A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
From A Monster Calls to Birdsong, some of the best novels cover traumatic experiences that real people endure. But is it ever wrong to do this – exploitative, even? Where do we draw the line?
Books are safe places for readers to think and learn – especially young readers. And books tend to handle traumatic topics with sensitivity and dignity, unlike much of the media—Natasha Ngan
So, can we write about anything we like? Well, yes. But should we? It’s a question I faced again on a research trip this summer. I’m writing a novel set in an alternative 1816, a year after the Battle of Waterloo. In July, I struck a vein of research gold. Eminent battlefield archaeologists Waterloo Uncovered invited me to visit a dig at the Chateau d’Hougoumont, a site of strategic importance during the battle. I wasn’t just going to read all the books – I was going straight to the killing ground.
Image copyright Waterloo Uncovered. Yes, look closer – that really is Time Team’s Dr Phil Harding. I met a childhood hero! We had a drink in the bar and a chat.
I was also going to get a much deeper insight into warfare than I had expected. Some of the Waterloo Uncovered archaeologists are also army veterans, and many live with serious physical injuries and PTSD, consequences of war often left out of heroic battlefield legends. I went to Waterloo hoping to fill in a couple of plot holes. I came away with that and more.
But what brought these former soldiers to Hougoumont? Project leader Mark Evans is both an archaeologist and a veteran. Mark is also the author of Code Black, a moving account of his experiences in Afghanistan. He explained that studying a battlefield allows veterans to make sense of wartime experiences and can help bridge a gulf between military and civilian life. Excavating a battlefield where regimental colleagues fought and died two hundred years before offers a manageable level of catharsis, too.
Archaeologists and historians have studied battles forever, but even the most experienced among them has rarely seen or fought one. A soldier brings another perspective—Mark Evans, archaeologist, army veteran and author of Code Black
Mark also points out that it’s easy for academics and historical novelists to romanticise war. According to historians, British forces worked all night before the battle to fortify Hougoumont farm – a strategically crucial position that Napoleon would have to destroy in order to win. Knowing the French were coming, English soldiers built firing platforms and used their bayonets to knock holes in the walls to fire through.
Image copyright Waterloo Uncovered. Soldiers at Waterloo knocked holes in the walls surrounding this strategically important farmhouse so they could fire at attackers. Imagine looking through here and seeing thousands of heavily armed French soldiers advancing. Would you wonder if you were going to see the next morning, or switch off and take each moment as it came?
But did all the soldiers defending Hougoumont really expend such a mammoth effort despite having fought another battle twenty-four hours earlier and marching all the previous day to reach the farm in time? Some of the Waterloo Uncovered veterans question these traditional views.
One of the soldiers turned to me and said, “Fuck all that. If it was me and some officer had told me to do that I’d have waited until he fucked off and then got my head down.” Maybe this is the true voice of war – not exactly what happened, but an interesting insight from one who has been in such a situation – tired beyond belief, cold and wet, facing death the next day, and happier to get some sleep than spend hours blunting his bayonet scraping holes in walls—Mark Evans
Meeting the archaeologist soldiers at Hougoumont totally changed how I approached this part of the novel: until this point, my Waterloo veteran was a cookie-cutter war hero, fighting a battle exactly as I’d read in the history books.
We are trained to be soldiers, but beneath the soldier we are just humans. Sometimes the training rises to the surface, sometimes it’s the human, often it’s a combination. Because war is so extreme it is really hard to imagine what it is like and how you would react unless you have been there—Mark Evans
It’s clear the experience of former soldiers is invaluable in establishing the truth of how a battle progressed. It can also be invaluable to historical novelists wanting to create well-rounded characters. Actually talking to people who have experienced what you’re trying to write about will force you to produce a better book. But let’s return to the fact that many of the veterans excavating Hougoumont are living with the very real aftermath of war. Some have physical injuries and are amputees: others have PTSD. Do we have the right to use other people’s suffering to entertain our readers?
Image copyright Waterloo Uncovered. Excavations in the “killing ground” where much of the fighting took place.
Up till July, my own Waterloo veteran was your (stereo)typical English soldier hero: tough and aloof with a chilly sense of humour, a lovable rogue. At Hougoumont, I realised I wasn’t only romanticising the battle, but I was also romanticising him: instead, I had to show how war affects people physically and emotionally. Equally, I felt that the suffering I occasionally caught sight of at Waterloo was private, not just some vein of research for me to plunder.
If you write a realistic, fair portrayal of trauma – and your object is to depict PTSD and the people who struggle with and survive it as nuanced characters, and to move and educate the reader – then you’re on the right side of the line. If you’re writing torture porn to cash in on other people’s pain, then you’re on the wrong side of the line—Zoe Marriott
And here the issue of consent also enters the field. It’s one thing using books or the letter of a long dead Waterloo veteran to create characters: observing living people and using their experiences without asking is different, yes? But will it ever be right to “use” other people’s trauma in this way?
Again, it depends on consent. Some ex-soldiers might actually want to share their experiences. Others won’t. Ultimately, I’m going to do my best to research with respect and avoid the lazy stereotypes I’d reached for without really thinking it all through.
I went to Hougoumont to learn about battle-lines and muskets. I saw people who had lived through unimaginable horror just getting on with it. I live an easy privileged life: it’s not often I witness naked courage. It floored me, to be honest. Most writers are people watchers. My visit to Waterloo reminded me that there are moments when the most respectful thing you can do is switch off that instinct and look away.
With huge thanks to Mark Evans and the Waterloo Uncovered team for sharing their expertise and alcohol with me, particularly Dr Tony Pollard and Alasdair White (who walked me through, around, and out of a particularly annoying plot hole). Extra special thanks to Dr Stuart Eve for inviting me to Hougoumont.