Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Obsessiveness pays off!

The coordinator of the “Lest We Forget” project at Library and Archives Canada was so impressed with my WW1 website that she will be using it for her workshops with students, and recommending my war-related novels, The Summer Before the Storm and Elusive Dawn. History teachers have also said that they would use the site in their classrooms. So all that research I did is useful for more than the framework for my books, which is thrilling!

I’m moving in a couple of days, and there’s still too much to do. I’ll be back next week.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The perks of research

A year ago I was in France, driving along the dramatic coastline between Boulogne and Calais, wishing the rain would stop. The colourful fields and yellow gorse were a delight after the drab April browns of Ontario, but the weather wasn’t a lot warmer. Yet I hadn’t come for sunshine. This was a research trip.

On an endlessly snowy day in February, I had been struggling with descriptions of the Calais area where some of my characters work during the First World War. I scoured the Internet for photos, spent plenty of time on Google Earth trying to get a feeling for the landscape, read descriptions by people who had been there at the time, but wasn’t satisfied I really knew what it looked like. So I told my family we had to go to France. Springtime in Paris! No persuasion required and the VISA card had lots of room.

When the rain finally stopped and we were able to walk the beaches at Caps Blanc-Nez and Gris-Nez, and the dunes at Sangatte, I realized how right I had been that I needed to be on location to get a true feeling of the countryside and the sea. And I experienced first-hand the gale-force winds that sandpaper your skin and which people kept mentioning in memoirs. The imposing cliff at Cap Blanc-Nez can’t be fully appreciated from photos, like the one above, and the hilliness of that stretch of coastline was a surprise. Since my characters drive ambulances along here, that was important to know.

Wimereux was a delight, with plenty of Victorian buildings still in existence. I have characters staying in the same small hotel that we enjoyed, since I found a postcard of it from that era, and realize that, except for its name, it has hardly changed. Seeing one of the villas that had been used as an officers’ hospital during the war was also an exciting connection to the past.

I could have spent more than five days exploring this area - we only went as far south as Le Touquet, and hope some time to go to Normandy (for WW2) - but our next stop was the Riviera, where it was warm and sunny. My excuse for this part of the trip was that I have a character who owns a villa in Cap d’Antibes, so we explored that and found the perfect location.

I know that my characters will visit here - often! - and have to admit that I would be thrilled to join them. The exotic vegetation and masses of flowers blooming in the generous sunshine, the rich blues and turquoises of the sea set against the snow-capped Mediterranean Alps were food for a hungry soul. Imagine people actually living here!


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

In Flanders Fields

We visited Ypres (now Iper) in Belgium a few years ago when I was doing research on book 1 of The Muskoka Novels, The Summer Before The Storm, set during WW1. The first thing that struck me, besides the fact that the city had been beautifully restored from the rubble of war, was that John McCrae’s famous poem, “In Flanders Fields” was plastered everywhere about the town, even in our Novotel lobby. The WW1 museum, housed in the rebuilt Cloth Hall, is called “In Flanders Fields”. How surprised I was when I boasted to the owner of the English bookstore that I came from John McCrae’s hometown, only to have him casually reply, “Oh, you’re from Guelph, Ontario.”

I know that the small museum in Guelph honouring John McCrae regularly has visitors from Europe, so their respect for this famous doctor-poet is more than lip service for tourists.

The Belgians still pay homage to all the fallen. Every evening at sunset, the people of Iper commemorate those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the liberation of Belgium. A parade leads to the Menin Gate where 55,000 names of those Allied troops who have no known grave - nearly 7000 Canadians among them - are inscribed. The moving ceremony includes the playing of The Last Post. Aside from a few years during WW2, this has been taking place every evening since 1928! Would that we all gave even a modicum of this kind of tribute to the men who, as poet Rupert Brooke so aptly said, “poured out the red sweet wine of youth”.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Connecting with the past on a visceral level

This photo of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemetery at Etaples on the north coast of France can’t even begin to convey the enormity of the site or the profound sadness that you feel when walking among the nearly11,000 graves. The middle and right grave at the front are those of a Canadian doctor and nurse killed in the air raid on the 1st Canadian General Hospital on May 19, 1918.

