Finding Authentic Voices by Jeffrey Walker

Jeffrey K. Walker is an award-winning author who came to writing historical fiction from a unique background as a bomber navigator, criminal prosecutor, legal historian, and international attorney. He’s written two novels of his Sweet Wine of Youth trilogy, depicting the epic events and impact of the First World War. As many of you know, I have a soft spot for those who write about WWI. Over to you, Jeff.

Finding Authentic Voices by Jeffrey Walker

My second novel just went on sale, so now with Two Books In A Row I might have something mildly interesting to say. With a big dollop of trepidation considering I’m writing this post for the crazy-talented M.K. Tod’s blog [OK, I’m blushing here – MKT], I’d like to share my struggles to find authentic historical voices.

Like M.K., I write in the period of the First World War. This has distinct advantages compared to writing in Saxon England or Ancient Mesopotamia—there’s a lot of material available. On the other hand, the epoch of the Great War is much more familiar to modern readers than remoter stretches of history. Some might even come preloaded with first-hand accounts from grandparents. This adds a free radical to how readers approach a WWI-era book. Suffice it to say, authors who write Tudor or Regency don’t have quite the same problem.

As historical fiction writers, we’re chasing the bubble of verisimilitude. We’re seeking to lull our readers into a fictive dreamscape set within our chosen period, not pass a blind peer review by a panel of PhDs. Within the superstructure of solid research, we imagine our histories and we therefore have to find voices for the characters we’ve imagined placing there. By this I mean not only their dialogue, but also their patterns of thought, reactions to all manner of situations, and interactions with each other and their world. That’s the challenge in developing richly drawn, three-dimensional characters that engage readers on a deeper level than merely as historical curiosities.

Admittedly, I’m a little neurotic about dialogue. As a result, I spent time researching well beyond what kit soldier’s carried on the Somme or what daytime shoes a woman would’ve worn in 1922 Harlem. In the end, my obsession with authentic voices led me down some interesting rabbit holes.

My biggest and earliest Aha Moment came with Paul Fussell’s 1975 work, The Great War and Modern Memory. Technically a work of literary criticism, this incredible book opened my eyes to the great tectonic shifts the First World War produced in Western culture from top to bottom. The insidious turning of the forces of science and industrial progress to the mass production of death and destruction resulted in a wholesale rejection of a hundred years’ worth of cozy Victorian consensus about the benign progress of modernity. With this personal epiphany, I went off in search of primary sources to find the voices of those who somehow endured 51 months of carnage and privation.

I started by diving headlong into the War Poets. The highly distilled emotion of these poems—some by men like Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen who wouldn’t survive the conflict—established a poignant benchmark for other first-person sources, as well as providing titles for my trilogy and the first book. This propelled me on a free-range survey of other original material.

I was desperate to get the sound, cadence, vocabulary, and idiom of these remarkable men and women into my head. I read all four volumes of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, some Robert Graves, and reread for the umpteenth time Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. I bought used copies of war letters, trench diaries, and memoirs. (I caution against relying on memoirs written more than10 years or so after the War. Rose-colored glasses and all that.) One of the more remarkable of these was a recent translation of the notebooks kept by a socialist barrel maker from the Midi, a poilu named Louis Barthas who served from the first day of the War through the Armistice.

I bought a box of reproduction artifacts in the gift shop of the Imperial War Museum—which led me to spending several hours listening to two dozen songs listed in a Red Cross entertainment program from 1917 to literally get the sound of my character’s music in my ears. On a more practical level, this broad survey of original writing gave me a strong grounding in the slang, idiom, word choice, and level of formality used by people of the period. I found one important exception—profanity. Writers self-consciously cleaned things up, even when writing to their diaries. I found one of the more authentic sources for period profanity to be original lyrics of soldiers’ songs. I refer you to the invaluable Punch publication, Soldiers’ Songs and Slang of the Great War, collected by Martin Pegler.

Then there was the problem of dialect. In my first book, I drew main characters from Newfoundland and Ireland, as well as supporting characters from New York, Boston, Scotland and England. Without a lot of forethought, I managed to stumble into some of the densest dialects of English outside the Caribbean islands.

