Writing the war

Among the many decisions we make when writing for young readers are creative and ethical decisions about violence and grief.

I’ve always been very conscious of how to treat scenes like swordfights or battles in fiction for young readers. It’s not that I shy away from the reality of violence – quite the opposite. I feel like I have a responsibility to think about how to present it honestly, and not just as a big, mindless adventure (not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just a different type of book).

So say a kid had their first swordfight. Say they were just a little bit older than the reader – twelve or thirteen, maybe, facing off against a grown man. It’s all very exciting, and I make sure it’s an action scene with plenty of – ahem – punch. But then I wonder, if that was you, and you’d just actually stabbed someone, wounded someone, drawn blood for the first time in your life, how would you feel? Say you’d been chased by a baddie all over the Mediterranean, and finally came up against him in a duel on the clifftops and he ended up dead. How would you feel? Even if you were a pirate?

I made certain decisions about how to present fighting and battles in the Swashbuckler series, then how to present torture and loss in Act of Faith and The Sultan’s Eyes. (That makes them all sound terribly grim. I promise they’re not.)

But writing about war, in particular writing about the First World War, in 1917 presented a different set of challenges. How do you explain shell-shock to a reader aged ten? How do you present the war in the air without glorifying the aces and ignoring their casualties? Which of your characters will survive? (It’s the Western Front. They can’t all make it through unscathed.) How do you convey the intense grief of those whose best mates or loved ones were killed or wounded or missing?

How do you do all that without it becoming unbearable for the reader?

Battleground with wounded

Frank Hurley’s famous photo of the morning after the first battle of Passchendaele, 1917 (Source: ABC/NLA)

The life expectancy of a pilot on the Western Front in 1917 was just a couple of weeks. They lived in a state of heightened tension and with impending doom, as did the men in the trenches. They could never explain it to the people at home. Their letters home are often totally different to their diary entries, or the oral histories recorded years later. On the other hand, the newspapers were filled with stories about dashing flying aces and their kills, as if each kill was just a number, not a human being.

How do you write a war?

Well, I hope I’ve managed to balance the needs of the reader with the pleading voices of the past.

We’ll see.

Any day now…

My new book comes out in a few weeks.

1917 is part of the Australia’s Great War series  by Scholastic.

When I was asked to be part of the series by publisher Clare Hallifax, I knew immediately what I wanted to write: a story about a pilot whose family is opposed to the war – or at least, opposed to conscription.

RE8 plane

An RE8, as flown by 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps (Source: AWM)

1917 was seen by so many people as one of the worst years of the war. The losses on the Western Front were horrendous, ANZAC troops were involved in shockingly brutal encounters like Bullecourt and Passchendaele, and on the home front there were strikes and food shortages and arguments about the second plebiscite on conscription. Women’s roles were changing, new technology made warfare unlike anything ever witnessed before, and the war itself seemed to show no signs of ending.

Yung women on a farm gate

Young women helping out on a farm (Source: Telegraph UK)

My own family was involved in those conscription debates,  so I grew up with stories about the huge rallies through the streets of Melbourne, and my fire-eating great-grandmother. But my grandfather (who was only little during the war) was obsessed with planes, and joined the Flying Corps as a mechanic as soon as he could, well after the war. I never understood how one family could reconcile those two things. But they did. I guess.

Anyway, 1917 is kind of but not really about them, and more about the many people like them who were worried sick about sons or daughters at the Front, but also affected by everything that was going on at home and struggling to make ends meet.

The main characters are invented, but plenty of real people make appearances, including activists Vida Goldstein and Adela Pankhurst. It’s set on the Western Front – in Flanders, here in my own suburb of Coburg, as well as Point Cook air base, Mordialloc Women’s Farm, the orchards of Box Hill, and pilot training bases in the UK.

You can read more about the book here. It’s written for readers 9 and over.

I do hope you like it.

On the road

I’m writing this from Dublin, where I’ve been hunting around for traces of the medieval city and spent hours in the glorious reading room of the National Library.

Today I head west, to County Mayo, back on the trail of the Irish pirate queen, Granuaile – Grace O’Malley, for my current project: Grace, on her famous meeting with Elizabeth I.

But first, I have other work to do, reading the proof pages of my next book, 1917. It’s for young readers and it’ll be out in February.

Here’s a brief outline of the book. And just look at this dramatic cover!

Book cover 1917

Learning to fly

About to start redrafting on 1917.

It’s partly about a young Australian lad who learns to be a pilot and flies on the Western Front during that terrible year in the First World War.

You might remember I spent a few weeks at Bundanon writing the first draft. Since then, I’ve edited that version, fixed up a few things here and there, and done another round of research on specific details.

But sometimes you need to let things sit for a while and marinate. Or fester. Or something.

Anyway, I’m ready to get back into it again.

 

Royal Flying Corps Aviator School

Royal Flying Corps Aviator School

Misty mornings

It’s the last morning of my writing residency at Bundanon. I’m sitting with my coffee, looking down towards the billabong. Mist settles softly in the gully.

It’s a magic place, and it’s been a very productive time for me here.

I admit I was a bit frenzied, scribbling away for long hours. But it’s rare to get that opportunity – for me, anyway. I’m one of the many writers (the majority) who also have jobs and write in any cracks in time we can create.

