One hundred years ago on this very day, the armistice ending the “war to end all wars” was signed just outside the city of Compiègne, France.
World War I, as it is now known, was a bloodbath, an unleashing of horrors heretofore unknown by humankind. From machine guns (“the devil’s paintbrush”) to phosgene gas, technology had overtaken military tactics, resulting in a massive scale of death.
One of those was my great uncle, Frederick “Ted” Fox, a Marine. He died in the Battle of Belleau Wood and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
The longest book I ever wrote was the historical, Glimpses of Paradise. It begins in 1916 Nebraska and ends in early 1920s Hollywood. In between is a World War I sequence that was the result of intense research.
Which raises a natural question: how do you write about experiences you’ve never had? I’ve never been to war. Does that mean I can’t write about it? I obviously didn’t think so when I wrote Glimpses. So here’s what I did:
- Extensive reading. I found some books deep inside the downtown branch of the Los Angeles Public Library that were priceless first-hand accounts of World War I battles. I also spent hours in the microfiche room, going through newspaper accounts of the same.
- I connected my emotions. I believe that if we’ve made it past forty or so in this life, we’ve experienced every emotion there is to a greater or lesser degree. While I have never felt the fear that a soldier feels on the eve of battle, I have felt the fear of dying. The same physiological response is there, and by extrapolation I brought it to the characters in the book.
- I looked at a lot of pictures of battlefields, soldiers, weapons and so on. I wanted to be soaked in them, so I could write with that soaked feeling.
- I had an expert review it. I showed the battle pages to someone who knows warfare, and got some notes for changes.
How about you? Have you ever written way outside your experience? What did you do to get it right? Please tell us in the comments!
And please pause a moment this Armistice Day to honor those men who gave the last full measure of devotion for our country a century ago.
Also, my film professor son alerted me to a new documentary by Peter Jackson about soldiers in World War I. The talented Jackson took old, herky-jerky silent film footage, digitized it and used computerization to connect the frames and make all the movements natural. Then he colorized the footage.
The stunning result is a view of The Great War as we have never seen it. I hear it will blow you away. Here’s the official trailer: