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The Joys of Research, (or, Dipping into Serendipity Land)

I always seem to start these blogs with an apology for tardiness, so let's skip that. Take it as written and read. These past few weeks I've been knee deep in the muck of the trenches, Western Front, 1916. I've spent so much time reading about the ghastly conditions the soldiers endured that my body went out in sympathy; I got ulcers, a sty in my right eye and a head cold. Fortunately no trench-foot, or lice, and no-one is laying artillery barrages on my house.

I do enjoy research though. This is for a project I was approached about last year, by the New Zealand children's publishers, Scholastic New Zealand. It's for a series of five teenage historical fiction books commemorating New Zealand's involvement in World War One. Each book is written by a different writer, on specific subjects and events chosen by the publisher.

1914: Riding To War by Susan Brocker, was released in August 2014, on the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the war. It told the story of the first volunteers, and specifically a young Mounted Rifles soldier heading out with his horse to join the "Great Adventure". It encompasses training, shipping out to the conflict zone, and takes in Gallipoli, all from a soldier's eye view. It is very much a tale of loss of innocence, and courage under fire.

1915: Wounds of War by Di Menefy, was released earlier in 2015, and tells the story of a nurse serving in the hospital ships in the Middle East and off the coast of Gallipoli. It is a more sombre tale of the human cost of warfare and keeping sane in the face of escalating horror.

I was asked to do the 1916 book, which will be released in (I think) early 2016, and to write specifically about the New Zealand (Maori) Pioneer Battalion. The remaining two books will be by well-known Kiwi teen and YA writers Brian Falkner (who's writing about a Kiwi in the Royal Flying Corps in 1917), and Des Hunt (who covers 1918 and the Armistice). My book has the working title 1916: Dig for Victory. I stole the title from a Public Service Broadcasting song off their The War Room EP.

When I was approached I immediately jumped online and  got a quick feel for the subject, not least because Scholastic wanted all five of us to go to the book launch in August 2015 and talk about our proposed stories. I must admit I wasn't immediately excited by the prospect. Pioneer Battalions in World War One weren’t infantry, they were a labour force who in Europe were mostly concerned with trench digging and base camp construction: not riveting stuff for the teen market, I thought. I felt (and said in my presentation at the series launch) that I would be looking for a thread of intrigue to provide the hook for a teenage reader.

This is where the joy of research comes in.

I once heard (the very wonderful) Tim Powers say (in a panel discussion at the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, 2013) that the great thing about research is that it invariably threw up facts that were cooler and weirder than anything you could ever invent. Tim's historical fantasy is the best around, and I love how he weaves real events into his tales.

So when the time came to start planning 1916: Dig for Victory, not only was I looking for facts, dates, events, or even eyewitness accounts of life in the trenches, and I've read plenty in the past month or two. I was looking for those serendipitous moments when history provides the unexpected hook for the story. History, Bless Her, provided! There were trench raids (sneaking into the enemy lines to snatch prisoners and cause mayhem), spies signalling enemy artillery, clandestine communication wires and a wonderful cast of real life heroes whose stories have barely been told.

That's the joy of research, and why it's one of the best things about writing. You learn so much wonderful, horrible, amazing stuff, and then you get to play with it. And reality is indeed more beautiful and horrible and strange than we could invent.

See you next time!


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