My grandmother died on the way to her second wedding.
I had often thought this dramatic curtain on life would make a good story and one day, sitting in a Hong Kong apartment with no job and no one to talk to, I decided to write about her life. I had moved to Hong Kong with my husband and while he travelled almost every week to various cities across Asia, I began what I thought of as a way to amuse myself, using some notes my mother had written about her family history.
The first step was research. To create a story based on the lives of my grandparents, I would have to understand WWI, the Depression and WWII. Not being a student of history, I felt the need to begin at the beginning. What caused WWI? Who were the players? What did soldiers experience? What happened on the home front?
Happily, the Internet offered reams and reams of information on military and political events as well as maps and photos and stories of individual experiences of war. I found soldiers’ diaries lovingly transcribed by relatives to honor long ago sacrifice. I found regiments maintaining information about those who served in WWI, the weapons used and uniforms worn, the rations eaten and songs sung. A world of chaos and bungling and death emerged and I became utterly captivated.
But a novel requires drama: a plot with twists and turns, characters going through change, tension and conflict. My grandparents had led a relatively ordinary life. Clearly, I would have to embellish.
Back in Toronto in the summer of 2006, my mother provided further ingredients for the story by telling me that my grandfather fought at Vimy Ridge in April of 1917 and went on to be part of the Army of Occupation in Germany after WWI ended. She spoke of my great-grandparents and what she knew of her parents’ wedding, a few memories of the Depression and more substantial memories of living through WWII. She gave me a box of old photos and newspaper clippings and my grandfather’s scrapbooks. She also relayed the story of my grandfather’s involvement with Camp X, a place not far from Toronto where espionage agents were trained in WWII. My grandfather and espionage – who would have imagined?
The plot started to take shape. A wartime romance, a lover left behind, a soldier plagued with nightmares. “Wait a minute,” I told myself. “That’s far too trite, too predictable.” An affair. Yes, I needed an affair. But what other drama would fill a novel that ends when a woman is seventy-five? I tried various scenarios, solicited input, tried more scenarios. Version one quickly became version eight or nine—I’ve lost count—as I adjusted scenes and added more depth to the story.
The main characters were relatively easy to portray since they were modeled after my grandparents who lived until I was in my twenties. I happily added others to flesh out the story and they came alive too as I borrowed attributes or personality traits from familiar people or invented a combination to suit my purposes. My characters were like friends and over time I knew how they would react to the challenges I threw their way.
A long time has past since I began writing Unravelled. The story looks nothing like my early versions. And instead of ending with my grandmother’s death, it ends in 1944 a few months after the D-Day invasion of Europe.
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History.