Today, I am excited to announce the first guest to my blog, Mary Tod. She has been gracious enough to share with us her fascinating background and experience as a writer and give us a sample of her work. Please not miss her terrific blog as well. Mary Tod has written three novels set in the world wars. Her blog, A Writer of History (www.awriterofhistory.com), discusses many aspects of historical fiction and includes interviews with top authors and bloggers of this genre. In 2012, she conducted a comprehensive survey of historical fiction readers and plans to expand the survey in 2013. A Passion for WWI
At the age of seventy-five, my grandmother died on the way to her second wedding.
I often thought this would make an amazing ending for a story and in 2005, living in Hong Kong as an expat with lots of time on my hands, I decided to try to fictionalize her story. She was a wonderful woman, dearly loved by many, and her life had the usual ups and downs of marriage and children. But a novel requires drama, a plot with twists and turns, characters going through change, and conflict. Clearly I would have to embellish.
My first step was research. To create a story about a woman like my grandmother, I would have to understand WWI, the Depression and WWII. Not being a student of history, I felt the need to begin at the beginning. What caused WWI? Who were the players? What did soldiers experience? What happened on the home front?
Happily, the Internet offered reams and reams of information on military and political events as well as maps and photos and stories of individual experiences of war. I found soldiers’ diaries lovingly transcribed by relatives or perfect strangers intent on preserving and honoring long ago sacrifice. I found regiments maintaining information about those who had fought in WWI, the weapons used and uniforms worn, the rations eaten and songs sung. A world of chaos and bungling and death emerged and I was utterly captivated.
“But what about the story?” you ask.
My mother provided raw ingredients by telling me that my grandfather fought at Vimy Ridge in April of 1917 and went on to be part of the Army of Occupation in Germany after WWI ended. She spoke of my great-grandparents and what she knew of my grandparents’ wedding, a few memories of the Depression and more substantial memories of living through WWII. On a visit home one summer, she gave me a box of old photos and newspaper clippings and told me that my older brother had my grandfather’s scrapbooks. Mom also relayed the story of my grandfather’s involvement with Camp X, a place where espionage agents were trained in WWII. My grandfather and espionage – who would have imagined?
Gradually a story emerged. Edward Jamieson brought nightmares back from WWI and left a French lover behind. With a wife named Ann, two young children, and a successful career, the novel opens when Edward receives an invitation to attend the Vimy war memorial dedication in France on July 26, 1936. Like a nest of snakes, his memories stir prompting consequences neither Edward nor Ann could have imagined. The novel spans the years from 1936 to 1944. The tag line for Unravelled
is Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage.
Below is a flashback Edward experiences not long after receiving the invitation. To write such a scene, I read many stories about Vimy Ridge and two non-fiction books. I examined maps showing the layout of British and German trenches, objectives set for each battalion, and diagrams of underground tunnels built to bring thousands of troops forward in preparation. I familiarized myself with the duties of men in the Signals Corps, the kind of weapons used in WWI and the sounds and smells of war.A burst of light in the distance. Edward checked his watch. At five fifteen, a still-hidden sun smudged the black of night. After hours of random machine-gun fire, the Germans were quiet. Through stinging sleet, shapes in no man’s land were barely visible. A cart, lopsided in the mud, the carcass of a horse, a lightweight howitzer damaged beyond repair, remnants of a large wooden barrel. The massive ridge loomed four hundred yards away.Five twenty-five. He scanned his unit. “Tell Robertson to keep alert,” he whispered to the soldier on his left. The reminder was unnecessary but he could not restrain himself. Time ticked away as hordes of men held their collective breath.At five thirty, the ripple of light was strangely beautiful, spreading like an endless wave in that instant of calm before the fury of one thousand guns erupted. Though Lieutenant Burke had described the battle plan in detail, nothing could have prepared them for such brutal vibration. Shockwaves compressed Edward’s chest, his ears distinguished nothing but pain, his legs braced to remain upright while he fought for breath. Death crooked its finger.In the distance, flames erupted over German trenches followed by a continuous line of red, white and green SOS signals. Edward’s platoon sprang into action as messages poured in. Night receded inch by inch, revealing the field of battle. German artillery stuttered, then replied with more conviction, deadly shells flashing against the clouds. Reaching for his earphones, Edward saw a red light mushroom beyond enemy lines, followed by a boom that scattered bits of clay across his makeshift table.“Christ, that felt close,” Eric Andrews said.“Ammunition dump?”“Probably. But theirs, not ours.”Edward grunted at the friend who had been with him since the beginning, then cocked his head as another message came through. He hunched forward, a gas mask around his neck, rifle propped against a wall of sandbags. His job was to keep information flowing, whatever the cost.By six a.m., sleet had turned to drizzle while thirty thousand infantry advanced in three waves of attack. “Snowy,” Edward used Eric’s nickname, “get a runner for this message.”“Fitz is ready. Just back from the sap.”“He’ll do.” Edward tore the message from his pad as the telephone rang. “Wait a minute till I see what this is.” He scribbled a few words. “Yes. Yes. Got it.” He held out the second message. “Tell Fitz to take this one too.”Another member of Edward’s team staggered in covered in mud. “It’s hell out there but we’re advancing on schedule.”Edward twisted around to look at his linesman. “What about casualties?”“Hard to say. Germans are getting the worst of it. Their shelling is weak compared to ours.”“Good news, Arty. I need you to head back out. The line from here to Duffield crater is down. Take Simmons and Tiger with you and get it repaired.” The telephone rang again. Edward turned back to his desk without waiting for a reply.Hours passed like minutes. Duties swept Edward and his men from forward trenches to command posts stationed up to five miles behind the lines. Twice he was blown off his feet by the concussion of exploding shells. His mind quivered with the unceasing flash and rumble of guns. Falling shrapnel screamed overhead.As they worked to install new lines and roll out signal cable behind advancing troops, shells roared liked angry beasts and confused men stumbled to find their way. Silent prisoners filed by. Edward heard bagpipes and sudden shouts and the anguished moans of wounded men. All the while, British planes buzzed overhead, swooping low to assess the damage.
Websites and posts you might find interesting:Browsing my Bookmarks
– a few of the websites I’ve found useful from music to military campaigns (http://wp.me/p29Qar-cp
) Excerpts from a WWI Diary
– quotes from the diary of Alistair Munroe Mackenzie (http://wp.me/p29Qar-5A
)WWI Fashion – A Time of Change
– photos and description of how fashion changed during WWI (http://wp.me/p29Qar-4u
) The Productivity Burden of Historical Fiction
– the effort required to research in order to write historical fiction (http://wp.me/p29Qar-2z
Many thanks to Amanda for inviting me to guest post on her blog. Unravelled
will be published in the summer of 2013.Thank you, Mary and please come back again after Unravelled releases!
Jane Austin is "big" right now, but I cannot jump on the band wagon in adoration of her books. I think they are difficult and tedious. I LOVE her stories. She is a master at drawing room dialogue and, comedy but I think her work translates better for me onto the silver screen. I am sure many people would say the same of Charles Dickens which I totally get because he too is difficult to wade through, but I take my time and enjoy savoring his lengthy descriptions. With Jane Austin, I get confused about who is speaking, and the formal writing style of the day overwhelms me. I have not read Pride and Prejudice in maybe twenty five years so maybe it is time give it another shot, or any of the Austin novels, but until then I will stick the wonderfully romantic and witty adaptations by Hollywood.
Portnoy's Compliant is the humorous monologue of Alex Portnoy, a neurotic and self absorbed Jewish American male living in New York City in the 1960s. The entire book in a candid and funny confession to a psychiatrist about Alex's Oedipus Complex and sexual obsessions. I found it a quick light read which reminded me of a Woody Allen movie, although I am unsure why it made my Librarian's List of Most Influential Novels of the 20th Century. Perhaps it was because of it was one of the first sexually explicit and honest explorations of masturbation? Yoiks! I didn't hate it, but I would much rather watch Annie Hall.
I love short stories. They are the perfect fix when you cannot devote time to an entire novel. Early on I cut my teeth on the quick reads of O. Henry, but wow, this collection of short stories by Porter was anything but light and fluffy. Each story included in Pale Horse, Pale Rider deals with death and disappointment. As explained in the forward of the book, the title is borrowed from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Pale Rider representing death. Katherine Anne Porter has included in this collection three gripping tales of people driven to the brink of despair. The characters reactions differ from story to story, ranging from denial, to quiet resignation to suicide. My favorite of the three was Noon Wine, but I suggest you read all three and compare them. Her writing is beautiful, rich and thought provoking. With very few words, Porter gives life to her characters and you understand and care about them immediately, a skill difficult to accomplish in a short story. She writes in that early 20th Century style that I love, and if you too enjoy books of that era, do read Pale Horse, Pale Rider.
This book reminds me why I love to read early Twentieth Century literature. There are passages in Wolfe's writing where I would not wonder if he was divinely inspired. A "coming of age story", Look Homeward, Angel is the thinly veiled autobiography of Thomas Wolfe's upbringing in the North Carolina mountains. Raised in a troubled, and often violent family, he struggles to understand his parents and siblings but most of all himself. He knows that he is a pariah and even when he comes into adulthood, he finds himself a lonely outcast, too brilliant to be comfortable in any setting. The book is not as widely embraced as it was years ago possibly because it can be racially offensive. Yet anyone who reads the book must consider the time period in which it was written. Throughout the book I was haunted by the fact that Thomas Wolfe only lived to be thirty seven years old, succumbing to tuberculosis in 1938. I wished he had lived to write more. Look Homeward, Angel is among some of the best literature that I have ever read.
