It Started With Cycling…
Author Tessa West has sent us this wonderful piece about how she went about the research for writing her World War One novel As Best We Can.
It started with cycling. I’m keen on cycling and, having read a bit about military cyclists, I had begun to envision a novel about a character in a cycling battalion. It was a bonus to find that Suffolk (where I live) had such a battalion, so I didn’t have to invent one. WW1 was not a key feature for me as I planned the book, but when I found that the Suffolk Battalion was founded in 1911, I decided to use its actual movements.
To begin with, I decided that my cyclist (who would have to be a man, unless I was going to write a very different story from the one I had in mind), would grow up in Bury St Edmunds. This local setting was important because my three other novels are set in East Anglia, and I wanted to sustain the interest of those many readers who have told me how much they enjoy this feature. I soon created a family around this man and began to get a feel for him and for his family members.
My narrative started in 1916, but although I was not sure how or when it would finish I was happy to start writing as I was confident that a suitable end would present itself. The book began to take shape, and I soon saw that it was by no means the story of one man, but rather about the impact of war on each person in a family.
I realised at once that I needed a detailed knowledge of the geography of the area, of local affairs and issues, and about the Suffolk Cyclists. This meant researching in three directions. Firstly, I studied maps and visited places that had some particular use or relevance at the time of my story. I went to Elveden where Duleep Singh had lived, to Hawstead church, along the Lark. I read about the Ampton Military Hospital, troops arriving at Ingham station, about early tanks.
Secondly, I found an extremely helpful website which told me all about the 25th London Cyclists, which is the battalion into which the Suffolk Cyclists were eventually amalgamated as infantrymen.
Thirdly, I became a regular user of a microfiche in the Bury Records Office because I needed to work my way through numerous past copies of the Bury Free Press and its predecessors.
I enjoyed all three tasks, but it was the research into newspapers which gave me the best picture of what life was like in the war years: shock when Britain was attacked; the changing role of women; Zeppelins; reactions to conscription; the film “The Somme”; the lists and lists of the dead, the missing and the wounded.
But significant chunks of the story are told through letters from France and the North-West Frontier. I focused on the latter because the London Cyclists were involved in a situation there which few people know about. The word “war” only just stretches to encompass what happened both on the soggy Western Front as well as amongst terrain which became scorched and frozen in turn.
My fictional characters developed in the face of shortages of food and fuel, together with an overload of grief and loss, as well as getting on with their ordinary everyday lives. I found them trying to cope “as best they could”.
I extended the time frame of the book to the end of 1921, as I wanted to include the Amritsar Massacre (which the Cyclists were very close to). I also had in mind a particular event in Suffolk, in November 1921, which would provide, I believed, a fitting end.
Writing “As Best We Can” caused me, as writing my others books did, to read, learn, think, feel and understand more about the human condition. I’m hoping the book will find plenty of readers who enjoy this combination of an East Anglian setting, domestic family life in wartime, and letters home from two different theatres of war.