Posts Tagged ‘history’

This Thursday sees the release of my latest Commando comic, Out of the Woods. It’s a First World War story, telling the tale of Canadian brothers caught up in a gas attack at Ypres. But why tell this story?

The First Gas Attack

This April marks the 105th anniversary of the first poison gas attack on the Western Front. The German army had tried to use gas against the Russians that January, but cold weather had stopped the weapon working. It was at Ypres that the full horror of chemical weapons was unveiled.

The results of the attack were horrifying. Chlorine gas causes the lungs to fill with fluid, drowning its victims on dry land. Survivors were left with terrible damage. It was as terrifying as it was deadly.

That attack was the first of many. Rather than abandon these weapons in horror, each side escalated its efforts to develop killer chemicals. Phosgene, mustard gas, and Lewisite left men dead or forever scarred. Medical staff had to develop whole new approaches to save lives.

By the end of the war, these weapons had a sickening reputation. Countries that were happy to bomb and shoot thousands of young men agreed that chemical weapons were beyond the bounds of war. But for the men scarred in those battles, life would never be the same.

An International War

That first gas attack hit the French army, in particular Algerian troops stationed around the village of Neuve-Chapelle. These North African troops, already caught in a strange and bewildering environment, were hit by a weapon beyond their worst nightmares. Unsurprisingly, they fled in panic.

The gap in the line was filled by the Canadians, who were on the receiving end of the next chlorine attack. Knowing what was coming, and with improvised masks at the ready, they managed to hold out against the assault that followed, even retaking ground lost to the Germans.

This was one of the moments on which the Canadian army’s reputation was built. Like the Australians and New Zealanders, they faced some of the most deadly encounters of the First World War, earning themselves a reputation for toughness and courage. Modern Canadians might be known for politeness, but during that war, they were hardened warriors that the other side didn’t want to mess with.

That’s why the Canadians are at the heart of this story. Their part in the First World War isn’t widely recognised, but they played a crucial role, and on this occasion, they saved the day for the Allies.

That Name…

As for the title of this story, yes, it’s a Taylor Swift reference. My friend Al sings a modified and much more sweary version of the song at larp events, and when I was writing a story set in a wood, it ear-wormed me for hours on end. That made it the perfect title.

So here it is, a story of courageous Canadians and terrifying trauma, to a soundtrack of upbeat pop. Enjoy!

How do we turn the past into stories?

It might sound like a simple question, but the relationship between stories and real events is complex and messy.

The Nature of History

Last week, I received editorial comments on a history article I’m writing. High on the to-do list was making the article into more of a story. As soon as I read that, I knew what they meant, and I knew that they were right. I also knew why I hadn’t done it the first time around.

The past isn’t a neat narrative. It’s a jumple of people, places, and events. At one time these were facts, and what we’re left with is the evidence of what those facts might have been. It’s jumbled and disjointed, but also complex and confusing. Nothing about it is simple. Nothing happens for one reason.

One step removed from the past lies history. This is an attempt to establish facts from the evidence, to put those facts in order, and to squeeze meaning from them. It narrows the focus of what we’re looking at, asserts cause and effect, and prioritises some patterns over others. To do this, it draws boundaries about what’s included in any particular account of history, from the infinite variety of options available.

And then there are stories set in the past, whether told as fiction or non-fiction. These narrow the focus further, to individual people and what happened to them. It turns patterns into narratives, the mechanical procession of events into human experiences. It simplifies some things and exaggerates others so that they come to life for us.

In writing my article, I’d taken the jumble of facts and turned them into history, but I’d missed the next step. I had something that showed patterns in the past, but that didn’t engage well with our humanity.

Framing the Narrative

Whether you’re writing history or a story, there’s also another element to how this works, and that’s framing.

Take the First World War. It’s a messy business. It began and ended at different times in different parts of the world. It was fought in different ways on different fronts, in land and sea and air, was tangled in with events on the home front, and its effects linger with us a century on. Parts of France and Belgium are still inaccessible due to munitions from that war.

