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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Historical fiction demands historical fact!

Postcard front, post-Battle of Chateau Thierry,
Postcard published by E.B.Remenson, Chicago, 1919
Copyright expired 
   As an author of 18 novels, historical and contemporary, plus a journalism career (and one non-fiction book soon to appear), I know first hand the value of fact. In fiction, it is even more vital, lest the entire book fail to convince the readership of the verisimilitude of the story.
   A writer can attempt to recreate a scene, for example, a dinner party, and cannot even begin without knowing the time of night, the place it's served, or the ordinary menu for that home, that family and their social class. A miner's family in Wales in 1890 will eat a much different meal at night than a banker's family in New York City or an English diplomat's in Shanghai.
   Historical novels demand just as much research, and perhaps more, than their non-fiction counterparts. Why?
   Because novels demand a suspension of disbelief and because they must be a parallel of the period, plus a microcosm of the mores and atmosphere, these books require minute attention to detail. And while many of the details an author collects in her research never show up in her pages, nonetheless, her research or lack of it will soon begin to speak for her. (Having written a few mysteries myself, I can also tell you that mystery readers absolutely demand correct police procedures and up-to-date forensics and analysis techniques in their novels. Failure to use them can mean readers send wild and crazy letters to the author and even the publisher!)
   Back to my topic of proper research for historical novels.
   To illustrate how vital fact is to the recreation of a period in fiction, I list for you a few popular entertainments. Here, I will show how the authors/producers did their homework and among other facts, used one to mightily increase the realism and value of the piece.
   What would popular DOWNTON ABBEY be without the fabulously rendered period clothing? The actresses have even discussed in interviews how the corsets felt so restrictive. Then when they were attired in garments of the 1920s and the corsets were withdrawn, how freeing they felt.
   What would WAR HORSE have meant had not the latter scenes shown the horror of the main character pulling the huge cannon through the muck of the battlefields? His perseverance, to say nothing of his strength of character and body, would have not been as meaningful when he gained his reward and was sent home to be with his original master.
   What would BAND OF BROTHERS have meant if Spielberg had not shown the landing on the French beaches and the struggle to gain every inch of sand? SAVING PRIVATE RYAN would have missed its tragic mark to show total devastation had it not shown the ruins of French villages and German, as well.
   In future weeks, I will bring you a few of my own hard-won facts about life along the American-French lines during World War One. From my years of research, I'll include my own photos along with the text.
   I hope you will return to relish them! Better yet, sign up to receive the posts in your email. You can do this by filling in your email addy at top right.
   Thank you!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Female doctors, Ambulance drivers, Canteen workers and more!

American female doctors volunteered to serve during World War One but, unlike their male colleagues, received no officer rank or pay. The women became "contract surgeons." They did wear a uniform, seen at left. 
From the blog of the American History Museum in Washington D.C. comes this description:
"The Colonial Dames Collection includes this uniform worn by an army contract surgeon. Women doctors were not allowed to join the Army Medical Corps. Only the Army Nurse Corps accepted women. But the army did issue contracts to a small number of female physicians, who remained civilians even though they worked in uniform."
Other women served driving ambulances, working in canteens, and as cooks and laundresses. They joined the Red Cross, YMCA, Salvation Army or other organizations many of which sent them abroad. As I stated in my earlier post, others came abroad to fill General Pershing's explicit need for bi-lingual French-English telephone operators. These women became known as the "Hello Girls!"

Here from the same blog entry comes this description of many women's uniforms:
These uniforms are in "...the Arts and Industries Building of the U.S. National Museum during the early 1920s. This case held four Red Cross uniforms, left to right: Motor Corps driver’s skirt and tunic; Motor Corps driver’s uniform; Motor Corps driver’s overcoat; Foreign Service uniform."


Among those who increased their ranks specifically to cater to American troops going abroad was The Salvation Army. Making bread and coffee, these volunteers also began making a now famous recipe for "Doughnuts!"
From their site, here is one woman whipping up those goodies!

And here are a few of the women of the Red Cross at a canteen station. This picture comes from US National Museum of Medicine.