The dialect issue was a two-axis challenge. Not only did I have to reckon with the regionality, but I also had to place the dialect within a specific time period. This meant expending a lot of effort researching the etymologies of idiomatic phrases. As an example, I wanted to say of my main character Deirdre Brannigan, a delightfully opinionated nurse from Dublin, “Sure, she’d snogged a few boys before…” There were two problems with that little phrase. I knew snogged was British idiom, but is it Irish? In particular, is it something a Dubliner would say as opposed to a Corkonian? Yes? Good. Now, when did it enter common usage on either side of the Irish Sea? Shoot, not until the 1950s. So that phrase never made it into the book, although to my 21st-century Yankee ear it sounded rather old-timey.

And there’s a deeper problem with dialect. My Newfoundlanders presented a stark example of the tradeoff between authenticity of voice and accessibility of dialogue. Anyone who’s spent more than 15 minutes on Newfoundland or watched the later seasons of Republic of Doyle can attest to the impenetrability of Newfounese. Complicating matters, the historical isolation of the various parts of the island has led to some two dozen sub-dialects within a population of 528,000. Yikes.

It took me a few drafts to figure out how best to skin this dialect cat. Particularly with the Irish and Newfoundlanders—two cultures with strong oral and storytelling traditions—I thought it essential to impart some sense of the sound of their dialects. My early attempts at phonetic punctiliousness yielded something impenetrable to all but linguistic nerds. As is often the case, I ended up with a compromise, trying to impart just a flavor of the rhythms and textures while keeping the dialogue comprehensible to the elusive Average Reader. So my Newfounese is something of a pastiche of old idiom and some unavoidably characteristic phrases. Whadda ya at, b’y.

I went through a lot of effort and angst to capture to the authentic voices I was chasing, but in the end isn’t this sort of challenge why we write historical fiction? I’ll leave it to you to judge if I’ve succeeded.

Many thanks for adding your voice to the discussion of historical fiction, Jeffrey (pun intended). You’ve reminded me of the research I’ve done – although not with the same dialogue challenges. Wishing you great success with your trilogy.

Truly Are the Free by Jeffrey K. Walker – Ned Tobin leaves his Newfoundland comrades to join the American forces in 1917. Chester Dawkins, son of an affluent African-American family, joins a newly formed regiment destined for France. They both confront their long-held assumptions and prejudices when Ned is assigned as a white officer to Chester’s “colored” regiment, the 369th. Meanwhile, sister Lena Dawkins secretly chooses an unsavory path to keep her family’s Harlem home. And Ned’s beloved, the alluring Adèle Chéreaux, carries a secret of her own as she flees the Germans to an uncertain future in Paris. In Truly Are the Free, the second book of the Sweet Wine of Youth Trilogy, these intriguing characters from None of Us the Same and some surprising new ones come vividly to life. How do the soldiers of the 369th endure the unspeakable horror? What new relationships lie ahead in Jazz-Age Harlem and avant-garde Paris? Can Ned and Adèle find happiness together?

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.            

Photos then and now

Recently, Mom gave me her parents’ photo album from their 1936 trip to France for the Vimy memorial dedication. Their pictures are a poignant reminder of a war that affected so many, and I, in my own small way, commemorated in Unravelled through a similar trip taken by Edward Jamieson and his wife Ann.

When my husband and I travelled to northern France, we attempted to visit some of the places where my grandfather had served during WWI. I knew he and my grandmother had done the same thing in 1936 but seeing their pictures made me realize we had photographed some of the very same places which brought a smile to my face.

Ypres Cloth Hall – only rubble was left of the Cloth Hall (Lakenhalle) after WWI ended. Reconstruction began in 1928 and by 1934 the western wing and bell tower had been completed.  Judging by the background of the 1936 photo, it looks as though  my grandparents were standing in front of some remaining rubble. My grandfather was stationed was in the trenches near Ypres for many months of the war (he’s in this picture, my grandmother is the stylish-looking woman on the left).

Ypres Cloth Hall

 

Ypres Cloth Hall 1936

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vimy Memorial – if you have ever seen this amazing memorial you will have struggled to keep your tears in check. Vimy Memorial 1936

It’s a Canadian memorial, dedicated to all who served in WWI and built at Vimy to commemorate a battle won decisively by the Canadians.

Vimy MemorialOver 5,000 people attended the dedication ceremony – my grandparents were there.

