Clare Rhoden is a writer, blogger and book reviewer inspired by politics, culture and the march of history. The third novel of her dystopian sci-fi series The Chronicles of the Pale will be published this August. Her latest book is the WWI historical novel The Stars in the Night. Clare lives in Melbourne Australia with her husband and a golden spoodle called Aeryn.
The Stars in the Night is a moving tale set in the First World War. Is it based on a true story?
Clare: Not just one! Stars is based on many true stories. Each fictional character has a real-life model. For example, Harry Fletcher and his foster brother Eddie play the parts of neighbours that my grandparents met when they emigrated to Port Adelaide in 1914. I’ve also scattered a few true historical folk into the mix, like Australia’s official war artist Will Dyson who sketches an exhausted Harry about midway through the book. I used Dyson’s 1917 drawing ‘Dead Beat’ (you can see it at this link) to generate this scene.
(Here I have attached a low-res image which is OK to use as long as the caption is included as it’s the property of the AWM)
Gallipoli and Flanders are both very well known to readers of historical fiction. What lengths did you have to go to in order to make sure you got the sense of period and place right?
I was so lucky to have extra funding as part of my PhD, so I was able to do a couple of study tours overseas as well as visiting various sites in Australia – we have memorials in most towns as we have no Great War graves, apart from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Canberra. I also had access to the immense archives of the Australian War Memorial, including letters, diaries, trench newspapers, photos, line drawings and paintings, and even some film. I also suspect I have read more WWI novels than anyone in Australia, and more Australian WWI novels than anyone in the world! For me, this book in particular was about total immersion in the time and places. I now know things that I never even suspected: for example, did you know that the Allied troops didn’t have helmets until 1916? So every Aussie at Gallipoli only had his slouch hat as protection.
How did you get into writing?
Oh, for that I blame my teddy bear. My mum taught me to read before school, but we didn’t have any books about Big Ted. I had to make up stories about where he came from and what he had for breakfast. So as a child, I made things up all the time, and I haven’t ever stopped. I’m lucky now that I can write full time and get these stories out of my head.
How do you go about planning your novels?
Uh-oh, now it’s going to come out. Despite all my research, I’m not a big planner. I begin with an idea that leads to a scene; more scenes arrive; I sew them up and shift them around until the flow seems right to me. In Stars, I move the narrative back and forward in time for different sections. That’s because I sometimes saw Harry as an ardent young man, and sometimes as a scarred survivor, often in consecutive scenes. It works for me.
How do you balance the fact and fiction when writing this type of novel?
I believe that there is history as recorded and history as lived. I made every effort to be as correct as possible with the history as we now know it, but I also kept in mind that the people of the time didn’t and couldn’t know what we know now. A tiny example is that they called it the Great War, not the First World War, because they never guessed that they’d be back in uniform only twenty years later. The letters, diaries and newspapers of the time often have a very different idea of what was going on than is recorded in official history. I had to make sure that my characters don’t have any special insight into how things will turn out, for good or for ill.
One of the areas that my website is looking at currently is the way that history is interpreted and presented to the general public. How do you go about deciding how to portray your characters and the events in which they become involved in?
Excellent question, thanks Dan! One method I decided to use was incorporating letters into the narrative. That gave me a way to show a range of what the everyday people of the time were saying, thinking, and feeling during the war. Real lived experience is always more complex than a history text. I thought it was important to show some of the diversity views that were current then but are now glossed over, such as how riven Australia was about participating in the war (Australia twice rejected conscription but both votes were close to 50/50). Some women agitated for peace; others handed out white feathers to men they thought were shirkers. Some politicians backed the Empire ‘to the last man and the last shilling’; others believed that the Dominions were being exploited as trench fodder. Some army generals wanted to introduce the death penalty for Australian troops; others resisted as the Anzacs were an all-volunteer force (Australia alone didn’t execute any of its own men in the Great War, even though capital punishment was common at the time.).
So while I’m mindful about authenticity of the time, it is now the twenty-first century and we know so much more about the ongoing costs of war such as PTSD, which I have tried to show in a realistic way, even though it was not recognised at the time.
Which authors have been most influential to your own writing to date?
Oh dear, how long a list is allowed? Mary Renault’s Athenian historical novels are the first which transported me to a different time and place (that’s if we don’t count Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, the first book I stayed up all night to read). I’m inspired by writers who deliver engaging characters in interesting situations: TH White, Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart, JRR Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin. I review for Aurealis (sci-fi and fantasy) and every month I get to meet new, exciting authors through their work. At the moment I’m floored by the brilliance of CSE Cooney’s ‘Desdemona and the Deep’ for its luscious setting and wonderfully diverse, entrancing characters.
Have you got any plans for future books that are in a historical setting?
Oh, yes – once I get past the launch of the third instalment of my dystopian sci-fi series later this year. I’m planning to revisit the original stimulus for The Stars in the Night – the story of my grandparents’ immigration to Australia. I want them (or their fictional representatives) to meet up with the characters that their lives inspired. I feel quite grounded in that era. And strangely enough, dystopia doesn’t feel that far from the Great War…
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
1. Treat writing like learning a second language, because telling a story in written words is very different from using spoken words.
2. Read as widely as you can so you can see what works in different genres and settings and think about why.
3. Then write as often as you can, before the story idea disappears.
Clare Rhoden is a writer, blogger and book reviewer inspired by politics, culture and the march of history. The third novel of her dystopian sci-fi series The Chronicles of the Pale will be published this August. Her latest book is the WWI historical novel The Stars in the Night.
Clare lives in Melbourne Australia with her husband and a golden spoodle called Aeryn.
All Clare’s books: http://viewauthor.at/clarerhodenbooks
Clare blogs about writing, books, and dogs at: https://clarerhoden.com/
Ros Rendle also writes fiction set in the First World War
Battles of the First World War – First Battle of the Marne – The Gallipoli Campaign – Battle of Verdun – Battle of Jutland – Brusilov Offensive – Battle of the Somme – Battle of Passchendaele – The Spring Offensive – Battle of Amiens – Victory on the Western Front?