Dancing on active service shock

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Excitable with peculiar mannerisms…

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Another afternoon in the #NationalArchives, this time browsing references written by matrons for nurses wishing serve in France in the #GreatWar #FirstWorldWar #WW1 with Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps #QARANC. The women are all single (there isn’t an option in the register for ‘married’ – although widows were permitted) and in their mid to late 30s. Their backgrounds are solidly middle-class; fathers’ occupations include Army major, dental surgeon, surveyor, solicitor, merchant, farmer, and clergyman (lots of those!) Many trained in London hospitals still familiar today, following this with additional training in fever nursing, the care of children or consumptives – even midwifery training. Some have considerable private nursing experiences; a few served in the South African War of 1899-1902. Whilst I’m sure the “quiet refined gentlewoman” and the “nice minded conscientious girl” are lovely nurses, I particularly like the sound of these two women: “has peculiar mannerisms and is excitable” and “has a critical attitude towards those in authority and gives the impression of being very opinionated with not enough experience to justify it”. I feel a bit sorry for the nurse whose matron considered to be “a thorough nice woman but not one of our best nurses” – and I’m already a scared of the woman who is “not sufficiently patient to train probationers but can keep discipline amongst patients”. According to the record, they were all offered staff nurse posts, so even the opinionated one must have interviewed well.

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#100 Days of Writing

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A Hobbit, a Wardrobe and a Great War (research review)

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I do like audio books! I remember information according to where I was when I heard it – certain roundabouts or stretches of motorway – so things do tend to stick. The ideal medium, in fact, for ploughing through history books. A Hobbit, a Wardrobe and a Great War (good title!) by Joseph Loconte is not the best book I’ve listened to recently but it filled a drive to Herefordshire and a couple of trips to Kew. The premise is good enough – faith, friendship and literary inspiration from the “cataclysm” of WW1 – but, unless you’re happy to listen to lengthy extracts of LOTR (I’d rather watch the films, frankly) it does rather drag (and this from the woman who listened transfixed to 26 hours of Into the Silence about climbing Everest). There is a very informative section on Christianity and the role of the established church at the start of the 20th century, a useful exploration of the impact of WW1 on faith, and some interesting insights into how their war experience fed into the novels of Tolkien and CS Lewis but that’s about it. Constant repetition of the book’s basic premise and endless reiteration of the ghastliness of war but worst of all (for picky me) was the gloomy mid-Atlantic narration. I can forgive mispronunciation of Malvern (I know, hard to get that wrong!) and, maybe, Magdalen (as in College – not Mary) but not of Somme (“sew-mer”). That really got on my tits. Sorry #Audible! #GreatWar #WW1 #history #christianity #faith

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Margaret MacMillan Reith Lectures (research review)

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This year’s #ReithLectures by my favourite #historian Margaret MacMillan are well worth a listen (search online or in your podcast app). The title of the 2018 series of lectures is The Mark of Cain. Erudite, thoughtful, honest and drawing on examples throughout history including #WW1 #GreatWar the five lectures were recorded live in the UK, Canada and Lebanon. ‘War and Humanity’ looked at the impact of war on societies and nations and asked if war is an inevitable part of being human. ‘Fearing and Loving: Making Sense of the Warrior’ asked why people chose to fight and how war affects individuals. ‘Civilians and War.’ ‘Managing the Unmanageable’; efforts to control and regulate war, and peace movements. ‘War’s Fatal Attraction’ on the art and culture of war, and remembrance. #amresearchingformynovel #BBCradio

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The joy of primary research

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Fascinating and strangely emotional day @nationalarchivesuk looking at #WW1 #GreatWar medical records. It’s one thing to read in a text book about the German Spring Offensives of #1918; it’s quite another to see the evidence in a battered Field Ambulance Admissions book. March 20 is occupied with the usual scabies, boils and impetigo, plus the odd kick from a horse. March 21-23 is page after page of “gassed” and GSW (gun shot wound – with body part indicated by neat Roman numerals). The handwriting stays steady as the deluge continues but the details get sparser. One can only imagine the crowds, the noise and the growing exhaustion as the wounded are admitted, triaged and quickly dispatched to a Casualty Clearing Station. Many CCSs were overwhelmed – or overrun by the advancing enemy – so for some definitive treatment came only after a slow and painful train journey to a base hospital on the coast. #amwriting #amwritinghistoricalfiction #amresearchingformynovel

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Immersive afternoon reading medical sheets #WW1 #GreatWar @nationalarchivesuk My box full of abdominal wounds (I’m going back next week to look at shells hock neurosis and septic). Each sheet a story – not only of the wounded man, but the people who cared for him. Doctors’ handwriting better back then, but the language hasn’t changed. “Had a bad night. Stump painful.” “Good progress.” “Would Mr X kindly take an X-Ray?” (Some patients were quaintly “enfeebled” – but what a great word!) The detail of the injury: “GSW sustained July 12 whilst inspecting barbed wire near Ypres. Pt crouching, facing the enemy”. Details matter – not just because that’s how the soldier would tell and retell his story – but because posture dictates the path the bullet took through the body; crucial information for a surgeon. Lots of pus and discharge, lots of fistula and sinuses, lots of smelly, chronic wounds foreshadowing years of sub-optimal health and personal misery. Some of the sheets had observations charts (“TPR” – no blood pressures); neat and careful, the conscientious contribution of the VAD nurse. And, in amongst the sheets, a forgotten scrap of paper on which some long-forgotten nurse noted the results of a urine test: “urine clear, normal colour, albumen nil, blood nil”. It could have been written by any nurse or midwife today. #amwriting #amwritinghistoricalfiction #amresearchingformynovel

