I first read poetry from the first world war when I was in sixth form (more than 20 years ago now). I still remember reading some reading some of the poems for the first time and being impressed by how vividly they had captured the atmosphere of the horrific nature of trench warfare. Lines have stuck with me – ‘You are too young to fall asleep forever, and when you sleep you remind me of the dead’ from The Dug Out by Siegfried Sassoon, for example, is a poignant reminder of how close the soldiers were to death on a daily basis. My favourite Owen poem was Strange Meeting which has the soldier meeting the enemy he has killed in hell with the famous line ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’, although I loved all the Owen poems that we studied.
The era has held its fascination for me and I have read some of the classic literature set in that time, Strange Meeting, Birdsong, The Regeneration trilogy, for example. So when recently my A Level class had to write a story based on a war of their choosing, I decided that I would also try to write a story and I would set it in the first world war. They had to first of all find style models and read as much from their chosen era as possible, in order to gain an idea of context. They had to keep a diary of what they read and what they gained from it.
It was interesting to work so rigorously through the steps of research into writing and producing. I must admit that my normal habits were a lot less organised. I made lists. I made notes. A habit I have tried to keep to although there is still part of me that thinks that I should just be able to keep it all in my head. I read more poetry, more novels. I knew exactly where I was going.
The resulting short story – Letters Home – owes a lot to the poetry of Owen and I tried to uses some strong imagery to describe the daily horror of life in the trenches. It also owes a debt to Strange Meeting by Susan Hill which is one of my favourite novels. The novel is about the friendship between two contrasting men in the trenches which ends with one of them missing in action. This was the inspiration for the relationship between Mark and James in my story, one of whom is open and friendly, the other more reserved, finding all relationships difficult. I decided to take this a step further than Hill and have one of my characters be unsure about his sexuality. In fact, it isn’t even as conscious as that. He is unable to acknowledge any of the feelings he has for James but also does not wish to return home to the girl who is waiting there for him.
In the end, what this exercise taught me is that influence and inspiration can come from two places – from factual knowledge of a given time and from reading fiction of a similar style or set in the same era as what you are trying to write.
Letters Home is up on my website under short fiction if you would like to read it and give me your opinion.