Well, I am still working through my Librarian's List of the One Hundred Most Influential Novels of the 20th Century and decided to read Ulysses. Since I am of Irish heritage and write novels about the Irish, I thought that I had better get familiar with the works of James Joyce. I started out with The Dubliners, a series of short stories. They were OK and readable, but Ulysses is not only daunting but down right odd. I recommend, if you want to wade through it, get it on CD and listen to it while you drive. It is 40 discs! There is very little storyline and throughout the book he changes his style six or seven times. There are pages and pages where Joyce strips the meaning of words and strings sentences together or merely utters sounds like dadadada. When he is doing a narrative, he can be funny and give the reader a terrific insight into the Dubliner's character and lifestyle in the early 20th Century, but there is not enough of this included in the book.
I suppose if you are a linguistic major, you could have a field day with his exploration of the English language, but sadly, I am not and found the novel extremely tedious.
P.S. I am still plugging along on disc 27
I have always wondered about Truman Capote and the duality of his life. I would see him on talk shows when I was young and he seemed like such an odd, little bohemian intellectual. His decadent New York life style rubbing elbows with the Studio 56 crowd did not surprise me nor his odd obsession researching the killers in In Cold Blood but what did floor me was that he wrote A Christmas Memory. Could it have been written by the same person?
I believe A Christmas Memory to be one of the most heart warming and beautiful Christmas stories ever written. It is about a friendship between two lonely people, one a small boy and the other an unusual elderly woman. Their love for one another and the their shared loneliness touches me every Christmas when I see the film, re-read the short story or simply remember the characters. The story is a retrospect of his childhood in Alabama. Everything I have learned about his early years in the South contradicts the face paced, drug immersed, life style he chose in New York City and I am not only fascinated, but saddened by Capote's writing and life style choices over time. Nevertheless, I will be grateful to him my entire life for one of the most beautiful stories every written.
Anyone who loves Christmas traditions in bygone days will love Irving's Christmas at Bracebridge Hall. It is somewhere between a short story and a novella describing a visit to Bracebridge Hall in Yorkshire, England at Christmas time. It starts with the narrator's stagecoach ride through the English countryside in late December, his impressions of the great estate of Bracebridge Hall and the inhabitants. In rich detail, Irving describes everything about the holiday festivities over the next two days, from food to decorations to games they played. This story is a wonderful narration of an 18th Century Christmas and is not only a historical description of the traditions and customs of England in the past but a cozy and cheerful story which will put anyone into the Christmas spirit who reads it.
A Christmas Carol-Charles Dickens
Well, it is Christmas and I just have to post about A Christmas Carol. Over the course of forty years, I have accomplished the goal of reading every work of Charles Dickens, and I owe it all to the first book I read by him, A Christmas Carol. I was first exposed to A Christmas Carol at a department store display in Mpls., MN. If any of you reading this live in Minnesota , you may remember the Dicken's London Towne animated figure display at Dayton's Department Store. It was a magical, wonderful exhibit in their auditorium with moving figures (like at Disneyworld) all dressed up as Dickens characters. Spectators would wind through the snowy streets of 19th Century London and peek through mullioned windows at the characters inside. Some of the scenes were Fezziwig's warehouse during the Christmas Eve ball, Fagin's hideout in Oliver Twist and many more. I wish I could revisit it because, at the time, I was a child and unfamiliar with all of his books, so I did not know who all the figures were representing. I did recognize though, Ebenezer Scrooge and his ethereal guides. I was captivated and from that point I was determined to read A Christmas Carol. Initially I thought it was sacreligious, (being a good little Catholic girl) pairing ghosts with Christmas, but I soon set my narrow views aside and devoured the book. To this day I give this short novel and Dayton's Dept. Store credit for giving me my life long love affair with Charles Dickens.
What memories do you have of this book or other novels about the season?
For Halloween-If there is one classic that terrifies me the most, it is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Ever since I was a child my worst nightmares have been of the monster pursuing me while my running gets slower and slower. Call it a psychological hang up, I call it terrifying. It is yet another Victorian commentary on the Industrial Revolution or science gone wrong like Jekyll and Hyde. Neverthelss the idea does not seem so outrageous anymore, not in a world that is developing cloning.
All in all, I thought Frankenstein was an excellent book until the end when Shelley puts the monster up in the Arctic or was it down in Antarctica? It seemed so random and unnecessary, like she was filling space. Am I missing something? Anyhow, if you want to complete the tour of classic horror, don't miss it.