Write Wednesdays: How Real Do You Want It?

I’m instituting a new series of posts inspired by my novel, A Duchess’s Heart, where I shall share a bit about the book and my writing (and mostly research) process, and also get a bit of feedback from you!

Typist by Charles Dana Gibson

MY WIP is set mostly in WWI, told primarily through the eyes of four characters–Cornelia, the Duchess of Malvern, her estranged husband the duke, his younger sister Lady Beryl, and an ambitious housemaid, Nelle Ransome. Since a section of the book flashes back and forth from 1914 to 1918, my duke and his sister (who joins the F.A.N.Y.), are first-hand witnesses to the carnage and destruction of the war. I admit to being a little squeamish and sensitive to violence, but I try my best to soldier on (no pun intended) in order to research as much as I can bear. Yet, since I am not writing specifically about the war, but about the people living through and affected by the war, I begin to wonder just how real and gory these war scenes should be.

I worry that because I am a woman author and because ADH focuses on the fractured romance between the Duke and Duchess, I run the risk of two outcomes: 1) being criticized for toning down or glossing over the violence to write a “fluffy romance” and/or 2) being criticized for writing too much violence that spoils the romance aspects. “Write it the way you want!”, you say, and I definitely agree, but as I stated before, writing the untapped genre of romantic historical fiction tugs me in two directions and in front of two different–and often disparate–audiences with singular expectations of content in my writing.

Then there’s the whole other ballgame of getting the war details right!

Fortunately, there are a ton of primary resources out there to help with most of the details, facts, figures, etc etc, but I’m still a bit anxious about this irrational tool of procrastination (because worrying about this does fall into that category), so I turn the table to you: how real do you want it?


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15 replies on “Write Wednesdays: How Real Do You Want It?”
    1. @farmwifetwo: Oh, that’s helpful. Forgot about the legion of British authors who’ve written romantic stories set during wartime. 😉

      And I do agree that gore does tip the scales towards a war novel.

  1. says: Sarah

    It sounds very interesting. I would think that the best guide in deciding how detailed to get would be how much the characters would truly see. I’d imagine an infantryman would see horrors in the trenches that he wouldn’t necessarily explicate to his sister at home, who might not learn about them from him or any other sources. Does it help to think about it that way?

  2. It’s never easy to make these decisions, but try this: think like your POV character. How closely did he/she experience the scene? Was he there, or did he hear about it from someone else? If he was there, how close was he? Was he injured? Was he in a foxhole? Did the fellow next to him get his head blown off and brains and gore landed on him?

    The idea is to determine how much the horrors of war affected your character. If your character was very close to the to war, and his current emotional/mental state is shaped by his experiences, then don’t flinch from showing reader what happened.

    You might realize that you only need to do this once or twice, or in small increments. Since you’re writing a romance, gore and violence is not the overall theme of the book. But if your character is shaped by it, you have to show some of it.

    1. @Marlene: I’ve been reading primary resources to get a feel for how soldiers described their experiences, and surprisingly, it does vary from extreme gore (mostly the surgeons and VADs) to general descriptions of what happened. My hero is shaped by his experiences, but after reading everyone’s comments, I’m thinking of coming at this from a different perspective…

  3. says: heidenkind

    I think it’s more important to write what interests you. If you put in war scenes just because you feel like you HAVE to, the reader will sense it. Perhaps it would be better for you to highlight the after-effects of war rather than the battles themselves? Then you’ll still be making some commentary on the violence, but in a way that’s unique to you.

    1. @heidenkind: Lol, ikr? I’ve been hanging around too many WWI forums for research, and it’s a bit scary knowing how many people have intimate knowledge about the war. But I guess I have to accept that they might not be my audience (especially when many have commented that some WWI aficionados despise WWI fiction written by those who did not experience it! o.O).

  4. says: Sunflowerrei

    It depends on how it affects your characters and why it affects. To illustrate the “why,” you’ll have to show violence and gore. The “how” can be implied. I tend to like situations to be very real, in both the historical fiction and the historical romance I read. It’s more powerful to me that way, but I know I’m fairly atypical in that respect.

    1. @Sunflowerrei: Definitely agree with you there. I think–no, I know–my ponderings stem from wondering who my future readers may be. But that’s just my perfectionist tendencies rearing its head, so I’m going to get back to writing.

      Thanks everyone!

  5. says: Julie

    I want it real. Suggestions to limit the war realities to involved characters are good, but the war at home, returned, injured soldiers sort of bundled off to the attics is a reality, too. You’ve probably already seen a fine PBS drama called, I think, Testament of Youth from a book of the same name from several/many years ago. And, for some mood music, listen to any version of “And The Band Played ‘Waltzing Matilda.'” (It’s about the return of an Australian soldier, and The Pogues have an excellent, in-your-face version. And how “real” do you want to be in describing a housemaid’s life? Chamber pots? Hope so–all is not glossy then. And I hope she gets a romance, too! Good luck!

  6. says: Maili (@McVane)

    I find that the most powerful ones – at least, the ones that affected me the most – are those that don’t show the actual war scenes. They focus more on the aftermath and/or effects of war on survivors who may experience brief flashbacks. This kind, for me, generates a quiet but deep sense of horror and pain.

    Examples: Rennie Airth’s WWI-era River of Darkness, Pat Barker’s Regeneration, and Catherine Cookson’s The Cinder Path.

    That said, surprisingly maybe, Meljean Brook’s portrayal of the aftermath of a Waterloo battle field is pretty good. Not specific yet horrific. It made me think of WWI’s no-man’s land (which we studied at school). I can’t remember which story, though! It’s a novella. Maybe the first Guardian novella? It’s the one where hero was attacked by a night creature.

    A favourite resource: http://www.firstworldwar.com/diaries/index.htm

  7. Check out the Maisie Dobbs mysteries written by Jcqueline Winspear. Especially book one, Maisie Dobbs, which gives a lot of detail about how the carnage in WWI affected the heroine who was a nurse, without ever getting gratuitous. The series deals so nicely and honesty with the aftermath of war as well, how shell shocked soldiers fared, and how deep the scars went for those who witnessed so much. It’s dealt with eloquently and never borders on sheer gore, but it totally immerses one in both the story and the time and the setting. Seriously, read these books.

  8. As a reader and a writer, I want the truth. War is hell on earth. But you as a writer can’t write the war at that horrific detail then be true to yourself and true to the character. If you try to write something you can’t then it won’t work on paper.

  9. says: Mary Tod

    I think you need enough of the ‘real stuff’ to tell the story as others have pointed out. I have written three novels about WWI – nothing published yet but I do have an agent. I have several war scenes, some told from an observers point of view (father looking for his son, young woman watching from a hillside) and others from a soldier’s viewpoint. I’ve spent ages looking at pictures, visiting museums, reading war diaries, reading non-fiction and so on in order to be as accurate as possible. I’ve tried to make the scenes vivid without gratuitous violence, using all five senses to tell the story. Not sure if that helps – the good news is that both men and women like my writing.

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