Friday, 1 November 2013

 I was recently discussing a new story with a friend. The setting, I knew, would be during the First World War  - the dates for what I wanted to explore in the story were right about then, and I've been hungry to write something set in this period for a while now. But I hadn't fixed on a specific location. It was all feeling a bit untethered.

Then my friend told me about a recent trip she had taken with her family to Arras, France, after discovering that a family member had died in the trenches there. They felt a pull to see the site and try to find his grave. While they were there they also visited the Boves in Arras, a complex network of tunnels and caves dug out under the city during Roman and Medieval times, and extended during the first world war by New Zealand miners and British Bantam Battalions. The cave network housed 24,000 troops near the enemy lines, so that they were able to mount a surprise and sudden attack. It is a fascinating event in the story of the war, and one that was almost forgotten about until archeologist Alain Jacques rediscovered parts of the caves that still remain. There is now a museum where you can see parts of it. I wish I had time to get there for real, but a short turnaround means my research has all been computer based (what the hell did we do before the internet?!) and anecdotal, from my friend, about how it felt to be somewhere that held such great personal significance.

I've been checking all sort of details this week; what were the straps wound around soldiers legs called? Shift patterns in the trenches for sleeping, treatment for shellshock, which occupations were reserved? Precise distances between enemy lines... While it is so important to be accurate with historic details (not just for authenticity but also to avoid finger wagging from readers who like to fact check) I need to remember that humans are humans are humans are humans. I sometimes get to a point with research where I just have to let it go. Step away from it, stop trying to put period detail in where it doesn't sit comfortably and just focus on what my characters would do in a given situation, what they would say. I don't think humans change all that fundamentally, whether we are 200 years back, forward, or in a spaceship circling a white dwarf. Our human motivations, feelings and reactions to things are fairly consistent.

I am humbled and amazed once again by what our armed forces did during the First World War. With Remembrance Day approaching, and next year marking 100 years since the beginning of the war, it feels the right time for this story to be written.

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