There are endless pockets of smaller cemeteries, especially near the battlefields. Neatly walled, lovingly maintained, they appear like a bizarre crop amid farmers’ fields. When you stroll through them, one thing strikes you immediately - most of the dead had barely had a chance at life, many still in their teens.

The CWGC website allows you to do a search on fallen Commonwealth soldiers, and pinpoint the exact location of a grave. Armed with that info, we visited my husband’s great-uncle’s grave at Dud Corner cemetery last year. He died at the age of 21 in the Battle of Loos in 1915. In the photo we have of him in his officer’s uniform, he looks heartbreakingly young.

These former battlefields lie poignantly silent, yet bid you to take a moment to reflect. They brought to mind the last verse in John McCrae’s poem, “The Anxious Dead”:

Bid them be patient, and some day, anon,

They shall feel earth enwrapt in silence deep;

Shall greet, in wonderment, the quiet dawn,

And in content may turn them to their sleep.

Friday, April 17, 2009

A Fascinating Memoir

One of the bonuses of doing historical research is discovering books that I would not normally have chosen to read for pleasure. One such is the memoir, Sagittarius Rising, by Cecil Lewis, in which he recounts his adventures as a British Ace pilot during the First World War. His descriptions are sometimes lyrical, especially when he portrays the exhilaration of flying. It makes me long to soar above the clouds with him, and I hate flying! Fortunately, my characters can experience that in my stead. In turns amusing and tragic, the book is always fascinating. The really telling line is his statement that when the war was over, he was twenty years old. 

I’m now interested in finding out more about Cecil Lewis, who died as recently as 1997. He flew with the RAF again in WW2, was a co-founder of the BBC, and won an Oscar for his joint-authorship of the screen adaptation of Pygmalion. Surely an interesting and perhaps charmed life!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Inspiring Places

I'm obsessed with places as well. They inspire me. From the moment I first set foot in Muskoka, I became enchanted by the sparkling granite, fragrant pine forests, and intriguing history of these island-dotted lakes only 100 miles north of Toronto, Canada. Hewn out of the Precambrian Shield by glaciers eons ago, these pristine lakes became the playground of the wealthy and adventuresome over a century ago.

How easy it is to imagine the Age of Elegance in Muskoka, when people travelled from American as well as Canadian cities by train and then steamships to savour carefree summers at resorts and lakeside vacation homes known as "cottages". The tradition continues today, although most people no longer have entire summers free to frolic on the lakes, nor a houseful of servants to cater to them - well, unless you're Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, or some of the other celebrities who now own cottages in this civilized wilderness. The Muskokas have often played host to royalty, dignitaries, and other luminaries over the last century. American President Woodrow Wilson owned an island on one of the Muskoka lakes. Hollywood stars like Clark Gable spent time there.

And I’m just beginning my research into the 20s and 30s. I can hardly wait to see what tantalizing facts await me!

Monday, April 13, 2009

You know you're a fan when....

... you go on a literary pilgrimage on your honeymoon! We hiked the Bronte Moors, explored Thomas Hardy's Wessex and Daphne du Maurier's Cornwall, which is still one of my favourite places. In 1995 I had hoped to meet James Herriot at his surgery - for he met with fans weekly - but he died just a couple of months before our trip. His Yorkshire Dales are every bit as beautiful and enchanting as he had described in his novels, and as portrayed in the popular TV series," All Creatures Great and Small". 

A bit of a twist on this is that I was also thrilled to visit the locations in France and Belgium where my Muskoka Novels take place during WW1. Walking through the enormous cemeteries, standing on the impressive Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge, and hearing the haunting Last Post at the Menin Gate in Ypres (now Iper) brought my own novels more to life for me.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Role of Fiction

I was involved in a discussion on one of the First World War forums about the viability of war fiction. Some of the purists thought that fiction has no place in the literature of war. I pointed out that fiction can bring enlightenment to those who would normally not pick up an historical tome, having heard that sentiment from some of my readers. I myself would not have read the hundred books I did had I not being doing research for my novels. A pity, since so many are riveting accounts that now number among my favourite books.

