Writing ‘Private Lives’

As my readers know, I write fiction set in the 17th Century and World War Two. I enjoy the hard work that goes into writing about both epochs, but my new story set in 1942 has been something of a challenge. Finding the right tone, the right wording for sinister content with a touch of humour and moments of genuine sadness has required multiple drafts.

On the surface, writing a (relatively) cosy crime should have been easier than writing about a wily Genoese secret agent in The Chosen Man Trilogy, for example, but it wasn’t. Ludo da Portovenere’s skulduggery in Europe and India during the 1600s is all based on documented history. Each book includes researched data, plus a few lesser known historical details such as what happened to some of the most valuable Crown Jewels during the English Civil War. But this happened centuries ago, which gives me a degree of poetic licence. Give Ludo an inch and he takes a mile.

What happens to Bob Robbins in Devon and Cornwall during the nineteen-forties, however, is much closer to home and draws on personal memory, which muddies the waters. Not that I lived through the Second World War: I’m not that old! The background to Local Resistance and Private Lives, though, rests to an extent on my parents’ and grand-parents’ anecdotes and life-style.

In my mind’s eye, while I am writing, I can see what is happening in those days: the hand-knitted cardigans and walnut-laminated wireless sets, wooden draining boards and rolled newspapers fanning flames out of a few bits of coal. I was a post-war baby, born while the war and food rationing were a recent memory. Little was said in my hearing about the war itself, but the Home Front was much discussed. Tales about how goods fell off the back of a lorry, reminders to wear something white at night (to avoid getting run over in the black-out), to make do and mend; anecdotes about fire-watch duties and local dances . . .  These must have settled into the back of my mind unbidden the way Abba song lyrics do.

Nobody belittled the difficulties they endured; life was dangerous and unpredictable even in rural areas, where a random bomber might dump unused bombs on the way back to base. This happened. I remember distinctly being told about a primary school where the only child to survive had been at home in bed with a sore throat.

People were stoic, but not passé, although a survey conducted in London in November 1940 revealed only 40% of the population went into air-raid shelters on a regular basis. Most Londoners preferred to risk sudden death in their own beds – until bombing was so intense underground Tube stations became the only place of safety. Down in the south west of England, the inhabitants of Plymouth, an important naval base, pushed blankets and thermos flasks into babies’ prams or garden wheel-barrows and trekked out of the city to sleep under the stars on Dartmoor. It must have been exhausting.

In Britain and Ireland, there was the added, critical risk of imminent invasion. It had happened in Poland and the Channel Islands, it could happen in Britain. The detail about the German U-boat surfacing off the Cornish coast to take on fresh water in Local Resistance was taken from a German sailor’s account. I didn’t invent that.

My fiction, as I said earlier, relies a good deal on stories overheard as a child. It is also influenced by my M.A. dissertation on Social and Political Thought during World War Two, focusing on the implicit propaganda in popular films and wireless programmes such as the mad-cap comedy ITMA, which made fun of just about everything and everyone. The Ministry of Information turned ‘ordinary people’ into heroes and role models, and with good reason – they were.

All this, family anecdotes, academic research, and a particularly English brand of humour has slipped into my Home Front mysteries.

How a Cornish fishing village uses its ancient smuggling tradition to evade rationing while preparing to defend their country when ‘Jerry’ landed forms the background to Local Resistance; how people as diverse as Land Army girls and cosmopolitan actors coped three years into the war underlies the shenanigans and criminal activities in Private Lives.  

Being in action on ‘the Front’ was obviously perilous, but how life went on in unoccupied Britain, how people coped in the face of incessant difficulties and dangers required its own form of bravery, which deserves to be celebrated.

©J.G. Harlond

Read the opening chapter of Private Lives here.

Private Lives is available on Amazon.

Read about ‘Churchill’s Secret Army’ in Local Resistance: http://getbook.at/LocalResistance

Find out more about my books on: www.jgharlond.com

 

Horses in Historical Fiction 2: Making journeys in the past

Making long journeys on horseback

A number of people have asked me now about how far a horse can go in a day. The simple answer is: ‘that depends’.

It depends on the age and skill of the rider, the age, type and fitness of the horse, and the terrain they have to cover.

Healthy, well-trained horses entered in modern long-distance races, sometimes called endurance races (for a very good reason) can cover up to 100 miles in a day. The favoured breed is the Arabian, but while the type of breed matters, it’s the training that is important. Each mount has to be prepared for these distances over a long period of time, and this includes getting used to eating hard fodder at different times of the day, which many horses do not or will not do.

