The Art of War and Research

* WWI: The Great War

* Boy Soldiers

* Research, Research, Research!

In Flanders Field...

In 2013 I was invited to participate in the last post ceremony at the Menin Gate, in Ypres, Belgium.

I was part of a contingent of British Scouts on a week-long camping expedition in Flanders, Belgium. Our campsite, at De Kluis, was situated in the heart of Flanders Forest, and in between the trees and scrub we could see fields of poppies waving to and fro in the wind.

For those who care to take heed, World War One serves as a lesson in what can happen if nationalism and jingoism are left unchecked, or worst still - encouraged. The Great War stole the lives of over sixteen million people. Let that figure sink in. Sixteen million human beings died, and many, many more brutally wounded.

In 2014, the High School I taught at was looking to mark the centenary of the outbreak of hostilities, and I volunteered to write a special one act play for the occasion. I made this decision before I went to France and Belgium, and so I made sure to take a pencil and notepad everywhere I went. I try to keep a notebook or three on the go, to jot down ideas in. I'm not the best at remembering to carry a notepad on me, though. One thing I always carry with me is my smartphone. I use a simple voice recorder app most of the time, so I can riff into the mic super fast. I also have a simple notepad app, and I tend to use this when I'm in public and don't want to be 'that guy' who dictates his screenplay ideas and research for everyone to hear.

As I worked in a school, and also volunteered as a Scout Leader in my free time, youth issues were very much at the front of my mind, so I wanted to write a script that was about children.

After some preliminary research, I discovered that under-age military enlistment was a serious issue in the Great War.

They say write about what you know, and I had to admit that other than my own Secondary education on the matter, I didn't know much detail about World War One. Certainly not enough to write characters from that period.

I began my research proper by selecting some books from the school library. A book on trench warfare, and a book on conditions on the home front gave me some detailed information on the realities of the world at the time. My endeavours then took me online. The BBC website, and the National Archives were great resources, and I made many notes.

It's funny, the things a storyteller has to do in order to write a compelling story, and vivid and believable characters. Verisimilitude is one of the first things that the audience notices. Is the world believable, are the characters 'real'? I found myself trawling through websites devoted to archaic slang, and obsolete words in order to create authentic dialogue, or rather an authentic lexicon. These characters were working-class boys - I knew how working class boys spoke - yet I didn't know how they spoke in 1914. I found myself checking the etymology of words, and origins of phrases. Phrases I thought were archaic were in fact from the 1970s!

And so, having visited the Flanders area, and seen the Flanders Museum, after visiting a military cemetery and being part of the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate, I felt I could finally begin writing.

Another great virtue of having to research for a script, most writers will know this already, is that it can often cure writers block. When you research you learn more, and more story possibilities present themselves. Research doesn't just add veracity to your tale, it acts as a catalyst for fresh perspectives and new ideas.

The play I wrote was entitled 'Boy Soldiers', and was performed by a young cast at the school, and also at The Imperial War Museum, North, in 2014. This play was written before I went to University to study screenwriting and production, and as such it lacks one or two elements that, in hindsight, it needed. However, it stands on its own as a solid piece of educational theatre, and I am proud of it still. I feel it has great verisimilitude, and there's a pretty wicked twist at the end.

Please take a moment to check out the Boy Soldiers page, where there is artwork, photographs, and even a scene from the play itself. Let us know in the comments what you think of the dialogue between George and James, I wonder if you can see what elements came from research.

It's now 100 years since the Great War ended, and in this last 100 years we have repeated the same mistakes. We have failed to take heed of the lessons that history can teach us. Artists have, I feel, a unique opportunity. We can help history teach it's valuable lessons to contemporary audiences by dramatising past events in interesting and emotionally engaging ways. Ensuring always to research thoroughly, and let the real events guide us we can illuminate past mistakes so that we might choose another way in the future.

If we artists do our jobs properly, we will remember them.

Finally, I wrote to the Estate of the late Wilfred Owen recently, to request the use of an excerpt of his work in this blog. For my American readers, Wilfred Owen was a World War One Tommy (a British infantryman).

He is famous throughout the United Kingdom now as an exemplar war poet. Below is his piece, 'Futility'.



Move him into the sun—

Gently its touch awoke him once,

At home, whispering of fields half-sown.

Always it woke him, even in France,

Until this morning and this snow.

If anything might rouse him now

The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds—

Woke once the clays of a cold star.

Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides

Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil

To break earth's sleep at all?

"Wilfred Owen: The War Poems" (Chatto & Windus, 1994), - acknowledgement is made to that book, its publisher, and editor, Jon Stallworthy.

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