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#100 Days of Writing

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Today I start the #100daysofwriting challenge – with a particular remit. I write full time (I’m so lucky!) and my days are usually a nice balance between writing and all the other stuff of a writer’s life: planning, researching, reading, listening, thinking, dreaming, debating, sharing, supporting, studying (Advanced Creative Writing with @oxford_uni Dept of Continuing Education right now), blogging and Instagramming – but sometimes the actual writing slips later and later in the day until – well, you get the picture. So, #100daysofwriting for me will be putting the writing of my WIP first; pen to paper (digit to keyboard), a chapter finished, problem solved or paragraph crafted. And, to celebrate each day, I’ll take a picture from the nearest window so I can look back on 💯 days of #weather as well as 💯 days of words. #amwriting #amwritingfiction #100daysofwriting #historicalfiction #writers #writersofinstagram #writerscommunity

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The Hidden Machinery (research review)

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The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing by Margot Livesey (2017) makes me feel like a writer. Why? Because when I read it I am filled with a sense of recognition: I recognise the peculiar writery problems, I identify with the struggle for nuance and balance – and I can immediately see application to my own work. It’s a book for writers – and I’m a writer! There is no way I can reduce The Hidden Machinery down to #ThreeGifts; it’s one long, quirky, generous, endlessly fascinating gift. This review has already taken far too long because every time I pick up the book for quotable quotes I’m lost for 20 minutes reminding myself of Livesey’s tips on Creating Characters Who Walk off the Page (give a new character something in common with me – plus something we absolutely do not share), thoughts on the appeal of writing romance (the wonderful “possibilities for bad behaviour”) or lessons to be learnt from Shakespeare (“begin dramatically … don’t keep back the good stuff … don’t over explain”). Then there is this from the essay on Letting Our Characters Tell and Show: “Dialogue can allow us to convey information … of which neither the characters nor the narrator is fully aware. Dialogue is not only showing as opposed to telling, it is also showing what cannot be told.” And how about this analysis of Woolf’s approach to the description of characters: “She refuses to sum them up … We see them as they see themselves we see them as others see them. Forget the impressionists and think of Picasso depicting a woman’s face, fractured, from several angles”? Just don’t ask to borrow my copy. It’s not leaving my desk. Ever. #amwriting #amlearning #bookstagram #novelwriting

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The honest editor and cognitive bias

cognitive biases

In a previous life, I facilitated training sessions on managing obstetric emergencies; clinical skills, teamwork, leadership, decision-making and so on. One of the features of effective decision-making is the awareness of cognitive biases and so we discussed the problems that may arise from unhealthy hierarchies, tunnel vision and closed minds. The terminology has moved on in the intervening years (the above chart is borrowed from the Journal of the American Medical Association network) but it struck me recently (thanks to a WhatsApp discussion with a writing buddy) how applicable these biases are to writers as we self-edit our work.

For example, I know I am guilty of the following biases:

  • Anchoring Fixing on a certain action for a character without considering if this action really fits with their backstory and motivation;
  • Availability bias Being influenced by whatever war diary or novel I happen to be reading at the time;
  • Confirmation bias Failure to consider alternative actions because they don’t fit with my worldview or preferences;
  • Sutton’s Slip Failure to think outside the literary box and look for alternatives;
  • and a sort of reverse form of Zebra’s retreat; making my characters do something weird and unlikely for shock value – and just because I can.

 

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The Incurable Romantic (research review)

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The Incurable Romantic by Frank Tallis (2018) is compulsive background reading for a writer of #historicalromance. Falling in love is “a combustable state that reproduces the symptoms of psychiatric illness” and, when love goes wrong, things can become “twisted and ugly”. Written with the verve of a novelist and the enthusiasm of an expert, this book takes case histories from Tallis’ practice as a clinical psychologist and interprets them in the light of historic and current professional knowledge. “Romantic fiction has never been taken very seriously”. Furthermore, there exists the “peculiar” belief that love matters far more to women than it does to men; love is endlessly portrayed as “pink … perfumed and mildly diverting”. Yet love in reality is as red in tooth and claw as any other aspect of Darwinian imperative. The human race depends on love to ensure the “tumbling of genes through time, from generation to generation” and needs the passion, recklessness and enslavement of an unbreakable pair-bond (for three to four years, at least) to ensure the survival of its children. Love can be wonderful (“oceanic, transcendent and rapturous”) even as it exposes the “civilised and bestial” contradictions in human nature; “we cannot sustain comforting illusions of superiority, cultivation or divinity whilst exchanging body fluids.” Freud believed that we diminish those things which make us most anxious – so perhaps this is why we mock and belittle love and romance. #historicalfiction #amwriting #amresearchingformynovel #bookstagram

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