Last month, I saw Field Music perform their album Making a New World. Composed for the centenary of the armistice, it’s all about the knock-on effects of that war, from tanks to plastic surgery to sanitary towels. The album tells the story of the First World War not as a self-contained event from 1914 to 1918 but as the epicentre from which vast tremors of change erupted.

My upcoming Commando comic Out of the Woods tells the First World War from a very different perspective. To look at the introduction of chemical weapons, it follows two fictional Canadians from before they signed up through to the aftermath of the Second Battle of Ypres. There are many other ways I could have told that story – from the point of view of the Germans, of civilians, of communities affected for generations by the chemicals. I could have followed a medic, a general, even a gas cannister or a patch of ground. I chose the perspective that suited my purposes, but whichever one I chose, I would have had to cut down and rearrange the history, which itself cuts down and rearranges the facts, in each case forming a different pattern.

Telling Your Story from History

So remember, when telling a story from history, you’re never going to fit in all the facts. You’re already missing some of them and you don’t need them all for your goal. Explore the different ways you could look at the topic, pick a story that will bring the past to life in an engaging way, and let the rest fall by the wayside. You’re not here to tell history. You’re here to tell one story against its background.

 

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

I’ve been writing a lot of historical fiction lately, both on this blog and for Commando Comics. I’ve also been writing articles for places like History.com. That raises an interesting question – how to decide what to write. For me, there are several factors. One is what I know about. With a few exceptions, I focus on topics I have plenty of sources for or already know a lot about. This narrows the field and helps avoid misrepresenting history I don’t understand. Then there’s what’s interesting – both what I’m excited about and what I think other people will be intrigued by. That means finding novelty in the subject matter. For fiction, it also means finding an engaging character. The audience I’m writing for comes into it. Commando readers mostly want stories about 20th-century warfare, especially World War Two, and they want them action-packed. While I try to make my Commando stories more diverse and varied than they’ve traditionally been, that has to come within the limits of what their readers will go for. The format matters. What makes an interesting article is very different from what makes a visually exciting comic story, and both are very different from prose fiction, where you get inside a character’s head. Then there’s the desire for variety. Editors want stories that haven’t been told, and I want to help show diverse stories and perspectives. That means I’ll sometimes pick a piece of history I don’t know quite so well because I think it should be seen. Picking what history to write about is never as simple as just picking up a book and going with that. It’s a big challenge even before I set my fingers to the keyboard. And that makes it part of the fun.   ***
From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution
What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods? What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior? What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work? These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants. From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

From A Foreign Shore - High ResolutionOlivia pushed her cart down the track, feeling each stone beneath her feet. Up ahead was a small lowland town, the sort where people kept their voices quiet and did what their lord told them. Hardly a place to start a revolution, but maybe one more she could connect in to the cause.

There was a wooden palisade around town, charred and battered by an English raiding party. No-one stopped Olivia as she walked in and set up shop in the muddy square, pulling out needles and thread, hammer and rivets, all the tools of the cobbler’s trade.

“What’s this then?” The man striding toward her was tall and stern, flanked by a pair of guards in chainmail. She knew him by reputation.

“Lord Fraser.” She bowed her head deferentially. “I’m just a cobbler on my way to Edinburgh. Hoped to drum up business here on the way.”

“What kind of Cobbler wears no shoes?” He glared at her bare feet.

“A poor one.” She didn’t say where her money had gone. Depending on his views, that could get her arrested.

Olivia’s stomach tightened as one of the guards leaned over her cart and start peering into bags. If he found her Bible, that one precious object on which she’s spent all her money, and if he realised it was a translation…

Fighting the trembling in her hands, she tore her eyes away from the cart and looked up at Lord Fraser. She took a deep breath. Perhaps she would get lucky, and he would be the contact she needed. Perhaps he’d have her locked up. But if he was going to find out anyway then better to stand by her belief than to try to weasel out of it.

