Finding the right historical details

magnifying glassI‘ve always believed, as the cliche says, that the devil is in the details. I love to seek out little known facts that can’t be found in historical accounts, newspapers and non-fiction works. Whilst writing my book Tomaree I interviewed upwards of 100 elderly people on their experiences of living during WWII. Most of them loved to chat and I wish now that I had had the time to talk to them about their whole lives, rather than just aspects of it. But unfortunately I was a single Mum working part time and I could only spend a few hours every fortnight or so up at Port Stephens where the novel was set.

Some of the stories I heard still resonate – the elderly lady whose mother, in the first years of the last decade, used to drive her pony and trap filled with home grown products from Anna Bay to Stockton, along a stretch of sand at low tide. Sometimes she got caught with the rising tide and a neighbour would have to mind my interviewee. Some time around the 1920s, I think, the sandbar was washed away after a massive storm and then the locals had to travel the long way around to Stockton or Newcastle after that.

There was also another Port Stephens resident who, as a young boy, remembered the American soldiers giving him money for ice-cream. I asked why and he told me it was because they hated all our small change, the threepennies, halfpennies etc that used to weigh down their pockets. “Here kid, go buy yourself an ice-cream.” You won’t find this fact in most non-fiction accounts of WWII involving Americans serving in England and Australia but some elderly people will remember that that’s what they often did.

As a novelist who is very interested in details such as these, I spend quite a lot of time hunting down such facts to make the past come alive. Interviewing people who have been there is a wonderful source of gems – such as a friend of mine’s uncle, a Rat of Tobruk, (he must be one of the last) who acquired a camera by trading with an Italian prisoner of war. When he got the film developed there were pictures of Rommel and his men. A case of truth being stranger than fiction.

I have sent my friend Gina, an oral historian in training, off with a list of questions. Not many of course as her uncle is 93 but I’m hoping she can get a few things down so his memories won’t be lost forever. This is one of the reasons I have started Starving in a Garret a collaborative workspace and sanctuary. One of the things I want to achieve is to find people interested in being oral historians and point them in the right direction. Recently a much loved GP died, I’m not positive but I’m guessing that most of the stories he could have told about being a doctor in Newcastle in the middle of the last century, have died with him.

I’m hoping to work towards building a team of oral historians that can interview people and compile a list of their memories of the local area (as well as details of their life of course) that can be donated to the local studies unit of their closest library. Memoirs and local histories are being written right now but I’m sure that there are wonderful, elderly people out there who are slipping through the net. I’m posting this blog to Starving in a Garret as well so please check there for progress on this project.

Arthur Streeton and the Battle of Amiens

I love hunting facts down, following paper trails and discovering interesting pieces of information. I mentioned in a previous blog that beginning my second draft of The Grey Silk Purse I had 98 points of research to check – things such as the location of the Niagara Cafe in Newcastle -
http://www.facebook.com/groups/LostNewcastle/permalink/506264069398435/
the weather in London on a December day in 1917, locations in Greece and various birds in the Hunter around 1920 to name some points.

Well I’m down to 10. Yay! and have been working on a very important research point – where my main male character Adrian Langley loses his leg. Before I could choose a location, I needed to choose a battalion for Adrian. I decided that although he is originally from Sydney, he actually joins up with his Mayfield cousins and in early 1917 becomes part of the 35th Battalion “Newcastle’s Own Regiment”.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/35th_Battalion_(Australia)

Immediately the battle of Lena Wood (see picture in link above) caught my eye and with the mention of woods I decided to research the landscape of the Battle of Amiens, August 1918 and quickly found Arthur Streeton’s wonderful painting above. The sight of the painting really changed my thinking and brought with it more questions. Why was the landscape so beautiful and not ravaged? Did Streeton purposely paint an unaffected area of the battle or was this his idealised vision of the pre battle scene? The woods look wonderful, the scenery is green. The whole thing evokes a pleasant summer stroll and that thought led me to recreating AND transforming Adrian’s loss of his leg in a dream. Here is what I wrote inspired by the painting above:

“…Sometimes too the beautiful woods near Amiens loom large in his dreams. Often he is alone, strolling not fighting. August 1918. A summer’s day in northern France. A feeling of peace, contentment and then a sniper parts the green that conceals him and sends an arc of bullets that tears the ground up in front of him, rips Adrian’s right leg apart and slams into his hip and shoulder. It would be better to dream of the way it was but his mind has condensed and transformed the incident until it is almost completely unrecognisable. At least he’s not surrounded by men dying beside him and he is thankful for that. They inhabit the other dreams. Not this one.”

By researching the landscape of Amiens I had found the place where my character loses his leg but it also gave me the opportunity (because of the beauty of the place) to set it against the muddy, soul destroying landscape of a previous battle. Adrian’s most terrible nightmares are from the Battle of Passchendaele where his battalion was bogged down in the mud and only 90 from 508 remained at the end but it is not where he receives wounds (at least not physically) that almost kill him and cripple him for life. Hopefully my future readers will appreciate the irony.