Tin mugs and plenty of tea

Tin mugs and plenty of tea

This week marks the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings. And yes, the military significance of those landings looms a little larger in Anglo-American eyes than it does in German / Slavic eyes, but still – golly. That invasion involved what was by far the largest invasion fleet in history. In one single day, 133,000 men landed in France, under fire. By the end of June 1944, almost a million men had been put ashore, along with 150,000 vehicles and an infinitude of supplies.

Now, I happen to have one of those little author soft-spots for this bit of history. I wrote a historical novel once about the oil industry, and D-Day featured in the climax of the book. It was all very well to land 150,000 vehicles (in less than a month) – but how were those vehicles to be fuelled? There’s no oil in Normandy and slow-moving oil tankers were desperately vulnerable to attack. So … PLUTO: The PipeLine Under The Ocean. It had never been done before, but, eighty years ago, it was done, because it had to be done. A pipeline unrolled on the ocean bed to feed petrol through to the liberating army. Wow.

I’m always moved by those things, but also – listening to voices and memoirs on the radio – I’m struck by the precision with which ordinary language captures the fleeting moods of history.

If you had people today talking about a similar venture, they’d sound different. They’d use different language, pick out different details, have slightly different humour, and so on.

For example, I heard an account of the moment, written by someone then only 8 or 9. Some American soldiers were camping out in Hampshire. And they had this ‘big bit of lamb stew’ cooked up in ‘great tin pot’. The soldiers (‘very generous’) offered the boy some of their food, and the boy, used to sparse wartime rations, clearly revered the memory of that meal.

My kids are the same age now as that boy then. They might talk about a lamb stew, but they wouldn’t talk about a ‘great tin pot’ and I think they’d be a lot less likely to talk of a ‘big bit’ of stew. And obviously, they don’t even know what ration cards are or were.

Now I say this, with both a narrow focus and a broad one.

The narrow focus is simply this: if you’re writing historical fiction, you need to get as close as possible to the words and experiences of the people who were there. So yes, you need your grand history books: the military histories which tells you about what the US 1st Army achieved, how fast or slowly the British and Commonwealth 2nd Army advanced, and so on.

But that’s background – of secondary value almost. The closer you can get to the texture of life, the better. That means letters and diaries. Scraps of newsreel. Any opportunity you get to hear or read actual dialogue of the era. What did those soldiers eat? Did they have tents? Bivouac bags? Nothing? What? Those things don’t matter much to military history, but they made up the experience of life on the day. How heavy was a Bren gun? How was the ammo for it carried? Did it jam? What noise did it make? The closer you can get to accuracy there, the better. There’s no substitute for as much real-life memoir as you can get.

That’s the narrow focus, but the issue is broader too – one that affects every novelist and, indeed, any memoirist too.

The presence of (actual, or very well faked) authenticity matters hugely.

If you’re writing about, let’s say, ad industry execs in London, or New York, or Paris – do you have their voices right? Do you have their attitudes right?

Another bit of memoir I heard on the radio today came from a (then) young woman who had parachuted into France to support the Resistance. Her job was to transmit coded messages back to England. She landed in a wood, feeling understandably anxious, but her memoir commented, ‘I thought, well, I’m here now, so I might as well get on with it.’

You can just feel the 1940s matter-of-fact spirit oozing from those words. How does a modern-day, urban-elite ad exec talk? What attitudes do they unwittingly convey in everything they say / do / feel? I’m not too sure – it’s not my world – but the perfect ad-land set book will nail those things. The vocab, the attitudes, the minutiae of life.

With historical fiction, the need for a certain kind of precision is clear: you can’t get History wrong. But it’s the same thing with all other story-telling too. You need to be true to your world, not just in big ways (Spitfires? Or F-22s?), but in little ones – great tin pots and the ‘might as well get on with it’ attitudes.

That’s all true, even if your world is utterly imagined. You might be writing a book about a mining colony on Mars, and it would still matter what people eat, what attitudes they evince, what they call a ‘great tin pot’, what kind of footwear they have, and so on.

