What the horses heard, a historical fiction: its provenance.

I’ve heard that What the horses heard has arrived from the printers at Cinnamon Press HQ in North Wales. It really is happening.They must be loaded up already. I hope someone gave them a hay net each and made sure their legs are bandaged to keep them safe as the road can be bumpy. I think I haven’t been quite believing it but now I am actually going to have to! But they must get ready soon for their first outing.

Just last week someone asked me if the book was about just about horses in the Great War and said, if so, he didn’t want to come to the launch as it is all too upsetting. So I thought I should put the matter a bit straighter in case everyone feels like that! What a thought!

Who knows how something as enormous as a novel starts to grow? It certainly starts off as a tiny spark. I feel as if I might be about to scribble a (short) poem!  But there has to be a huge amount of fire in the belly to keep me going for such a long time. So I think my sub-conscious was fuelled by the intense intersection of a number of lines of thought. Firstly, came Richard Jefferies who was a nature writer in the 1800’s whose observations of wildlife and country people are phenomenal and are more often like a series of intense prose poems.

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Even then, he saw how the countryside was changing and he also wrote the first post-apocalyptic novel called After London. I read John Clare, too and his poetry enters the book. But it was an unpublished story by Jefferies about a farm horse left out on a winter’s night that gave me an urge to start writing. We had kept horses for many years and even bred one so, although I am no expert, I am well acquainted.

But really I was looking for a subject that would reflect a cataclysmic change. I hadn’t quite reached the idea of a war. But it must have been almost there. The war to me is a kind of metaphor: a vastly speeded-up time of change. I think that now.

It happened that I was reading a non-fiction book about women who dressed up as men and became soldiers. One woman lasted in the British Navy for some years. There was no law in the 1800’s about women not being allowed to join up. But when she left she never received a pension because she was only a woman. Another story was about a British woman (Flora Sandes) who joined the Serbian army during WW1 and was decorated and became a sergeant. Yet another story was about Sapper Dorothy who lasted in the Tunnellers’ Regiment for 10 days before she was rumbled. She was sent to a convent for a while and was sworn to secrecy.

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And yet I found this!

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I was working in HMP Dartmoor at the time and in the prison museum I found letters from Conscientious Objectors who were imprisoned there from 1917. And that is how one of the characters became a Conchie.  But he also had to undergo the terrible prison conditions of the time.

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(At one time, I confess had him involved with the Quakers in Southern Russia during the Famine, travelling by Bactrian camel and having to go to Kazakhstan to buy and fetch horses from tribal peoples there … but all that had to go as the book was turning into an epic. 30, 000 words were cut and I hadn’t finished that part of the story. A friend said it was really an entirely other book (which may never happen unless I happen to get there). (Thank you, Barbara))

On the other hand, I soon had Cass to deal with. She rapidly emerged as a very forceful (with me) character who wanted to get to the Western Front. She had spent some weeks following me everywhere I went. I thought it possible that I would never write anything else again unless I could get her out of my head. She stayed doggedly there.

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We argued with one another. I said, ‘You’re a girl so you can’t go the Front unless you’re a nurse’. She said, ‘But you don’t know anything about nursing so you can’t write it!’ She provided the fire that I needed. So feeling rather idiotic, I contacted Richard Holmes who had written ‘Tommy’ and who was also Professor of Military History at Cranfield College (gasp) and asked him if I could make things plausible for her or was I barking at the moon? I thought he would laugh at me. But he said that I could if I thought it through carefully enough. I soon realised that sometimes frantic mothers and wives did somehow manage to get through and turn up on their menfolk at war, much to their horror. So the book also became an exploration of the role of women and how their expectations were changing at that time. And Cass gets herself in deep water and has to suffer for this too.

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It was Cass who drove me along a road of research to the archives in the Imperial War Museum and the Friends’ House Library in Euston; in an Army Medical Museum in the middle of a base near Aldershot; in the Friend’s Meeting House at Spicelands; to the Western Front battefields themselves beside the Somme and around Arras  … each step of which took me further on my way. And oh, the twists and turns of history, its highways and byways!  I started to wonder about the role of the historical fiction writer: I read David Mitchell’s essay (brilliant) on historical fiction and was heartened by this : Referring to the tyranny of tradition, Jessamyn West, an American Quaker novelist, wrote: “Faithfulness to the past can be a kind of death above ground… Writing of the past is a resurrection; the past lives in your words and you are free.” I don’t know about “free” but I like West’s grave tone and her word “resurrection”: the historical novelist isn’t only rifling through the human narrative we call History for raw material. Like it or not, he or she may also end up actually rewriting the past. History is not, after all, what really happened (no one can know; it’s gone) but only what we believe happened.  

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So What the horses heard is composed of many story lines.  But mainly the characters involved drove the story and me to write it….as well as their love of the place where they come from – for Cass and Orion it is Dartmoor!  For another it is Co Antrim.

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The minute I had finished writing the book but before I had the courage to dispatch the final proof to Jan Fortune at Cinnamon Press I went for a walk on the moor. I sat on a rock in some exhaustion and wonderment and looked up to see a group of ponies on the horizon, playing around and roughing each other up. I watched them for quite some time, thinking how it brought the era of writing this book to a fitting and very beautiful close. Then I went straight home and pressed the send button.

 

 

 

 

 

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About Rebecca Gethin

Rebecca Gethin is a poet and a novelist. Cinnamon Press published her third collection, All the Time in the World in 2017. Another pamphlet is forthcoming with Three Drops Press. Her second novel, What the horses heard, was published by Cinnamon Press in May 2014. Her second poetry collection - A Handful of Water - was published by Cinnamon in 2013. Her first - River is the Plural of Rain - was published by Oversteps Books in 2009. Her novel Liar Dice won the Cinnamon Press Novel Writing Award in 2010 and was published in 2011. She lives on Dartmoor and writes occasional pieces about wildlife and nature. Her poems appear in a variety of poetry magazines and in several anthologies.
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6 Responses to What the horses heard, a historical fiction: its provenance.

  1. E.E. Nobbs says:

    Thanks for this post. It boggles (and stretches) my mind to read how you ( and David Mitchell in his essay) describe the writing process for an historical novel. Fascinating. And I keep thinking about what you said about needing a ” huge amount of fire in the belly to keep me going for such a long time.” Congratulations on a major accomplishment, Becky !

  2. Thanks, Elly. Glad to hear you found it interesting. X

  3. ‘Her privates we’ written almost immediately after the First War starts with an agonising account of two carthorses on the battle field. That may be why your correspondent is upset. I couldn’t read the rest of the book..Glad of your account of the origins of yours.

    • That book, Her privates we, is an incredible book. Must go and look up the cart horse bit. It’s the details about the men I remember… their conversations and preoccupations. From someone who was in the thick of it. Hemingway said he read that book once a year! Thanks, jean.

  4. CarolineD says:

    It is always fascinating to discover how another writer tackles the task of keeping going with a story. Unlike your friend I can’t wait to read it.

  5. Hi, Caroline, That is very nice of you to say so. (The book has one reader!) It will be fascinating to see if he actually turns up…he wasn’t a friend by the way, just someone I met! I think its the multiple sparks along the lines of thought that kept me going and the endless nagging of that determined woman, Cass!

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