“You’ll want to see this.” She rose, reached past the guard and took out the Bible. Heart racing, she handed it to Fraser.

“I see.” His voice was icy cold as he turned the page and saw it was printed in Scots rather than Latin. “Another Protestant plotter.” He slammed the book shut and glared at her. “The last thing this country needs is more plots.”

“The last thing this country needs is foreigners trying to tell us how to live.” Barely able to believe that she was talking to a lord this way, blocking out the terrified voice of panic in her mind, she nodded toward the town’s damaged defences. “Whether they’re Protestants or the Pope.”

Lord Fraser’s guards had closed in on her. One of them grabbed her arm. But then Fraser held up a hand and the man released her.

“This I should confiscate.” He held up the Bible. “But I also think it’s time I had my boots mended. And there’s no law against us talking while you do that.” He placed the Bible in the cart. “Let’s hope I don’t forget that when we’re done. Now, about my boots…”

* * *

The more I read about the 16th century the more fascinating it is to me. I’ve recently been doing some freelance work relating to Scotland in this period, which is where the subject of this week’s story comes from. Maybe another day I’ll write a story about a Catholic in the period, to balance things out a little.

This one’s for Olivia Berrier, who recently wrote a lovely review of my history and alternate history collection From a Foreign Shore on her blog. Please go check it out, and if you like what you read then you can get From a Foreign Shore for free today and all this weekend via Amazon.

And as always, if you enjoyed this story then please share the link or leave a comment below.

Further reading, for those who want to know more about poor Mary Tudor

I’ve recently been doing some freelance history writing. As part of this, I’ve spent time reading and writing about Henry VIII and his daughter, Mary I. It made me feel some surprisingly extreme things, and I want to talk about that experience and how we deal with emotions when writing for work.

Poor Bloody Mary

Lets start with a history lesson.

Henry VIII is generally treated as a hero or a joke in English history – the strong leader with the six wives. But when we look at his personal life, we see something that by modern standards is pretty monstrous. Among other things, he accused his second wife Anne of cheating on him and had her killed because they’d fallen out; had his fifth wife Catherine killed for actually cheating on him, despite his own numerous extra-marital affairs; declared his daughters Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate and largely excluding them from his life because they weren’t boys; bullied Mary into signing a document that went against both her values and her respect for her late mother, out of fear that he’d have her executed; and much more. You can make all sorts of arguments about the necessity of his actions, but that still looks like horrifying domestic abuse to me, whatever the reasons for it.

There’s a terrible irony to the fact that his daughter Mary helped Henry through a period of depression after Catherine’s cheating and execution. Mary’s own understanding of depression came from the fact that she’d suffered it for years thanks to her father. Long deprived by political circumstances of the chance to marry – something she strongly desired – often isolated from friends and support, when Mary finally married she suffered from a neglectful husband and a series of miscarriages and false pregnancies. The death of many Protestants at her hands is appalling, but so is the suffering she endured in her life, for most of which she suffered from poor physical and mental health.

As I say, Henry is mostly remembered as a great leader and/or punchline, Mary as a villain. It appears that memory, like their lives, has little taste for justice.

Feeling History

Reading and writing about Henry and Mary hit me very hard. I’ve suffered from depression. My wife and I have struggled with the long, frustrating process of trying to have a child, only to be robbed of it by a miscarriage. This stuff hit me where I live, and it hit me hard. I’ve worked in schools and for social service, read case files and heard first hand accounts of the vilest treatment dished out to families by abusers. How much worse then to see the effect of a parent who was outright abusive and who is now regarded in the playful and positive light Henry is.

There’s another irony here, and it’s in my attitude. When a king is presented to me as a villain, like King John has been, and I then learn about the other side of them, I can somewhat come to terms with their appalling behaviour. John was responsible for the death of his nephew among others, but because of his troubled upbringing I’ve come to see him in a more forgiving light than the traditional tales of the evil king. I recognise the hideousness of some of John’s actions, but I can step back and put them in context. In contrast, hearing about Henry filled me with near-unbearable bile. I was literally shaking with anger and sorrow.

