Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Re-writing the Past - Untold Stories ... by Miriam Halahmy

Bletchley Park
History has always been my great passion, underpinning my whole life as a reader and a writer. As a child I was desperate to know what it was really really like - then.... it didn't matter when to me. I wasn't interested in being present at the great moments of history - the Battle of Waterloo; Florence Nighingale in Sebastopol. I was interested in ordinary people - little girls like me - or teenagers or adults. What did people think, feel, how did they cope without any real medical input, or if they couldn't read and what would it actually smell like in a town where no-one ever took a bath? I would stare for long hours at old photographs of people and try with all my might to get a glimmer of who they really were.

Last month I was asked to speak on Re-Imagining the Past at the LSELitFest on a panel with Philip Womack and Monica Vaughan. For me, it is untold stories which inspires me to write historical fiction.
In HIDDEN, I write about a journey to Dunkirk to rescue British soldiers trapped on the beach. I discovered that five little ships left Hayling for Dunkirk. I actually found one and was invited to go over it and take photos.

The boat above is the Count Dracula, a little ship which went from Hayling Island to Dunkirk and rescued over 200 men in May 1940. It was originally the Admiral's barge for a German battle ship sunk at the battle of Jutland in 1916. The barge was raised and restored between the wars.

 One of the questions I was asked on the LSE Panel was how I could imagine the ending to a novel based on true events from the past.

The Emergency Zoo  (Alma Books, May 2016)  is based on the untold story of the killing of the pets at the outbreak of WW2. It asks the question,When the war breaks out, who will save the animals?

My answer to the question is that no matter how much research I do, when I come to write the book, it is all about the characters. You can't have a plot on an empty stage. Before I start a novel I do quite a lot of work on my cast list. For each character I do the usual age, name, physique, etc but then I break into free writing, letting my imagination wander and it is this writing which leads me into plot lines and the heartbeat of the novel. If I know my characters well - and I always do - then they will lead me through their journey and I will know the ending. In fact, I usually write the final chapter around Chapter 3 and it doesn't  change very much.

I love doing research and have piles of notebooks, artefacts, photos, etc. But at the end of the day, if we are going to re-write the past, then our imaginations must be filled with inspiration, our characters must stand up and stand out on the page and our notes put firmly away, so that we enter the fictional dream and make sure we don't end up writing an essay or lecture about the past. The journey of our characters is the heart of story no matter whether set in the past, present or future.

What inspires you to Re-Write the Past?



Emma Barnes said...

That's a fascinating post, Miriam, and I'm especially interested in the way that free-writing about your characters leads you into the story. I've published one book set in the past, The Girl From Hard Times Hill, and that was inspired by my own family's background - especially by my mother's childhood in the "austerity" years just after World War 2. Like you, I found photos very resonant - both of people, and also Llanelli, which is where the story took place- and I think reading about the social history of the period (e.g. David Kynaston's books) also contributed. And I think I also had more general questions in my head: what was it like in that period after the war? Was the "austerity" label justified or not?

Miriam Halahmy said...

Thanks for your very interesting comment Emma. The 'austerity' issue probably meant more to the adults than the children. They wouldn't have known any different.

Emma Barnes said...

The 'austerity' issue probably meant more to the adults than the children. They wouldn't have known any different.

Yes, I agree. I remember hearing Judith Kerr talking about When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and observing that from her perspective life as a refugee in the 1930s felt like a huge adventure, it was only as an adult that she was able to appreciate how traumatic it must have been for her parents. A lot depends on your experience and point of view,