 

Trench preserved at Vimy – I can’t be sure that these photos are taken at the same location, however they look very similar. Unlike these pristeen looking specimens, the trenches were a living hell. Imagine being one of the men visiting in 1936, remembering what it was like to eat, sleep, stand guard, and fight from the trenches.

Vimy Trench

Vimy trench 1936

 

Vimy Salute – During the dedication ceremony, planes flew past to pay tribute to those attending and those who died in battle. I wrote of this moment in Unravelled.

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 9.55.07 AM“To begin the dedication, a lone bugler played Last Post, its haunting sound echoing across the ridge. Tears ran freely: tears for fallen comrades, tears for lost youth, tears for what was and what might have been. When the last note faded, a formation of Amiot 143s, French twin-engine bombers, roared across the horizon. For Edward, time slid backwards …”

Cambrai was another stop on their tour. Grandpa served there as well. He was in the Signal Corps, involved in transmitting messages during the heat of battle by whatever means were necessary. 180,000 soldiers from Britain, Canada and New Zealand were involved in Cambrai – part of the Hundred Days War and the last big effort by the Germans. The time was early October 1918.

My grandparents took two pictures – ours are very similar.

Cambrai Town HallCambrai Town Hall 1936Cambrai Porte Cambrain Porte 1936

 

 

After such an emotional time my grandparents went to Paris and then to England visiting Oxford where my grandfather was born and Magdalen College where his father worked before emigrating to Canada. Mom recalls that they were gone all summer leaving her at a girls camp and my uncle with relatives. Grandma and Grandpa returned to Toronto to learn of the death of my great-grandfather.

When I began writing, my objective was to investigate the lives and times of my grandparents. The research was inspirational; the result is Unravelled.

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 in paperback from Amazon and in e-book formats from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads. UNRAVELLED is also available at the same retailers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Photos – Seeds for the Next Novel

At a small French cafe in 2010, Time & Regret was born. My husband and I discussed the plot all evening, the twists and turns becoming more elaborate as the bottle of wine disappeared. We took lots of pictures that summer, some of which offered inspiration for Lies Told in Silence; others are now providing ideas and texture for my next novel, Time & Regret.

Here’s the premise: While cleaning house to eliminate traces of her ex-husband, Grace Hansen discovers her grandfather’s WWI diaries along with a puzzling note. Surprisingly, the diaries reveal a different man from the beloved grandfather who raised her. A few months later, Grace follows the path her grandfather took through the trenches of northern France and discovers a secret he kept hidden for more than seventy years.

Hotel in HonfleurThis first photo is the place where my husband and I stayed in Honfleur, a small town across the Seine from Le Havre. In Time & Regret, Grace stays here for the first few days of her trip to France.

“Located in a grand three-storey house with imposing columns on either side of the front door, the hotel looked elegant and, after stepping inside, I rang the bell and looked around. The room just beyond the front hall was full of ornate antiques and overgrown plants, Persian rugs and gilded ceilings. In the living room an enormous mirror filled one wall, its frame decorated with coloured glass in the shape of vines. Flanking the mirror were blue Chinese vases, at least three feet tall, etched with red, white and pink flowers. Opposite the mirror on a marble-topped chest of drawers was a chess set, a vase full of blood-red roses, a turquoise urn and a brass lamp. I could not decide whether this arrangement was contrived or random. Scattered along the other walls, as if it was important to fill as much of the room as possible, were high-backed chairs with winged sides, their wooden legs carved and gilded, and their backs and seats covered in muted floral patterns. A baby grand piano stood in the far corner, topped with an old gramophone.

Since no one had yet arrived, I rang the bell again and stepped further into the living room. Two large doorways invited exploration, one led into the solarium where tables were set with crisp white cloths and potted geraniums filled every window ledge, the other into the dining room with a mahogany table and matching sideboard, three huge canvases and the marble bust of a black warrior above the fireplace. Enchanting, in a bizarre way.”

Musee de la Grande GuerreMusee de la Grande Guerre in Peronne was a wonderful if sobering experience. Simple displays made for more impact.

“Peronne was a larger town, its streets and squares decked with hanging baskets while citizens strolled about enjoying the sunshine. Housed in a medieval chateau, the museum’s collection was laid out sparingly for maximum impact. On the floor surrounded by ten-inch wooden frames were full uniforms and kits for French, British, Canadian and German soldiers. Similar frames housed rifles, ammunition clips and light trench mortars, medical instruments, ambulance supplies, and signalling equipment. Further on, a display of camouflage techniques showed a hollowed out tree trunk used as an observation post and a range of ingenious materials to disguise artillery and command posts.  Along the walls were posters exhorting civilians to donate to the cause or help in some other fashion.”