Part of this is of course about current discourse, not just history. I’m almost as angry at our idolisation of Henry as at his behaviour. A domestic abuser shouldn’t be seen as a hero or the subject of casual jokes.

And part of it is how personal these issues are, not just to me but in a general sense. Looking at the domestic lives of Henry and Mary takes us past the veil of top level politics, something beyond most of our lives, and into the realm of the personal, where we all live. We all have some experience of love, loss and family. Seeing those things warped and broken affects us all.

Dealing With the Pain

There’s a part of me that wants to rationalise away these feelings. To tell myself that I’m getting wound up over something that’s not about me, that I should just calm down and do my job. This is my work, not a place to get emotional.

And to that I give a heartfelt cry of ‘bullshit!’

These are my feelings. This is the way the world affects me. They are a way of drawing attention to something that is wrong. Millions of years of evolution have equipped me to feel these things, and repressing them isn’t just incredibly unhealthy, it’s a waste of part of my human potential. Our feelings have a legitimate place in every corner of our lives, including our work. How else would we ever care about what we achieve?

More than that, this is the work of writing. Words are meant to move, not just to inform. They’re meant to fill our bellies with fire, our eyes with tears, our hearts with rage, sorrow, love and the desire to change the world.

I’m not saying this experience has been good for me. I’m not saying all this grief and anger I’m feeling for long-dead aristocrats is fun. But it’s a part of writing, a part of reading, a part of responding to history. It’s a part of being human, and that’s something to be proud of.

*deep breath*

OK, got that vented, for now at least. In case you hadn’t realised, what you just read was part of my dealing with this.

And now over to you. Are there parts of history or works of fiction that really move you, in happy or unhappy ways? Have they surprised you by doing that? I’d love to read about your experiences in the comments below.

I love the Middle Ages, that period in European history when feudal lords spent centuries bullying each other in a battle for domination, and from which the first fragile seeds of our modern society emerged. I love it in the same way that I love villains and traitors – it’s a great subject for stories, but I’m bloody glad I wasn’t there. War, plague, famine and of course death – Europe got a huge dose of the four horsemen during that period, not to mention some pretty unsavoury religious and political practices.

Those of you who’ve read From a Foreign Shore or paid attention to my responses to the Writing Excuses exercises will have noticed that I channel this passion into a lot of my writing. It helps that I have an MA in medieval history and two years research experience, which between them save me a lot of research time. But that experience comes from the same source as my medieval writing, rather than inspiring it. My fascination for that era keeps drawing me back.

Happily, I have medieval stories coming up in the next two issues of Alt Hist, the magazine of historical fiction and alternate history, edited by Mark Lord.

Issue 7, available now via Amazon (the ebook edition isn’t up there yet, but I’m sure it will be soon), features my story ‘Cold Flesh’, a horror story set during the fallout from one of England’s many medieval rebellions. The rebels have been hanged, but will their memory let the victors move on?

Following on from that, I’ve just had a story accepted by Mark for issue 8. This one’s a straight up piece of historical fiction, giving a child’s perspective on the horrors the Hundred Years War inflicted on northern France. When writing historical and fantasy fiction, it’s all too easy to glorify war and focus on its more active  participants. But stepping back and remembering the victims isn’t just important, it’s a way of finding different sorts of stories, different perspectives on life.

So if you’re in the mood for something medieval, why not pick up a copy of Alt Hist or check out their website.

This weekend I went to a historical reenactors’ market with Laura and her aunt. While the ladies were perusing hats and finding bargain fabric for costumes, I instead took the opportunity for some ad hoc writing research. Among the interesting things I saw and discovered were…

Take two weapons into the fight? Not me, I just shoot and hack with this handy axe pistol!

Take two weapons into the fight? Not me, I just shoot and hack with this handy axe pistol!

