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.


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.


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

Somewhere in France – In the Trenches 20th April 1916

German stick-grenade
Source – Wikipedia

Diving right in with the latest letter from Henry Tod, ominously titled ‘In the Trenches’.

I have rather a big budget this time [I think he means lots to tell] and if I don’t get it off quick I will never remember all what has happened. We have just moved back to the reserve trenches after a most exciting spell in the firing line, including bomb attacks, gas and mines and every other abomination the war has brought to light. We went up to the line on Easter Monday into a section of the HohenZollern Redoubt, of bad repute. We had got warning of an impending attack from a deserter who evidently didn’t want to be in it. The bit of line we are holding is absolutely unique, being a mere conglomeration of craters, as mining has been going on for months from both sides.

There is really no “firing line” in the ordinary sense, our company front for instance being three craters, of which we occupied one and the near lips of the other two. On the second night the Germans tried to bomb their way into our crater, but although they kept it up for over two hours we managed to keep them out. Meantime it had developed into a first-rate artillery duel, as these local scraps [!!!] usually do, in which trench mortar batteries and everything else chipped in.

I was in charge of the crater and could give little heed to what was happening elsewhere. We had about a dozen casualties although I had never more than ten men in the crater at one time. I was kept busy seeing the supply of bombs was kept up and the casualties replaced with fresh men. [I have this image of bombs in – men out] We had built a trench of sorts high up round the inside, which provided some protection and most of their bombs exploded harmlessly at the bottom of the crater. Anyway we gave as good as we got and eventually things quietened down but we had to keep a sharp lookout all night.

At dawn about 3am, the sentries reported figures moving round the crater, but a few bombs sent them scuttling for cover. It was here I got my first German, at least one I can vouch for. A few of them were returning bombs at us but we were keeping them at a safe distance, about 40 yards. I had taken a rifle and was on one of the little sentry platforms at the top, waiting for a decent target in the gathering light. One unfortunate Bosch, a huge fellow, suddenly rose clear of his cover quite close in with a stick-bomb and made to throw it, but I was on him at once and bowled him over like a ninepin before he parted with his missile. This helped to quench their ardour and peace reigned again – but not for long …

The sequel to this episode on the next blog post.

I’m struck by how readily Henry’s letter transports the reader in time and place: explosions at the bottom of the crater, the little sentry platform, the line being a mere conglomeration of craters, men scuttling for cover, bombs in men out. Great inspiration for someone writing about WWI – and to think that I had no access to these letters until after writing my first three novels!

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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

WWI Diaries Tell A Poignant Tale

While researching for my novels Unravelled, Lies Told in Silence and my work-in-progress called Time & Regret, I’ve come across many WWI diaries written by soldiers both young and not-so-young, by those in the infantry, the artillery, the signals corps and even the chaplaincy. Some entries are mundane, others full of the tragic circumstances of war.

WWI Trench lines in Northern FranceTime & Regret tells the story of Grace Hansen who reads her grandfather’s diaries and decides to visit France in order to discover more about the man who raised her and the puzzling mystery he left behind when he died. The story contains many diary entries and I am grateful for the many soldiers who left behind their stories and to those who have made them public.

In one of the earlier chapters, Grace is in a small town in northern France, she’s just had dinner and is reflecting on both her travels and her grandfather’s diaries. Now that she’s in the places where he had been as a young man, Grace refers to him as Martin.

I had been in Ypres for three days visiting nearby towns and villages mentioned in my grandfather’s diaries. Each stop offered glimpses of French tradition: churches with tall, arched windows, chateaus set amidst splendid gardens, remnants of medieval walls and turrets and wide town squares hosting weekly markets full of brightly-coloured vegetables and oozing cheeses.

Wherever I stopped, I checked Martin’s diaries. I thought of him now as Martin not Grandpa, as though he were a character in an unfolding story rather than a man I had known for more than thirty years. From Grandmama’s photos I knew he had broad shoulders on a narrow frame and brown hair, his face angular rather than handsome as though waiting for him to grow into its contours, but I had no sense of whether he sought solitude or the company of others, was athletic or preferred books, told stories or would rather listen. He was twenty-one, far from the man he would become.

Bailleul, Abbeville, Hazebrouke, Eecke, Dranoutre, Vierstaat, Passchendaele, Cassel—all were places mentioned in the diaries. Now that I had visited them and the unfolding green countryside and the memorials and cemeteries marking war’s convoluted path, I felt closer to Martin, the words of his diary poignant with grief. So many names, so many young men who never lived. This thought reverberated like an unending barrage.

Near Eecke where Martin camped for a few days before reaching the front, I had stood on a hill next to fields of rich farmland and looked out across the gentle rise and fall of earth seeing no drama in the countryside, only a quiet sense of long tradition as though little had changed for hundreds of years. Just east of Eecke, on the road to Mont des Cats, was a wide, open space and with Martin’s diary in hand, I had imagined a sea of small white tents, men hurrying in various directions while others examined blisters, lathered up for shaving, wrote letters home or slouched against their duffle bags. I had conjured men flinching at the first sounds of bombardment, fear registering in a twist of gut or dry swallow. Untested men, many with the soft fuzz of new beards and slim waists of recent boyhood.

At the top of a hill near Vierstaat, I had spread a blanket beneath a tree with a view of a wide plain that in Martin’s time was gouged with craters and strung with barbed wire, a plain full of misery and death, rattling with machine-gun fire and mortars, oozing smoke and blood and sweat. That day the view had been peaceful. Purple irises and tall, green grasses had swayed in fresh breezes that chased away rain clouds. Birds had whistled and aspens had shivered overhead. I had reread an excerpt photocopied from a soldier’s memoir and felt anew the weary despair and grinding horror of war and imagined Martin as one of them, rotating off the field having lost men to one skirmish or another, little bits of his own humanity left behind with each passing week.

Ypres and Passchendaele had affected me the most. Listening to the haunting echoes of the Last Post beneath Menin Gate, its walls etched with thousands upon thousands of names brought the war close. Walking through the museum at Passchendaele, full of pictures and memorabilia from 1917, I wept at the utter devastation resulting from three months of battle for nothing except the skeletons of a few scorched trees remained, an entire town obliterated. Walking to and from the museum, I had cringed as name after name of those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice echoed through loudspeakers with ghostly eeriness.

Who did Martin write the diaries for? When I first read them, this question did not occur to me but now I asked it repeatedly, wondering whether he wrote to document the weeks or pass the time or console himself. Perhaps Martin had needed a safety valve for all the pain and frustration. I could only speculate.

My dessert half-eaten, I picked up the map. Tomorrow I planned to drive towards Arras where I had reserved a room in an old chateau near Noyelle-Vion. Martin had been in the vicinity on two separate occasions. According to his diary, fighting in that area had been even more intense.