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.

Remembering Vimy Ridge – April 9, 1917

Vimy Ridge Memorial 1 I’ve been both mesmerized and horrified by what I’ve read about Vimy, which took place 97 years ago today. In Unravelled, Edward Jamieson, who fought at Vimy Ridge, remembers that battle in two vivid flashbacks. Lies Told in Silence – soon to be published – looks at the same battle from the viewpoint of Helene Noisette, a young woman living in a town not far away from the ridge.

Here’s an excerpt from Lies Told in Silence. For more than two months, Helene Noisette and her brother, Jean, have been watching soldiers prepare for battle. Later in this novel, Helene will meet Edward Jamieson.

They left the house without a sound and ran, fear pounding with every step, following familiar paths, leaping across melting streams, scrabbling through ferns and bushes. As they approached the hill, she heard the opening roar, a deafening sound that shook her body. In an instant, a second crash followed, splitting the sky directly overhead, penetrating her world like a never-ending drumroll.

Helene and Jean clawed their way up the hill. The guns grew even louder, and a sharp, acrid smell filled the air. Her legs had almost given out when they reached their perch and stood with no need to crouch down and hide, for no one could possibly notice them given the furor of action rippling across the battlefield. Never in her wildest dreams could she have imagined such a scene.

Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 8.59.56 AMInstead of orderly drills or the calm stacking of sandbags and trucks waiting to load or unload, below them was a sea of churning mud; grey dawn streaked the sky; there were sharp flashes of red, the rumble of airplanes overhead. In the far distance near the ridge, an orange glow hovered like a bulging midnight sun. Shells burst from all directions, illuminating soldiers advancing, bayonets flashing with deadly purpose.

Helene looked at Jean, a mix of fear and awe on his face. She said nothing, for what possible words could make sense of the destruction carried out below? In the preceding weeks, what they had heard and seen—the bright snap of flares and answering clouds of smoke, the stuttering back and forth of machine guns, the sharp whine as planes breached the horizon, the gentle drift of observation balloons—were only the barest hints of reality. Helene and Jean were silent, standing vigil over an unfolding battle, honouring those who fought for their freedom, men they would never know.

Wherever she looked, troops moved forward, less than thirty metres behind exploding bombs launched by their own artillery. This barrage was their shield, a curtain of steel protecting them from German counterattacks. Step by step they advanced, scrambling across uneven ground, thick clumps of earth flying through the air around them.

Gradually, the sky lightened, bringing the battle into sharper focus. A sudden flurry of snow obscured her view, and she wondered how the soldiers could possibly find their way. The snow left as quickly as it had appeared, and in the far, far distance, she saw white and black puffs of smoke; then a plane, trailing black streamers, emerged from the far left and flew low over the scene, its klaxon sounding like an ancient battle cry.

While they watched, Helene thought of [her brother] Guy. Had he grown accustomed to these mind-numbing sounds mixed with exploding bursts of earth and shrapnel? Was this what it had been like when he was wounded? Was he brave, or did he fear for his life? Did he lead his men with care? Did he shout at death as it whirled around him? How could he face battle again and again, her wonderful brother who laughed and teased, enjoyed the give and take of argument, took pride in his studies, loved his family? How could any of them?

Read Pierre Berton’s Vimy for an amazing account of preparations for the assault on Vimy Ridge and the battle itself.

Historical Fiction – WWI and WWII Favourites

MyBooks1So many books, so little time is a frequently heard mantra amongst readers. The same notion applies to writers crafting new stories. Reading is essential to writing. According to master storyteller Stephen King, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

My own collection of books bulges with historical fiction and historical non-fiction as well as a number of books on the craft of writing. Those concerning WWI and WWII have relegated other favourites to lesser shelves and basement hideaways.

mybooks3Some personal favourites:

BIRDSONG by Sebastian Faulks is the “story of Stephen, a young Englishman, who arrives in Amiens in 1910. Over the course of the novel he suffers a series of traumatic experiences, from the clandestine love affair that tears apart the family with whom he lives, to the unprecedented experience of the war itself.” In the introduction, Faulks declares that the theme he explored was “how far can you go?” and “what are the limits of humanity?

I have never been a student of history. Teachers presented the subject as an exercise in memorization and I never found the rhythm or rationale to glue together facts into a compelling canvas of people with competing interests. In the early days of writing a novel set in WWI, I struggled to find descriptions of battles that were not dense with jargon and the minutiae of warfare. VIMY RIDGE 1917 by Alexander Turner is a slim volume full of maps and timelines, pictures and diagrams all of which helped me understand the unfolding of that great battle and others like it.