My mother-in-law was born in Poland in 1942, to a German-speaking (and Protestant) father and a Polish-speaking (and Catholic) mother. She survived, and might not have done. Her family survived, and might not have done. They all, in time, made it to Munich and the glorious, beautiful safety of the American zone. Thank you, D-Day. Thank you, generous American soldiers and their big bits of lamb stew.

Feedback Friday: Catching the mood

This month, we’re going to be tackling projects attuned to specific genres … but will also make sure that the disciplines we focus on will be applicable to most writers.

Today, I’d love you to take a look at one of our hist fic classes – here – on researching your book. That has a huge relevance, of course, to historical writers, but it’ll affect loads of others too. (Even, say, people writing about mining-on-Mars. I mean, what minerals does it have? What are the Mars-specific extraction challenges …? Those things really matter.)

What I want this week:

  • Title
  • Genre
  • 1-2 sentences of context if needed
  • 250 words that show your research in action. Everything from tone of voice to the specifics of (guessing, here) Martian molybdenum mining.

The thing that will please my soul here are things like “Well, I’m here now, so I might as well get on with it.” The tone there is just perfect for the age and the historical moment. These things are hard to pin down, but they matter so much …

That’s it. Feedback in Townhouse as per usual. If you aren’t a Premium Member, you can’t access the masterclass. So um, you could join us – or invade France – or make a really big ball out of rubber bands.

That’s it from me. Post here

Til soon.


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  1. Feedback Friday
    ‘I, Said the Sparrow’
    Historical fiction
    We were on the quay before breakfast and I remember wondering if there would be no more school. I had watched Ma at work before, part hidden in her hitched skirts, avoiding her boots, the flash of her knife and the other women standing close. A few men tipped their caps in acknowledgement as we passed, their eyes brushed over me, with a curiosity that seemed to displease her.
    ‘Is that yer youngest then Annie?’
    She simply nodded and placed the heel of a hand between my shoulder blades pushing me onwards. Ma had told me I should stay away from men who asked me to go with them to see their rabbits in the yard or their skeps in the field – especially if they offered me a ha’penny to spend on liquorice or pear drops at Molly Mabbit’s.
    Her eyes motioned me to watch her.
    Grip the knife like this and hold the fish firmly with your left hand.
    She slit the belly to the throat, ripping and spilling its guts amongst the mewling cats at her feet. Tossed in a basket, the fish head was thrown backwards, its eyes filmy and unseeing, mouth agape in an ugly grimace.

    1. I love this, esp the bit about the heel of a hand between her shoulder blades — and actually all of the details in that paragraph. You do a nice job of integrating your research into the story itself. My only quibble is this: I was initially confused by the sentence about the child hidden in the skirts, although it would be easy to edit that for clarity. All in all, this piece is impressive!

  2. Darkness is an Absence

    Historical Fiction

    As a professional soldier, Sullivan is in the cavalry when WW1 begins. In April of 1915 the first ever full-scale gas attack (chemical warfare) happens outside of Ypres, and Sullivan has been forewarned by deserters from the German army who are terrified, as they know it kills many of the German soldiers too.

    With profound unease Sullivan scanned the horizon praying he wouldn’t see what he was looking for. But as his eyes searched, there, on either side of Langemarck Village, were two tiny clouds beginning to roll along the ground towards the Algerian and Canadian lines. The clouds merged together creating a beautiful blue-white mist, as ethereal as the mist over a water meadow on a frosty night, and it rolled across no man’s land getting wider, and higher, until everything disappeared in its depth.
    Kicking his heels into Bard’s sides he began galloping up the road towards St. Julien, but almost as soon as he began to move a pungent odour reached his nostrils, and it burnt. The air within his cry added to his pain, and his mouth, tongue, throat, and lungs, screamed with the agony of it. Bard began to squeal too, and he staggered beneath Sullivan.
    Glancing behind him, in panic Sullivan realised the cloud was nearly upon them. Its colour had changed and was now the colour of a thick pea-green soup… the colour of poison, and as the cloud moved along the ground towards them Sullivan could hear the cloud sizzling. Kicking Bard violently, knowing the animal’s powerful legs were their only hope, Sullivan encouraged Bard on. Leaping forward the horse managed only a few steps more before the green cloud engulfed them.