In the wild, equines graze for most of the day and night; kept in stables they become accustomed to eating and drinking water at certain times of the day. Breaking that routine with stabled horses can lead to colic. Horses that are being prepared for long distances need not only to have excellent physical stamina and good leg bones, they need to learn to feed and drink on a completely different basis.

Basically, this means if you have characters in a book covering long distances you need to take into account that horses are not machines. They also lose shoes and go lame, which can slow a journey if not bring it to a halt altogether. Here are three sample questions on this topic with my answers:

Q: My characters hire livery horses to cross open territory to get to a remote village, taking about four days on the journey. One character is an excellent horseman but the rest have limited experience. They take their food, equipment and weapons. What do I also need to mention or include?

Your characters will need to hire sound, sturdy horses at the livery stable – cross breeds probably. Do not include any mention of English Thoroughbreds, they are not well-suited to rough terrain. Each horse will need its own properly fitting saddle and bridle, plus a head collar with a rope line and/or hobbles. Ill-fitting saddles can cause a lot of damage: the wrong size bit can destroy the animal’s mouth and make it unresponsive or downright difficult. Your group should also hire at least one pack mule for their equipment, and they may need to take fodder for their horses as well, unless they are crossing lush terrain. Think about water, too: horses can survive a day without food, but not without water. Remember that one person will have to have the mule’s leading rein, so it doesn’t try to run back home.

If your group are travelling for four days and there is no great haste, one mount per person, plus a pack mule should be all right, but a spare mount would be useful in case one of the horses loses a shoe or steps in a rabbit hole, which happens surprisingly easily. Horses stumble and ‘twist their ankles’ much the same as we do. They have numerous small bones in the foot and hock and can go lame for a while. The hock area may swell up, but then the beast may recover after a rest.

What sort of horses do you need for a long journey? Does gender matter? Gender doesn’t matter as long as no stallion is present. A stallion is easily distracted by a mare; if she’s in season he can become uncontrollable. Some, (but not all) stallions also challenge or try to attack geldings, this can include biting and striking out with front legs. Geldings are generally more reliable, but mares and geldings can be equally difficult depending on age and temperament. I have an aging gelding with an appalling imagination: he’s quite capable of seeing mortal danger in the flight of a bird or a falling leaf if the mood takes him, or if it’s a windy day. High winds confuse horses’ olfactory and auditory signals. Mares can often get awkward when they come into season.

I’ve read that horses don’t need as much sleep as we do and that a mini herd takes turns sleeping throughout the night. Could my characters sleep through the night knowing that horse is on guard against predators and will alert them?

Horses, being prey animals are always on guard. They can sleep standing up using a bone-locking device so, if necessary, they can make a quick getaway. This means they are often dozing on the hoof and from a distance it looks as if they are awake. Most horses only lie down to sleep if they feel very safe in their surroundings. They might be unsettled in strange terrain and more restless if there are predators around. I’m not sure about individuals taking turns to be on guard in a herd, but I think your human characters need to take shifts to stay alert during the night in open country.

A common way to hobble horses in the past, and still used in rural areas of Spain, is to tie the front legs together at the hock so they can move sufficiently while grazing but not trot or gallop, so they can’t get very far. Tying horses to trees or lines as they do in the movies is unreliable because they can break their tethers if they choose to. A horse tied to a tree can break its reins, bridle or head collar very easily – I’ve seen it done more than once. Smarter horses can rub their heads against the tree to get out of bridles and head collars, too. I had a mare who could get herself out of just about anything except her saddle.

Remember that while horses are usually gentle and willing, they do have immense strength when need be. You also need to take into account that restless horses can be very hard to tack up and they make each other nervous.

As to distances, here is a general guide to equine miles per hour, but please remember, horses are sprinters; keeping up fast pace for a long period can tax or even destroy the healthiest animal. The rest depends on the age and condition of the horse, its load and the rider.

Walk: 4 mph

Trot: 8 to 12 mph

Canter: 12 to 15 mph

Gallop: 25 to 30 mph

A final word: these blog posts are written from my personal experience of a life-time caring for and training horses. If you go to other on-line sources you may find conflicting or differing information.

JGH

Málaga, 5th November, 2018

 

Confessions of a reluctant show-off

In response to an article on how the real slog and sadness in an author’s life can begin on publication, I’d like to raise the issue of so-called ‘celebrity status’, and the silent worlds most comfortably-dressed, disconnected, happily-individual writers inhabit.

In what now seems like a previous existence, I studied dance and drama. It was drummed into us that we must never be seen off-stage Continue reading “Confessions of a reluctant show-off”