I’ve written the first draft of 1917 – let’s call it draft zero, because it’s pretty ratty in places and needs many more drafts before it’s approaching readable. But it’s down on paper – well, in Scrivener – and out of my head and I know what happens to everyone in the end and now I can’t even look at it. I’ll print it out in a week or two, read it in full, and then start work on it again.

Then I did some work on a short story about a bushranger, for an anthology of adventure tales.  And at some point I sat on the river bank and wrote a little piece about fishing for another anthology.

Image of river

Shoalhaven River below Bundanon Homestead

Yesterday I even had a day off, checking out the Bundanon homestead with its miraculous collection of generations of Boyd family artworks, and then spent hours with dear friends and dogs at Culburra beach.

Image of homestead and trees

Bundanon Homestead – built 1866 and later home of Arthur and Yvonne Boyd

So next, it’s back to Canberra overnight, a few hours’ research at the National Library (and hopefully a glimpse of the Rothschild manuscript) and the long drive back to Melbourne and reality.

I’m sorry to leave, sorry to stop writing all day and night, sorry to have to wear clothes that aren’t topped by a dressing-gown, and most of all sorry to leave this place.

I’ll be back.

Image of trees and palms

Cedar walk, Bundanon

What I’m doing and how I’m doing it

Right now, I’m in the middle of a drafting blitz, on a residency at beautiful Bundanon.

Writing residencies like this are intense,  with long hours at the desk every day. But for someone like me, with jobs and other commitments, it’s rare to find time when I can just concentrate on one thing. All day, every day.

Except there are some distractions.

Image of paddock and kangaroos

The view from my desk at Bundanon

I’m working on the first draft of 1917, a novel for readers ten years and over, and part of the Australia’s Great War series for Scholastic. One comes out each year – Sophie Masson’s 1914 and Sally Murphy’s 1915 are out already and have had terrific reviews (no pressure). Each book in the series focuses on a different aspect of the First World War from a different point of view. 1914 sees the start of the war through the eyes of a young man who becomes a war correspondent, while in 1915 a teacher from Western Australia experiences Gallipoli.

I’m trying to do two things in writing about 1917, often called ‘the hardest year’:  canvass the issues on the Home Front, with the General Strike and the second conscription referendum; and try to convey the horror of the war in the air over the Western Front and Passchandaele … for ten year-olds.  Luckily I get to see how Sophie and Sally have already dealt with issues like death and grief as I come up against them in my book – and I like grappling with these ethical and tonal issues for that age group, as I had to do with the Swashbuckler series. It’s hard, but compelling, inquiry: does your hero/heroine actually kill anyone, and if so, what do they feel about it later? How much grief, how much shell-shock can and should you convey?  How do you support a young reader through it, and write about war without glorifying it and without preachifying?

I was talking about this the other evening with local legend Ralph, who works on bush regeneration here at Bundanon.  “How do you give them hope?” he asked. And that is, indeed, the question. (I’d written myself into a hopeless hole that day, and that was just what I needed to hear.) There are no right answers. I have to work my way to the words that are right for the characters and the real people who lived through it and the readers.

Anyway, this is what I do. I hit the desk by about 8am and I don’t leave it until I go to bed. I take breaks, of course (but probably not enough) and sometimes force myself outside for a walk. A fair bit of chocolate is consumed. It’s a privilege to be here and a luxury to have uninterrupted writing time, so I don’t want to waste a minute.

I just draft, trying not to edit as I go, to make the most of the momentum – this is just the first step in the process. Half of it might be crap, half of it may end up in the bin – that’s OK, we’ll sort that out later. On the way, I’m working out what happens and who feels what when and where everyone is on their path through the story.

Image of studio at Bundanon

Freedman studio at Bundanon

I have a huge studio here, so there’s a writing desk and a research desk, which makes life much easier. Maps of Flanders are spread out, with the airfields marked on them, so I can see where everyone was. I drove here, so I could bring stacks of books, as well as a couple of things to remind me of the people who were there.

Princess Mary Christmas tin, 1914

Princess Mary Christmas tin, issued to all Empire troops in 1914

I did all my general research before I got here, including visits to airfields and museums in England and Flanders last year, and came through Canberra to spend some time (not enough!) at the War Memorial. Now, I just have to look up certain things from time to time, and know where to find them. Usually, I spend the first hour or two of each day looking stuff up, or reading first-hand accounts of events or experiences, before I start writing.

I didn’t (stupidly) bring my books about the conscription debate – in which my great-grandmother was deeply involved – so I have to sketch those sections out and fill them in later. I do look things up in digitised newspapers via Trove from time to time, but don’t want to tarry too long – just need to write it down, get it out of the brain.

Image of desk with books and maps

On the wall are twelve bits of paper with scribbles on them, each one a timeline – the same months, but from different points of view: battles, squadron movements, new model plane releases, political events in Australia and Russia, major turning points in the war. Then timelines for the two main characters (brother and sister) and the people around them, lined up against the events or battles in which they take part. I scribble these as I go along. Usually, this would be in a spreadsheet, but there’s just so much white wall!

Part of the 1917 timeline

Part of the 1917 timeline

There’s also a hero’s journey map for each of them, which take shape as the writing progresses. One journey is into the quagmire of Flanders, one into the hope and excitement of the thriving women’s movement of the war years.

At least, that’s how it looks today.

image of kangaroo