It’s About Time

Unfilled double page spread from a 1918 diary

History is about time. I have been using old calendars like this to help me construct a WWI timeline. Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia.

In my last post I wrote about Sue Castrique’s conception of history as drama and how it helped me with how I tackle the writing of my book. I am writing about how Australian soldiers reconciled their experience of World War I with their beliefs, whether they be agnostic, adherents to one of the large Christian denominations or held more unorthodox beliefs for the time. Over the last couple of weeks I have been doing a major review of my writing task with the goal of producing a book that you will find is a riveting read.

While I am writing about the inner lives of the soldiers, the context which led to their reflective thoughts is critical. I am mindful of the advice given by the historian of war the historian of war and gender, Karen Hagemann. “Violence needs to be at the centre of the history of war”, she said. The war intruded into every aspect of the soldier’s lives. I cannot ignore the horrific events that punctuated the tedium and discomfort of the lives of soldiers on active service. Some events, such as battles were significant for many soldiers and nations, other events were important only to the soldier writing his diary or letters. Both types of events are important for my book.

I have to maintain a sense of chronology while drawing on the thoughts of a large cast of soldiers who were situated in many different places. At last count my ‘cast’ is nearly fifty but this is likely to increase. A handful of these soldiers will play leading roles in my book, but I need a lot of other characters to help bring out the themes in the book.

It is difficult to manage the writing process when grappling with a large number of events and a large number of characters. While I had chapter outlines and other ideas about the structure of the book, when I started writing I realised that I didn’t have the tools necessary to successfully convey such complex threads in the chapter.

I already have my list of characters but I needed a timeline for every soldier. It is difficult to tell the stories of soldiers who belong to a number of different units in one chapter. Some were still sailing to the war zone, at the same time as others were having their moment of crisis. They were in different countries, doing different things.

There are many tools to create timelines but I didn’t want to have to pay much for software, and neither did I want a steep learning curve. So after some discussion with Hubble, I decided to use an Excel spreadsheet.

Fortunately it is easy to access calendars from 1914-1918. The days of the week and holy days such as Christmas and Easter were important to many of the soldiers. I have set up a worksheet for each year and listed every day of the year in one row. In the left-hand column I have recorded the name of the soldier. I have marked their ship journeys in pale blue and written short comments about significant personal events in the cell for that day. I also have one row where I have recorded significant WWI events for the Australian forces such as the battles of Passchendaele, Pozières etc.

Minor incidents can take on great personal significant for my soldiers. I have to carefully read every item in service, court martial and medical records for dates that I need to note. Last year I read over 200 pages of records on one soldier. On just one page a doctor noted the date an event occurred which changed a soldier’s life. The event was not described, just the date. It struck me as rather odd, but foolishly I did not make a note of that date. While writing this post I was reminded of this and sifted through the documents again. I found the record and I have now recorded the date, and the source, in my timeline. I am on the hunt for other records which might shed light on the events of this day – a day which appears to be like any other behind the front line. An innocuous event for most men may have gained the utmost significance for my soldier and changed the course of the war for him.

I am grouping the soldiers on my timeline in accordance with the chapters they will appear in. The obvious shortcoming that some soldiers will appear in more than one chapter. It is not a perfect system, but it has helped me greatly with the chapter I am currently working on. It has confirmed that I was right to start the chapter in the way I did, but now I know how to weave the other soldiers and their stories into the chapter.

My book is emerging out of a matrix of rows and columns. From the prosaic something profound can emerge.

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12 thoughts on “It’s About Time

  1. Hi Yvonne,
    I’m enjoying your blog. It’s always interesting to read about how others manage the large amounts of research that go into a book such as the one you’re writing. Some great ideas here. Thanks for sharing!
    Trisha

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      • Looking back on it, I’d have to say I did not approach it in a very systematic way I’m afraid. The book basically grew from a series of 18 talks about Townsville’s history that I wrote and delivered on ABC radio. After I had finished them I realised I had a lot of material that could be converted for a reading audience and then expanded to cover quite a bit of the city’s history. But not enough of it. Then over the next couple of years I was writing a weekly history article for the local newspaper, and some of these articles seemed to fill gaps in the material for the original talks I had written. I eventually decided I had enough for a book so started looking at the material in terms of a bigger picture, i.e. what was missing from the material I’d already written, that needed to be researched and fleshed out for a history of this kind. I then spent about 12 months re-writing, doing extra research to add to the existing material, and also researching and writing new topics. I think because each topic was approached as a complete entity, the research for each one never got too unwieldy.

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      • There are so many ways to approach writing. Your method was good because you effectively tested the reader response first. In terms of managing the research process it probably would be easier if each chapter was a discrete mini history.

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    • I am glad you are interested Lisa. I am planning to write more posts about my writing and research processes this year so you will hear more about the various tools I use. Everyone uses different tools. Some writers swear by Scrivener, but I tried it and found it did not work for me.

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    • I am glad you are enjoying these posts Michelle. It all sounds good but perhaps I could be a bit more honest and include accounts of where writing tools fail on me. I missed the bit about the great computer glitch of last week where I spent two days trying to fix my computers. I had this post ready to publish and then the problems struck. I then lost even more time because of extreme heat conditions. Air conditioning has been an essential writing tool but I don’t feel so great with too much air conditioning.

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  2. I agree with the others- so interesting to read about your research and writing process. I have a growing chronology in a spreadsheet which has proved essential and made me connect many things I would have missed.

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