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.
“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!
Amanda Hughes, author of Historical Adventures blogs about her reading, her writing, her appearances and even a few recipes!