Sometimes real weapons are even crazier than those in steampunk and fantasy. Take this combination axe/pistol from Radbourn Designs. It was used in boarding actions by 17th century Italian sailors, so that they could shoot someone out of the way as they swung onto the enemy boat and then immediately start hacking people up. It’s like the Swiss Army Knife of high seas brutality, and the next pirate I write is having one.

The blunderbuss, designed for your shooting convenience

The blunderbuss, designed for your shooting convenience

According to the chap running Derbyshire Arms, blunderbusses have those wide mouths to make it easier to load them on a moving ship or carriage. It’s those sort of practical details most of us don’t know, and that can make a story more convincing.

And these are meant to make you feel better...

And these are meant to make you feel better…

This horrifying looking surgeons’ kit includes hooks, second from right, which may have been intended to hold the wound open, allowing the surgeon to finish their work as quickly as possible in the days before anaesthetics and blood transfusions, when speed was of the essence. Though to my modern eye it looks more like a torture device.

I was shown this by Mark Annable, UK Team Captain for Battle of the Nations, the sport where people engage in full-on full-armoured combat. I can’t find the fantastic trailer he showed me, but this should give you an idea of what’s involved:

 

That is so not for me with my terrible fear of pain, but Mark and his friends clearly love it.

Viking knives!

Viking knives!

These knives were made by Andy Colley of Aarg Armouries, a third generation blacksmith whose grandfather started the business after serving as a farrier in World War One. Apparently these knife designs are mostly found in coastal areas, and those strangely shaped metal handles are probably designed to make it easier to keep your grip if the knife gets wet. Andy’s theory about the chunky blades is that this was a fashion that arose because metal was expensive, and so having lots of it in your knife, sword or whatever was a way of showing off your wealth.

I also got some great insights into metal working from Steve of Reddog Forge and on the technology and culture of bow production from Nick Winter of Arbalist Armoury.

I learnt so many fascinating details from the day, and have several pages of notes that I’ll be using later. But the main thing that I learnt was how willing people were to talk about their craft. I’ve come away from the day with business cards for half a dozen passionate, excited experts in their fields, people who said that they’d be happy to help me with research questions further down the line. A nice day out with family proved to be a really useful one for me as a writer, and a fascinating one for me as a history geek. So writers, get out there, go to events related to your genre, pick people’s brains – odds are you’ll get some great results.

This weekend is Stockport Viking Market – more research here I come!

Over a year since I started freelance writing, I’m getting to the point where I’m really interested in all of my work. Don’t get me wrong, from the start I was more interested in writing anything than being back in an office, trying to improve working systems for people who didn’t want to change. But now, now the writing is almost all on topics I’m actually passionate about.

Statue of Cromwell in St IVes, Cambridge - not a dude you want to mess with

Statue of Cromwell in St Ives, Cambridge – not a dude you want to mess with

This afternoon I’ll be working on a biography of Oliver Cromwell, one of the most fascinating figures in English history. A guy who went from nobody to king in all but name, and who was central to the most dramatic upheavals England’s ever seen.

Once that’s done I’ll be writing fifteen articles on different bits of British history, including some personal favourites like the Diggers and the Chartist movement. It’s not all working class radicals  – I’ll also be covering the First Crusade and Thomas Becket‘s murder – but I’m a real sucker for reformers.

I also have a regular gig writing management articles, which isn’t so firmly in my super-keen zone but is useful learning for a one-man-business. And sometime soon I expect to be editing roleplay sourcebooks, which means that I have to read the core books for professional purposes – hardly a hardship.

All of this comes from a decision I made a while back. I realised that applying for projects that paid better but didn’t interest me was trapping me in the same mental place as my old job. Except that now facing tasks that killed my enthusiasm meant I put them off. I wasn’t actually getting paid better, because I spent so long avoiding the work and was slower once I got to it. And the experience I was building up would mostly help get more gigs I didn’t really want.

So now, as far as possible, I only bid on work that interests me. It pays worse now, but it still pays, and it means I’m getting the right experience and contacts. Over time, what I can charge for this work will go up. And meanwhile I’m actually having fun working, which was the whole point in the first place.