While visiting the Vimy memorial in 2010, I purchased LETTERS OF AGAR ADAMSON. Norm Christie, the editor, writes “As a historical document the letters of Agar Adamson stands on their own. But what gives his letters even more depth is the complex and touching relationship with his wife, Mabel Cawthra.” Reading letters is not a narrative experience. Rather, it is one full of gaps, seemingly inconsequential details, occasional outbursts and names of people known only to the letter writer. But if you persist, Agar’s character shines through and you begin to appreciate the real experience of WWI.

Pierre Berton was a well-known and well-loved Canadian author and journalist who dedicated most of his writing to non-fiction tales exploring Canadian history and heritage. VIMY is his account of that famous battle, the horrific conditions of trench warfare and the intensity of preparing to take a ridge that had defeated two earlier assaults. “Drawing on unpublished personal accounts and interviews, Berton brings home what it was like for the young men … who clawed their way up the sodden, shell-torn slopes in a struggle they innocently believed would make war obsolete.” My grandfather survived Vimy Ridge which prompted my desire to incorporate this battle into two of my novels.

Anne Perry wrote a series of WWI novels, one for each year of the war. Although each novel is a self-contained story, collectively they tell the tale of the Reavley siblings, Joseph, Judith and Matthew, and an ominous character called the Peacemaker whose actions threaten the very survival of Britain. I first read AT SOME DISPUTED BARRICADE, and when I realized it was part of a series, read the rest in order: NO GRAVES AS YET, SHOULDER THE SKY, ANGELS IN THE GLOOM, WE SHALL NOT SLEEP. These absorbing stories illuminate the realities of WWI, painting pictures of those who struggled to survive, those who offered support and those who led others to small and great victories.

One day, browsing the shelves of my nearby bookstore, I found DEAFENING by Frances Itani with its story of Grania, a young deaf woman, who falls in love with Jim, a hearing man. “As the First World War explodes across Europe, Jim leaves to become a stretcher bearer on the Western Front, a place filled with unforgiving noise, violence and death. Through this long war of attrition, Jim and Grania attempt to sustain their love in a world as brutal as it is beautiful.

mybooks4WWII is rife with spy stories. Several have kept me up late at night fearing at any point the capture and torture of one or other fearless agent. Sebastian Faulks comes through with another winner, CHARLOTTE GRAY. “In 1942, Charlotte Gray, a young Scottish woman, heads for Occupied France on a dual mission – officially to run an apparently simple errand for a British special operations group and unofficially, to search for her lover, an English airman missing in action.

And who did not weep when either reading or watching THE ENGLISH PATIENT? This novel by Michael Ondaatje is a complex but moving tale of love and redemption set in North Africa and Italy during WWII.

With espionage as a theme in one of my novels, THE SECRET LIFE OF BLETCHLEY PARK by Sinclair McKay called to me immediately. I had to know what happened at Britain’s code-breaking centre and the personalities who worked there. McKay delivers, bringing “stories of the ordinary men and women who made it happen” to life while explaining the intricacies of that highly confidential work and world.

My copy of VESSEL OF SADNESS originally belonged to my stepfather. It is a story of those who fought and died in 1944 at Anzio, Italy. After the invasion of Sicily, the Allies slowly made their way into Italy, taking piece by painful piece of that country from the Germans. An assault originally imagined to be swift, played out over months and months of gruelling effort. Vessel of Sadness spares no detail of the true story to capture the Alban Hills. Based on his own experiences in the British army, William Woodruff’s tale is brutal and achingly human.

Erik Larson writes non-fiction that reads almost like fiction. The New York Times review of his book IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS said “there has been nothing quite like Mr. Larson’s story of the four Dodds [William, his wife Mattie, daughter Martha and son William Jr], characters straight out of a 1930s family drama, transporting their shortcomings to a new world full of nasty surprises.” If you seek to understand pre-WWII Germany, this is one of the best and most readable sources.

Below is a list of some other novels and non-fiction works I have on my real and electronic shelves. All have played a part to inform my writing.

WWI

  • Marching as to War – Pierre Berton
  • The Serpent’s Tooth – Michelle Paver
  • The First Casualty – Ben Elton
  • Three Day Road – Joseph Boyden
  • A Soldier of the Great War – Mark Halprin
  • Life Class – Pat Barker
  • Maisie Dobbs – Jacqueline Winspear
  • Fall of Giants – Ken Follett
  • Elsie and Mairi Go to War – Diane Atkinson

WWII

  • Resistance – Anita Shreve
  • Hornet Flight – Ken Follett
  • The Good German – Joseph Kanon
  • The Spy Who Spent the War in Bed – William B. Breuer
  • Unlikely Soldiers – Jonathan Vance
  • Inside Camp X – Lynn Hodgson
  • Restless – William Boyd
  • Fallen Skies – Philippa Gregory
  • Operation Mincemeat – Ben Macintyre

I’m sure I’ll find and read more, unless, of course, I decide to write stories of another era 🙂