I love historical fiction because of the journeys I take to different times and places. As an author, this journey is truly one of dicovery. Today, for example, I have researched steam trains, Kettering Railway Station toilets, shellshock symptoms, Co-op milk and bread deliveries, gas street-lighting, soldiers freezing to death in Gallipoli, and the Battle of Loos, all in 1915. I’ve learnt more about modern history from researching my historical novels than I ever learnt at school.
Last year, I sailed the world on a convict ship in 1841, saw my child starve in a convict nursery, and crossed the Blue Mountains with a horse and cart. I’ve prospected for gold, held a young girl in my arms while she died of dysentry, and been robbed by bushrangers. I’ve watched the man I love convicted of murder and had him sail out of my life, and I’ve sacrificed my son and my soul for love. All this pain to bring to life ‘For Their Country’s Good’, a three-book series about convict transportation, a brutal ‘trade’ to build a colony of labour, breeders, and tamers in Australia: to put the flesh on the bare bones of historical fact and documentation.
Probably the most harrowing research I’ve undertaken was for ‘Touching the Wire’, a story of the men, women and children of Auschwitz. It’s difficult to comprehend what ‘mass hysteria’, for want of a better term, drove ordinary German citizens to commit the atrocities that were carried out in Auschwitz/Birkenhau and the other death camps where so many innocents lost their lives. How did Hitler command such a devout following? How could he turn men with wives and children of their own to view Jews, Romanies, homosexuals, and political prisoners as fodder for the gas ovens? How does anyone ever forgive such inhumanity to men, women, and children?
I often had to walk away from my research and take a walk in the fresh Pembrokeshire air to cleanse my lungs of the reek of death and my mind of the capricious brutality of Nazi Germany. As with all tales, if the characters are to live, their plight to have impact, their tragic stories to have wings and fly, the devil is in the detail, and, in the case of Auschwitch, the detail was the devil. It made me question my own powers of forgiveness, and it wasn’t until long after I’d typed ‘The End’, possibly a couple of years after, that I found my own answer. For me, it wasn’t so much what I could forgive but whom I was willing to forgive.
My present work in progress presents a more personal challenge in that it’s inspired by my grandfather’s experiences in The Great War. Where ‘For Their Country’s Good’ was based on three of my relations who died long before I was born, ‘The Dandelion Clock’ is inspired by grandparents I knew and loved. They were flawed, with human frailties, as are all my characters, so they needn’t expect special treatment, but I shall attempt to show their humanity in the most difficult of times — how war tore them apart, brought them back together, and changed them irrevocably.
Last week, I marched with Grandad across a salt flat, with no cover, under fire from Turkish soldiers on the hills above me at Chocolate Hill, Gallipoli. Around me men dropped like flies, their bodies, left unburied, filled the hot air with the stench of death. Yesterday, I endured trench foot, hunger, the loss of comrades due to flooding in the trenches, and today I almost froze to death. I left him in a casualty clearing station on Sulva beach, suffering from frostbite, while my grandmother copes with a brother home from France with shellshock and a father who is a violent drunk. All my grandparents wanted was each other and love. It’s an emotional journey for me as a writer and granddaughter. I hope you will find it an emotional journey as a reader. Look out for it in 2018. Remember the name, ‘The Dandelion Clock — A wish to end all wishes. The war to end all wars.’.
2 thoughts on “Station Toilets, Shellshock, and Freezing to Death”
“How could [Hitler] turn men with wives and children of their own to view Jews, Romanies, homosexuals, and political prisoners as fodder for the gas ovens?” Seeing the way some people, even today, view those kinds of people it’s not so hard to see how it was done and could easily be done again. Books like the ones you write are essential. We need to know about these things in order to forgive those responsible and to recognise our prejudices. We forget at our peril.
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We see shades of Hitler in the both the small, every day intolerance of man towards man, neighbour towards neighbour, and the larger policitcal and social prejudices, but some of the current political and religious thinking terrifies me. ‘We forget at our peril.’ Unfortunately mankind’s memories are short, and we also fail to recognise that prejudice and war are born, not just of greed, but of fear and cowardice. If I were a believer, I would fear for men’s souls. As it is I fear for their lives, and our beautiful planet, ravaged by war, greed, and fear. I am driven to write books about these subjects to keep the memories alive, ‘lest we forget.’
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