But I’m delighted that I’ve interested people in the Great War, and imparted some understanding of it. Here are a few relevant comments from readers:           

"Please accept my congratulations on an engrossing novel. Once begun, it was impossible to put down. Because of last year's anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, I have read much of the recent writing about that cataclysmic First World War battle. But that writing did not capture the terror, the mud or the wastage of human life in the detail or degree that you managed to capture in Elusive Dawn."

"I am very appreciative for your depiction of the first world war. My grand-mother lost two brothers in that war and I've always felt that I had no real understanding of it. Today with the war in the Middle East, I still feel as though I have no understanding again. The Summer Before The Storm gave me a glimpse of the horror of war, it felt like a first hand account."

"I love history but tend to find the war stuff quite boring - however you made it all interesting by connecting it to great characters!"

More comments can be seen on my website at  theMuskokaNovels.com

Thursday, April 9, 2009

In Remembrance

Ninety-two years ago today, 30,000 Canadian infantry shivered in the biting sleet of early dawn at Vimy Ridge in northern France. With another 70,000 troops in support roles behind them - the gunners, engineers, medics, cooks, and so forth - it meant that the entire Canadian Corps was there, together for the first time. And together they did what the Allies had failed to do during the previous two years, and never expected the Canadians to accomplish - they took that tactically important and heavily fortified Ridge from the Germans. They also helped to forge a nation. That scene is described in my novel, Elusive Dawn.

In the months leading up to the battle, the Canadians had already had 9000 casualties. After the battle there were 10,000 more - a third of whom would never return home.

My photo shows me standing with a poppy umbrella at the impressive Canadian memorial on Vimy Ridge, dedicated to the 60,000 Canadians who died during the First World War. It was an appropriately bleak day, almost a year ago, that I looked out over the Douai Plain as had the victors that long-ago day, marveling at the feat they had accomplished, saddened by the many dead on both sides. It is almost beyond belief to see the stream of names carved into the memorial walls - over 11,000 Canadians who died in France with no known grave. Most of them, heartbreakingly young.

More than a million shells had pummeled this battlefield. Many still lie, unexploded, in the now calm and green young woods that are reclaiming the pock-marked earth. But the thought sends a shiver through you, making you feel that the war didn’t happen almost a century ago. Walking through the long, dank tunnels where troops had gathered before the battle, you can easily imagine what it must have been like for so many men, laden with their gear, anxious or fatalistic, crowded together as they awaited the dawn and an unknown future.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Turning fact into fiction

I’ve talked about digging up thousands of facts and using real people (having read at least one biography or memoir even for those who make only a cameo appearance - hey, I’m obsessed, remember?). Within that realm of reality I then create my fictional world.

I relish sitting down at the computer every day, wondering where my characters are going to take me. They are best friends, anxious to have their stories told, impatient when I don't have time for them. I start out with a vague idea of plot and relationships, but their strong personalities and the chemistry that happens between them usually sideline my ideas, and they take over. In retrospect, their way always seems so natural and inevitable, so I'm delighted to give them free rein.

So writing is a daily adventure. It’s travel into a different time and place. It’s meeting new people I hadn’t event thought of, but who just introduce themselves, fit in, and sometimes become essential to the story.

I’m always delighted to hear from readers that they, too, feel like they’ve met new friends in my books. Here’s a sampling of comments:

“Your fascinating and intriguing characters are so real, so believable, each one unique and passionate in his/her own way. I couldn't help but be drawn into the emotions and circumstances of their lives.”

“In my opinion, Gabriele Wills's ability to evoke a feeling for the times and characters is equal to Delderfield's. She has an amazing ability to portray multiple characters.”

“The reader becomes immersed in the lives of her characters and suffers and rejoices with them.”

“I loved every moment I shared with Augusta, Chas, Jack and Ria.”

