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 –
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”.
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.
Debbie … scenes like the one you’ve painted with words not brushes make me feel so sad. WWI was such a soul-destroying time. How men and women endured continues to amaze me. I’m in awe of their abilities. My grandfather was at Amiens, Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele and Cambrai. I’ve been to those fields – tears in my eyes as I imagine it all.
It is so depressing isn’t it? A whole generation lost. And then of course you have those who survived but are scarred for life. My grandfather was in the last eighteen months or so of the First World War but never spoke of it except to mention a clock that had stopped working and his shrapnel wounds. No other details. It’s funny but I haven’t come across very many one legged main characters. Good to be able to create one!
Great post, Debbie. My grandfather was also in France and Belgium in WWI, with the Royal West Kent Regiment. He too was wounded, but not so badly. He was there from 1915 through to the end, and I often wonder how he survived and how he retained a marvellous sense of humour in spite of it all.
I love the dream snippet – how good if we could all dream away the horrors and keep the good.
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Thanks so much Linda. Yes, how did they cope? And those in command were so slow to understand “shell shock”; the doctors and authorities believing it was caused by the noise of shelling not the psychological aftermath of living day after day expecting to be killed or maimed. I still wonder why Streeton painted Amiens so untouched…
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A fascinating post.
Thanks so much Margaret! I’m very behind with my emails at the moment so haven’t seen a lot of my friend’s posts! I’ve been very busy on wiki!
I love the way WordPress adds suggestions for ‘posts I might like’ when I get an email about a comment you’ve made on my blog. I wouldn’t have found this one of yours from so long ago otherwise.
But you know, #not wanting to mess up your idea (and your writing is powerful) I don’t see that painting as you do. The colour of those more yellow clouds suggests mustard gas to me, that insidious cloud that crept across the landscape bringing a new kind of misery to war.
The spouse’s grandfather wrote in his war diary (which is now in the AWM) about the day they first saw mustard gas. They didn’t know what it was…
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Isn’t that strange? I saw it as idyllic. I’m very proud of the fact that my main character who has survived the war has lost his leg. I haven’t actually read too many books with main characters missing a leg.
I can’t think of many either, there’s a lack of diversity in fiction, when you come to think about it…
My husband’s grandfather came back to Australia, married, had a stellar career in the Commonwealth railways, wrote a book or two, was president of the Limbless Soldiers Association, and ran a farm well into his old age. In other words a full and rewarding professional life. His personal life, from what I’ve heard, would make him a great (though not necessarily likeable) character in a novel too, and yet as you say, people like him tend to be airbrushed out of fiction, or if they’re included, the focus is on the war and how the injury occurred in battle, or the post-traumatic issues afterwards. The fiction tends to define the character by the disability rather than have it just as an aspect of life.
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Perhaps I have inadvertently defined him by the injury but the injury is a talisman of the trauma he has injured and gives him an insight into my main character. The book also contains a romance and in that respect he is a man that has fallen in love. The fact that he has lost a leg has nothing to do with the romance.
Well, then, he’s a human being first, and his disability is just a part of that, not the whole man *smile*
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And by the way, thank you for your comment about my writing!