If you plan to write a historical novel, then also plan on fueling your writer’s imagination with a number of historical sources. Following an interview with Nicole d’Entremont, Peaks Island Press decided to offer five tips to get you going on your historical novel. In case you missed it, Tip #1 was Listen to family stories.
Tip #2: Visit historic sites
In Nicole’s case, visiting a historic site relevant to her novel meant traveling to one of the most gruesome battlefields of the First World War, often known as Flanders Fields in Belgium. This was the blood-soaked Flemish countryside captured by the lines of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders Fields the poppies blow, Between the crosses row on row…” When Nicole and I sat down together, she shared the role that visiting this notorious site played in writing her WWI novel, A Generation of Leaves. She said, “In order to write the book I wanted to write, I had to go to Belgium and walk where my young uncle had walked. I wanted to go deeper than just book research and that was the way to do it.” Let’s listen to why Nicole feels that way.
“Two years ago, I went and connected with a battlefield tour organization — Flanders Battlefield Tours — in Ypres, Belgium. My guide, Jacques Ryckebosch, took me to a section of trench in Sanctuary Wood where many Canadian soldiers had been killed. What I didn’t know was that Jacques had told the museum staff there that I was a relative of a soldier who fell at Sanctuary Wood. I was standing in the trench and I suddenly heard the sound of bagpipes coming from the forest nearby. I asked him what that music was. He told me that they were playing for my Uncle Leo. I understood fully then that it’s not ‘the past’ for them. It’s ‘the present.’
One of the hardest things about this book project was reading about the staggering numbers and the conditions of the warfare. There were 20 million people killed in the First World War. How do you grasp that? But seeing one of the most notorious places on the Western Front helped put me in touch with my uncle [who is the basis for the character Léonce]. When I went to the Flemish countryside and saw the soil, I learned that it’s very distinctive; it turns into a viscous mud when it rains. I could then imagine crouching in the confined space of the trench wallowing, wallowing in the mud. Then I went to the Menin Gate in Ypres. My uncle’s name is among the 55,000 names on that gate. They are the names of the soldiers who fought nearby and whose bodies were never recovered.”
Menin Gate became the place where Nicole’s book ends. The character, Léonce, only survived the trenches a few months, so Nicole has other characters carry readers through the chaos to the end of the war.
Visiting the trenches and Menin Gate not only influenced her writing process, but they are shaping her book event plans, too. Through her research and travel, Nicole learned that every night at 8 PM for nearly 90 years, since 1927, Menin Gate shuts down to traffic; everything stops to allow for the playing of taps. It’s an extraordinary living tribute. Next year, in 2014, numerous events will commemorate the centennial of the start of WWI and Nicole plans to travel to Belgium to participate. Through her novel, Nicole will bear witness to “the war as not past, but present.”
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