We too easily get trapped in doing the work that we think we ought to instead of the work that we want. So if you’re not content with your day job then look at what you want to do and ask ‘how can I get there?’ Maybe it’ll take some sacrifices along the way, but isn’t it worth it in the end to be happy?

As will be obvious to those of you who’ve been reading From a Foreign Shore, I’m a big fan of the Middle Ages. Like a lot of people who grew up reading about Middle Earth and Narnia, I loved the idea of knights and chivalry and everything that came with them. When I was a kid we’d always visit castles during our summer holidays, running around ruins and playing at King Arthur and Robin Hood.

I specialised in medieval history at university, and that took some of the romance out of it, but not the fascination. Sometimes the past truly is a foreign country, and the deep sense of duty and hierarchy that held up medieval Europe is all the more intriguing for being so different from my own values. Sure, the knightly ideal of chivalry was observed more in the breaking than the following, but it was still an ideal, and one that combined courage, romance and a twisted sort of concern for the people around you.

It helps that the era’s most staggering architectural achievements, its castles and cathedrals, never stopped being awe inspiring. I went to Durham University, and there are few sights more breath-taking than Durham Cathedral seen from below, lit up against the night sky.

The Middle Ages are full of great writing inspiration, from the spectacle of pitched battles to the delicate craft of monks creating illuminated manuscripts, the rough belligerence of Viking raiders to the fragile courage of Joan of Arc. If you’re looking for heroes, villains and strange settings then the medieval has it made.

I’ve grown past the point where the medieval is the only era for me. All of time’s rich tapestry is full of fascinating pickings. But the Middle Ages will always have a special space in my heart.

Now your turn – what’s your favourite period of history, and why?

Sometimes a book can be worth your time but not blow you away. I’ve read a few books like that recently, ones that I enjoyed enough to recommend but that didn’t inspire me to write entire blog posts. These are all worth your time, even if I’m not running round evangelising about them.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

There’s been a lot of fuss about The Name of the Wind in recent years, so I finally gave it a go. It’s a wizard coming of age story, the most notable predecessors for which are Harry Potter and Earthsea. This is definitely much more Earthsea in tone and content – a secondary world fantasy full of darkness and trouble. But it’s more late J K Rowling than Ursula Le Guin in length, clocking in at about 660 pages.

It has a slow start, odd pacing and an ending that provides no closure, which after that many pages is frustrating. On the other hand it’s very well written, the central character is engaging and his struggles with economic hardship add an unexpected and interesting element to a classic style of story. Once I got past the first fifty pages I really enjoyed it, and I want to know what happens next, but damn those first fifty pages tried my patience.

Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L Powell

I’ve been meaning to read Ack-Ack Macaque since Joshua Stanton reviewed it. It’s an adventure story about a cigar-smoking monkey fighter ace. Even without its airships and alternate history elements I’d have been in.

This isn’t the story I expected, less madly anarchic and more science fiction than I thought from the concept. It’s still fun, action packed and scattered with interesting ideas, like bullets sprayed by an onrushing Spitfire.

But the question of whether to read this book comes down to one thing – does a talking, smoking, gun-toting monkey appeal to you? If yes then you’re going to want to read it. If not then you aren’t, and shame on you, because surely everyone loves monkeys.

The Hundred Years War by Desmond Seward

I only re-read Seward’s The Hundred Years War for a piece of freelance work, but I’m glad that I did. It’s a fascinating and highly readable chronological history of the long war fought between England and France from 1337 to 1453. You get a feel for the characters of the period, fascinating figures such as Bertrand du Guesclin and the Black Prince who you might otherwise hear nothing about. And while it occasionally turns into a string of back-and-forth battles and pillaged villages, that’s a sadly accurate reflection of the whole bloody mess.

If you’re interested in picking up some political and military history and you don’t want to get bogged down in turgid academic writing then this is worth a read.

What else?

What are the rest of you reading? What would you recommend that you’ve stumbled across of late? Please feel free to share some recommendations below.