Stories. Family stories. The ones spoken across dinner tables and at bedsides. These have the power to send us on journeys of mind, body, and heart. While my father’s WWII stories of the Arctic, propelled me to write about Greenland, “one little scrap of a story” sent Peaks Island author Nicole d’Entremont on a five-year journey to write what is perhaps the first historical novel to portray the Acadian experience in the First World War. While sharing her writing process, five tips for writing a historical novel emerged.
Tip #1: Listen to family stories
Alongside her pot-bellied woodstove, Nicole and I took refuge from the Polar Vortex and talked about “A Generation of Leaves,” her newest novel that follows her Uncle Leo from the tiny Acadian fishing village of Pubnico, Nova Scotia into the trenches of World War I.
Nicole: “I never knew my Uncle Leo. He enlisted to fight in World War I when he was 21 years old. My father told me one little scrap of a story about Uncle Leo, and that story had been passed down to him by my grandmother. My grandmother, Monique Adèle, was a devout Catholic and a formidable woman. She sent my father down to the train station every week to pick up the paper from Halifax and bring it back to the village. It was Monique Adèle’s job to read the newspaper for the names of those who had fallen on the Front. One evening, Monique Adèle went out to the woodpile and she saw her son, Leo, dressed in his uniform, standing there looking at her. He was smiling. She blinked. He was gone. She knew then that she would never see him again. Months later, his name appeared in the newspaper on the list of those missing in action. Eventually, he was
listed as killed in action. His body was never found.
I have been returning to the little village of Pubnico every summer since 1964 and that story of Monique Adèle’s experience at the woodpile always stayed with me. I wanted to understand the Acadian experience of World War I. How did families feel fighting for a nation that had expelled them in the 1700s? There is not much written about that.
My grandmother was like the prow of a ship. I remember being afraid of her. She died at the age of 90 when I was 17. But stories about her remained.”
Listening to these family stories inspired Nicole to learn more. For years, she spoke with villagers in Pubnico, gathered more oral history, and defined the characters in her novel. Like her grandmother, the character, Adèle, has 11 kids and she’s “the boss of the village and the matriarch of the family.” She becomes a central figure in “A Generation of Leaves.” Nicole’s Uncle Leo becomes the Acadian soldier, Léonce, who survives but a few months in the trenches.
Family stories and village oral history helped Nicole portray both how the war tore many families apart and how it also pulled the village more tightly together. But those stories were just a beginning in her writing process. Keep an eye out for the second of the five tips for writing a historical novel: Tip #2: Visiting historic sites.