the mindset of a character is easier
there’s an opportunity to incorporate some of the political, economic, and social happenings of today. For example, I might be reading the newspaper and see something that becomes relevant to one of my characters.
research is still involved, but for this novel it has involved researching the world of journalism and the world of political campaigns
there is no need to research the intricacies of long ago fashion, the complexities of transportation, the challenges of food preparation, medical practices and so on
you don’t need to constantly check for anachronisms – such as when did espresso become commonplace or when was photography invented
a timeline of historical events isn’t required
it’s much easier to find photos to help you visualize a setting or situation (the featured photo is of Harvard Yard)
and . . . you can complete a first draft much more quickly
I began writing this novel in late February and finished the first draft today – six and a half months. That’s a record for me!
By the way, superb writing and a focus on story remain essential.
PS … I’m not abandoning historical fiction! Ideas are brewing as we speak.
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I’m working on Time & Regret and the current task is to sharpen the mystery involved as well as round out the story of my WWI protagonist, Martin Devlin. The novel is split-time – WWI and 1991 – and involves a woman tracing her grandfather’s war experience in order to solve a puzzle he has left for her.
I needed to wrap up one of the story threads involving Captain Butler, Martin’s senior officer in 1917 who had been badly wounded and shipped backed to England for treatment. I searched for a hospital where Canadian soldiers might have been housed and found a long list. Most of them were closed not long after the war ended, however, the Daughters of the Empire Hospital remained opened until September 1919 – ideal for my purposes. The website also lists details about the decor and physical layout and includes a picture of the building taken many years later. Amazing what you can find.
Here’s a first draft of the scene when Martin goes looking for Captain Butler.
“After Southampton and the cold bureaucracy of demobilization, he stayed in London not because she [his English girlfriend Cynthia] pleaded with him, but because he could not face going home to his mother and father. Instead of a soldier’s garb, he adopted a new uniform: white shirt, striped tie, grey flannel trousers and a navy blue sweater with two missing buttons purchased at a rummage sale. When Cynthia offered to fix the buttons, he glared at her and shook his head. He wouldn’t let her visit the bedsit where he stayed, a run-down place with a sagging mattress and a single chair, the fabric faded and worn and a tear on one armrest where tufts of stuffing poked out. He bought cans of beans and ate them cold and pints of beer at the local pub and refused Cynthia’s offers to visit the Gibson family home.
Every weekday afternoon he boarded a bus and travelled to Hyde Park Place to visit the Daughters of the Empire Hospital. Captain Butler was treated there and Martin had sent him a few letters in the months after Vimy Ridge. Letters that remained unanswered and it wasn’t until Martin spoke to Matron Crockett, a thin woman with large hands and a brisk manner, that he learned the truth. Butler had committed suicide not long after being released from hospital.
“We did our best for him, Captain Devlin, but our best was not good enough,” the matron said.
Martin cocked his head waiting for her to disclose more information, a technique he had learned from Dr. Berger at Chumley Park and successfully deployed on many occasions since.
“His wounds were severe,” she continued. “One arm and one leg lost as a result. Plus damage to his face. I wrote to his family asking that someone come to England to be with him, however, they had no funds to do so. Family and friends can make all the difference, you know.” Although she spoke briskly, her face looked ragged and worn and older than Martin judged her to be.
Hearing of Butler’s fate, Martin wanted only to escape. The sooner he found a pub, the better. However, good manners prevailed.
“How many officers are still here?” he asked.
“We have eleven now, mostly Canadian, but two are from Australia and one from New Zealand. Captain Creighton says the hospital will close in September and hopefully everyone will be fit to travel by then. If you have a little time, perhaps you would like to visit the wards?”
“I only came to see Captain Butler,” Martin said.
“Well, Captain Devlin, your visit came too late for him, but I’m sure a man like you could cheer a few others.”
“I don’t have a lot of cheer to offer.”
Matron Crockett’s gaze was unrelenting. “I suppose I could say hello to one or two,” he said.
Hands clasped firmly behind his back, he followed Matron along the corridor to the front entrance where a grand piano sat in the far corner and a wide set of curving stairs led to the second floor. Hyde Park, bursting with new growth and flowering bushes, was clearly visible from four arched windows facing the street.
“We have one large ward and four smaller ones,” she said, as they mounted the stairs. “Colonel Gooderham and his wife purchased the house in late 1915. I arrived soon after and we received our first patients in February 1916. Ever since we’ve been dedicated to treating wounded officers. Here we are. This is our largest ward.”
The room was bright with sun streaming in the windows, each wall painted lavender grey with panels outlined in white. Bed screens framed in white separated white beds and tables from one another, and beside each bed was a grey mat patterned with pink roses. Martin wondered who had chosen such feminine décor for a room full of military officers.
“Hello, Captain Williams,” Matron said to a man in a wheel chair facing the window. “I’ve brought Captain Devlin with me to see our little operation. He’s just been demobbed and was looking for a friend who used to be here.”
When Williams swung around to face them, Martin saw the man’s pyjama pant rolled up to reveal a stump bound in white gauze and quickly lifted his gaze to the captain’s face.
“And where were you, Devlin,” said Williams after shaking hands.
“Ypres, the Somme, Vimy Ridge and others, of course. I was also in Cologne with the Army of Occupation and then Belgium waiting to be released. And you?”
“Similar. Got this blighter at Cambrai. But at least I’m alive. Matron says I’m to be fitted for a fake leg any day now.”
“In two days time, I believe, Captain Williams.” Matron smoothed the front of her grey skirt. “Gentlemen, I’m late for afternoon rounds. Captain Devlin, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Make sure you say hello to some of the other chaps while you’re here.”
Though he remained on the ward until late afternoon, Martin had no intention of returning to the hospital. And yet he had. Something about Williams’s determination and the hopeful way he had asked Martin to come back to see his new leg had broken through Martin’s deliberate solitude. From time to time, other officers joined their conversations and when David Williams took his first unaided steps, Martin and the entire ward cheered.”
I had no idea about Butler’s fate or Martin’s reaction until writing this scene. Serendipity in action.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.