One thing I’ve learnt from writing is that it’s the ideas that matter most. So while plotting and world-building and character development all matter, it’s the IDEA which defines your book.
So by extension, it’s the ideas we choose to run with that define us. All those other ideas that we never decided to turn into a manuscript don’t matter. Which idea we choose to bring to life is THE crucial choice in a writer’s career.
So it’s odd to think that my next book wasn’t my idea.
In 2014 I was approached by Scholastic NZ, who specialize in children and teen publishing, to write a book set in World War One. The idea was that five different writers each wrote a book set in a specific year of World War One, telling lesser-known stories of New Zealand’s involvement in the Great War.
I wasn’t even offered a choice as to what I’d be writing about: it was to be a certain unit, in a certain period: the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion, in 1916. From a story-telling perspective, it didn’t seem very promising: ‘pioneer’ units in that period were noncombat units, involved in building roads, barracks, headquarters and the like, behind the lines; and digging trenches in the lines.
I was this close to saying “No thanks”.
But some quick research unearthed just enough hints of story hooks in the real-life activities of the battalion to hint at a CORE IDEA that would make a good story. And I didn’t have an active teen/YA project on the go, and I had a small gap in my schedule. So I accepted.
Virtually as soon as I’d agreed, I was required at the series launch (which also launched Book 1: “1914: Riding to War” by Susan Brocker) to give a presentation (at the Auckland War Museum, on the 100th anniversary of New Zealand joining the war) on what I was going to write about (answer: I had only the vaguest idea!). I then almost immediately had to collaborate with the second writer (Di Menefy, whose “1915: Wounds of War” came out in 2015); as the publisher wanted us to, where possible, link our stories with common characters.
None of this sounds entirely ideal preparation, but what came out of it is something I’m very happy with. The story of the NZ Pioneer Battalion’s formation and ‘baptism of fire’ at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 is a compelling one. The stories that emerged were of hardship and triumph over adversity, as well as cultural identity – a very Kiwi story played out on the fields of France. What’s more, it turned out to be fun to write, and that usually translates into something fun to read.
“1916: Dig for Victory” comes out on 1st September 2016; 100 years after the New Zealand Division joined the battle of the Somme. It’s a story of courage, endurance, friendship; and of two disparate cultures, Maori and (Scottish) European, finding common ground on the other side of the world. It’s also an adventure story, a fast-moving tale of courage under fire, with just a dash of romance and espionage!
I hope you seek it out, and the rest of the series!