WWII American Govt certificateIntending to explore the areas around Ypres, Passchendaele and Vimy where her grandfather fought, Grace stays at a hotel called Chateau Noyelle. Exploring the Chateau’s salon while waiting for cup of coffee, Grace finds this framed certificate.

“Stopping to order an espresso, I looked around the bar at comfortable chairs organised in small groupings for intimate conversations before dinner or perhaps a reading retreat on a rainy day. Large windows embraced by silk overlooked the front yard. I approached a display of sepia photos next to a tall curio cabinet and peered at the first one, clearly a shot of the building before it had become a hotel. Two women holding lacy umbrellas were in front of the chateau wearing long skirts and white blouses with wide sleeves and tight cuffs. Nothing alluring about those outfits, I thought. Beside them was a young boy holding a hoop in his hand, a straw hat on the ground nearby. Below the picture a silver plaque said Chateau Noyelle, 1879.

Beside that photo was a framed certificate bearing the American coat of arms. Curious, I bent my head to read the inscription: The President of the United States has directed me to express to Andre Justin-Gabriel Constant the gratitude and appreciation of the American people for gallant service in assisting the escape of Allied soldiers from the enemy. Underneath was the signature of Dwight Eisenhower as General of the Army. My imagination began to work, spies lurking in the corridors, an underground passage through the woods, secret doors behind . . .

“Your espresso, Madame.” “

WWI Craters and Shell holesTime & Regret is told through Grace’s voice, through her grandfather Martin’s voice and through the diary he kept. Bill Jackson, Michel Diotte and Pete Vanleuven are Martin’s friends. Butler is his commanding officer.

” “We’re gearing up for a major offensive,” said Captain Butler.

Martin was in the cellar of a house partially destroyed by shelling. He thought these brigade headquarters a distinct improvement over the dungeon HQ had occupied in December. Smelling of dried bat droppings and ancient slime, the air in that deep, dark space had created a feeling of doom as though the echoes of tortured screaming had only recently faded. He shivered, not from the cold but from the memory.

Jackson, Vanleuven and Diotte sat with Butler at a rickety table while Martin and the captain’s adjutant leaned against the wall. Rain slickers hung from hooks next to the entrance dripping remnants of sleet onto a hard mud floor.

“There’s an enemy salient near St. Eloi.” Butler stabbed at the map. “We’re part of the force ordered to eliminate it.”

“What are those, sir?” Diotte pointed to several numbered circles on the map.

“Craters.”

Pete scratched the rash at the base of his throat. “Who occupies them?”

“That’s the problem,” said Butler. “We thought we occupied four and five and could attack craters two and three from those positions. Turns out the Germans still hold them. Our battalions couldn’t tell one crater from another. Fucking mess. We go in tomorrow night to relieve the Sixth.”

Captain Butler spent the next two hours explaining the operation and answering questions. Trench reinforcements would be the first objective, their brigade augmented for this task by two thousand reserve troops. A series of bombardments and infantry attacks would follow with the aim of securing four of the largest craters.

“Fucking mess is right,” Martin said to Bill as they slogged through the mud, the wind whipping sleet against their cheeks. He wiped his eyes and squinted. “Here’s the turn.”

“Doesn’t look promising,” Bill said.

“If the Sixth has lost more than five hundred you can imagine what we’re in for.”

April 10, 1916

Diotte has been wounded. Bill saw the stretcher bearers take him off but we’ve had no confirmation. Can’t leave my post to find out. I’ve prayed that Michel will be all right. Feels strange praying out here in the midst of what can only be described as hell.

April 12, 1916

Severe enemy bombardment. Spent the day reassuring men holding the line.

April 14, 1916

Butler said that aerial photos show all craters still in German hands. Lost Jimmy and Snowy last night. Both went down in the same scramble up the far side of a crater. Wilson and I dug them out but we couldn’t get any medics in time to save them. Snowy knew I was with him at the end. We don’t seem to make any progress. Communications often fail to get through so we are uncoordinated. No sleep. “

As they say – a picture is worth a thousand words.