More comments can be seen on my website.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Getting the facts right

So here’s one of the things that qualifies me for the moniker of “obsessed writer”. I’m a stickler about getting the facts right. For my first two “Muskoka Novels”, The Summer Before The Storm and Elusive Dawn, I read over 170 books, consulted hundreds of websites, visited museums, WW1 battlefields and cemeteries, and joined three war forums, where I asked experts about obscure facts I couldn’t find anywhere else. Those forums became an obsession in themselves. The Great War Forum has over 23,000 members worldwide, so you can imagine how many discussions were posted daily. I finally had to stop actively participating or Elusive Dawn would never have been completed. I have to admit that I still haven’t left them behind completely, although my research on the war is done.

During my final editing of Elusive Dawn I wanted to write a good description of the Bronte moors, but have never been there in winter, only in summer. Doing a search on the Internet, I came across a report from a British ecologist about the moors. So I sent an email requesting more info. Imagine how surprised I was to have a response from BBC Radio Sheffield asking it I would be on the Rony Robinson show? Host Rony would call in the experts and supply me with the desired details. So there I was at 7:00 AM on a transcontinental chat with Rony, the ecologist professor, a renowned artist, and the curator of the Bronte museum. Unfortunately a bad connection kept me from speaking much with them, but I heard it all and came away with an embarrassment of riches from the 20 minute discussion. All I had really needed were a few lines to describe colours, textures, and vegetation in November. I then felt compelled to beef up the description to do some justice to the time invested by these generous people.

Research is such fun!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Using real people in fiction

In my "Muskoka Novels" I have quite a few real people mingling with my characters or mentioned "off-stage". It gives even more of a sense of the time and the reality for which I strive. In Elusive Dawn we dine with Nancy Astor at her fabulous estate, Cliveden, spend a country house weekend with Lord Beaverbrook, meet Britain's top Ace pilot, Billy Bishop, and hear about lots of others.

 One of those is Lady Diana Manners. The Lady Di of her day, Diana was considered to be the most beautiful young woman in England. Her parents, the Duke and Duchess of Rutland, hoped that she would marry the Prince of Wales. She worked as a VAD nurse during the war, which she wrote about in her memoir, The Rainbow Comes and Goes. Her mother in particular was very much against that, as Diana reported, "She explained in words suitable to my innocent ears that wounded soldiers, so long starved of women, inflamed with wine and battle, ravish and leave half-dead the young nurses who wish only to tend them." The Duchess gave in, but "knew, as I did, that my emancipation was at hand." Diana goes on to admit, "I seemed to have done nothing practical in all my twenty years." Nursing plunged her and other young women into a life-altering adventure.

 Doesn't that stir the imagination!


Sunday, April 5, 2009

Surprising facts make good stories

Who would have thought that civilian women could travel across war-torn France in 1916 to meet their husbands in Marseille before the men went off to Salonika? That's exactly what my British grandmother-in-law and her friend did! In my grandfather-in-law's memoir, he talks about staying in a hotel with his wife for a week, during which he only had to go to his military camp a couple of hours a day to work. (He was a Captain then.) Not the sort of scenario most people would associate with the First World War, especially as the bloody Battle of the Somme was raging up in the north of France at that time. 

Also surprising is that wives of officers were allowed to travel to Paris to meet them for short leaves. And how about the wives of officer Prisoners of War being allowed to live with them in Switzerland or Holland while they were interned there? Germany sent men who were ill or suffering psychologically from imprisonment to these neutral countries. Although not allowed to return to England, those who could afford to, lived in hotels and had their families join them for the duration of the war. 

Aviator Cecil Lewis in his fascinating autobiography, Sagittarius Rising, mentions flying secretly from France to England for a weekend rendezvous in London.

 It's odd and intriguing facts like these that I like to incorporate into my historical novels. I'll be posting more of them later.


my inspiration for a series of novels - visit theMuskokaNovels.com for more info

Goodreads Ratings

Gabriele Wills's books on Goodreads
The Summer Before The StormThe Summer Before The Storm
reviews: 2
ratings: 8 (avg rating 4.50)

ratings: 4 (avg rating 5.00)

ratings: 4 (avg rating 4.50)

A Place to Call HomeA Place to Call Home
ratings: 4 (avg rating 4.00)