I have been struggling for several weeks to describe how I researched A Time for Peace. As I explained in a previous blog the novel wasn’t written in one long sitting followed by careful reworking to ensure I told the story in the most effective way. Sadly, I had several stabs at what resulted in the published novel. One was written entirely about Ellen Frankland, a British woman who became a soldier in the Serbian army.
The Intimate History of Killing by Joanne Bourke changed that because as soon as I understood precisely what was involved when a soldier bayoneted another soldier, Ellen could no longer become a soldier. Men may be culturally be expected to kill, but a woman would have more personal and psychological hurdles to overcome. So, although the final ‘Ellen’ harbours a dream of becoming a soldier, it is precisely that, a dream.
Facts, whether historical, biological or environmental, help to create authenticity. My knowledge of the First World War was largely confined to the Western front. I had read Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, and Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy among other classics. I therefore had to read many many books about Serbian and Balkan history, Serbia’s place during the war and the varied and changing theories as to why the war happened at all. In addition, I was ignorant about the army and the medical world. I could no more fire a pistol, describe military rankings than I could amputate a finger. All these subjects had to be researched and details noted. Part of the problem in developing Stefan’s story was that I am not Serbian, have never visited the country other than being driven through in my twenties on the way to Greece. I tried and failed to learn the language. Imagining myself in the skin of my Serb characters was the hardest part of this project.
The local library was most helpful. I was given a list of books that might prove relevant and access to the interlibrary loan scheme which was then much cheaper than it is now. I bought a day’s access to the Library of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at the University of London. Having worked out where the books were housed that most likely were to be of interest to me, I went along each shelf, noting those in English.
UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies
When I returned home, I was able to order them through the Inter library loan scheme and made notes. While at the library I discovered a quartet of novels written by Dobrica Cosic, a communist politician who described the war from the point of view of its participants. It was heavy-going, but it gave me a sense of the chaos and pain of fighting.
In other words, I immersed myself in all things Serbian and particularly the first two years of that war. There are at least two incidents in A Time for Peace which are probably created out of my immersion in the period though they read as if they actually happened. I am no longer sure that they did, or if they were purely imagined.
The British part of the novel was easier to research. The Imperial War Museum was an excellent source of primary references. They have a special section about women’s experiences and I read several diaries written by women medics. I could see at first hand the sort of weapons that were used and I visited several other museums including the Red Cross Museum and the Wellcome museum in London.
Cartoon in Wellcome Museum showing 3 ‘leeches’ bloodletting a grasshopper!
In other words, I enjoyed discovering and learning so much. I studied history at school to pass an exam, now I pursued whatever fascinated me. It took a friend to remind me that I wasn’t reading for pleasure so much as reading for a purpose. The research went together with the writing, each informing and enhancing the other.