It’s all about imagery. Years ago I used to paint pictures with oils. Today I paint pictures with words, and I create the images in much the same way I created the paintings. I start with a broad brush and block in a rough outline. Then I begin to flesh out the important aspects of the image. I leave it there until the first draft is complete. Then I go back to the start, I take up my small brushes and concentrate on the detail.
I’m now working on the second off my WW1 novels. The first one – In Foreign Fields - is already published. http://www.thenovelsofdavidhough.com/in-foreign-fields.html
This is a scene from the second book. Lieutenant DeBoise is on the front line at the First Battle of Ypres. I’ll leave it like this until the first draft of the novel is complete, and then I’ll start the edit process. The detail will grow under editing, but the basis of the narrative will remain.
Daylight filled the sky when the cacophony of noise stopped. All along the line, men ceased their endeavours and looked up. Even RSM MacRapper seemed momentarily taken aback by the sudden silence.
“Listen. D’ye hear that, sir?” Donohoe tipped back the peak of his cap. “What’s happening?”
An overwhelming silence filled the air as DeBoise risked a peek over the trench ridge. Nothing moved, and not even birdsong marred the peace of the autumn morning.
“I don’t like it, Billy.” DeBoise slid back down into cover and looked along the line.
The Highlanders stopped digging and eyed one another warily. A low murmur began to creep along the trench.
“Pick up yer guns, lads.” MacRapper’s voice echoed along the trench. He sounded calm now, as if he knew what was to come and he was ready for it. “The bastard Hun will be coming soon. I feel it in me water. They’ll be expecting a weakness in the line here, but we’ll show them how a Highland regiment fights.” He raised his bolt-action Lee Enfield and felt in his pack for ammunition.
“There they are!” A lone voice rang out from the end of the line.
DeBoise peered again over the top of the trench. He flinched and grasped his Webley pistol tighter. The enemy were far off, but they were advancing towards the Highlanders. A hoard of grey uniforms emerged from the mist, hundreds of them, seemingly showing no hesitation.
“Stand to! With ten rounds, load!” An authoritative voice came echoing through the haze. It had to be an officer’s voice, firm and decisive with an educated accent. All along the line, the men stood to and pressed the first five rounds into their magazines. The voice continued with no sign of hesitancy. “Load carefully. Don’t rush it.” The second five rounds were loaded and then the bolts pushed the top round into the chamber.
“Safety catches off! Look to! Watch your front!”
The enemy were getting close now, almost within target range, but the regiment held their fire. DeBoise realised he was holding his breath. He tried to breathe normally.
“Now, lads! Now!” MacRapper didn’t wait for the officer’s voice to give the order. “At six hundred yards… independent fire! Let the bastards have it, lads!” He leaned forward against the side of the trench and began to shoot.
DeBoise saw two German soldiers fall in quick succession. The Highlanders raked the enemy line with rapid fire, picking off targets as they came into range. Some men fell in quick succession as the machine gun was brought into play. Others fell one by one. The Scottish riflemen worked their bolts with precision, firing off one round in each four seconds or less. The empty brass cases soon littered the floor of the trench.
The German officers waved their swords to urge their men forward, but the formation was breaking as man after man fell dead on the ground. The lucky ones were now only three hundred yards away.
“Sights down, lads! Carry on firing, and hold fast!” MacRapper shouted even as he fired. And, all along the line, other guns continued to spit out a lethal barrage.
Donohoe fired rapidly and then drew back to reload. “D’ye know how many soldiers the Hun army has, sir?” He pulled more bullets from his kit.
“Seven million,” DeBoise replied. He carefully aimed his Webley at an advancing German, pulled the trigger and watched the man crumple to the ground. “Less one,” he added.
Donohoe took aim again. “Jaysus, seven million, d’ye say? Reckon the whole bloody Hun army is after our blood right now.”
“Shut up and keep firing, Billy.”
There was no concept of time. The attack could have lasted a minute, an hour, or a day. DeBoise loaded and fired, loaded and fired and concentrated solely on making each shot count. He knew he was killing people, but the morality of it was lost behind the essential will to stay alive. The noise became a background blur, the grey-uniformed enemy kept advancing, and yet they seemed never to get any closer to the trench. As fast as they came forward, so they were mown down by the withering fire of the machine gun and the Highlanders’ rifles. The killing became a routine.
Sometime in the conflict - DeBoise had no concept of when - British artillery began a murderous response to the German attack. Crests of flame and fire appeared and disappeared amongst the German troops. Brown and grey crumples of mud rose up like ghosts from out of the uneven ground. The mist remained, or was it smoke? A line of naked trees was silhouetted on the horizon, like ethereal ghosts with their thin arms caught rigid in the throes of death. Behind them, a dirty grey sky was splattered with bursting shells, fiery rings quickly turning to black smudges.
Figures continued emerging from the smoky mist. DeBoise no longer thought of them as real people. They were grey, shadowy visitors from hell, dancing against the grey background. As exploding shells burst behind them they grew wings, yellow for a second and then grey as the flames died and turned to smoke. Then they became flying devils. They flew forwards with their arms spread wide in front of the grey, smudgy wings, and they fell onto the rippling, rumpling mud and were gobbled up by the hellish brown sludge. They were lost forever, quickly replaced by more shadowy figures, more grey devils from hell.
The noise continued. It was not consistent, but varying between sharp jolts of rifle fire and the booming background of the artillery barrage. The flying devils seemed somehow detached from the noise. They appeared, they flew, they fell. Behind them, the misty background spawned yet more to take their place. More brief yellow bursts of flames were followed by more splodges of dirty smoke, and more devilish Huns with grey uniforms, grey helmets and grey faces.
It wasn’t real, DeBoise tried to tell himself as he reloaded and fired again and again. How could all this possibly be real? Real meant human flesh and blood being ripped apart. Real meant people suffering. This had to be an illusion. It would stop in a moment and he would wake up.
But it didn’t stop.
Each shot from his pistol sent another enemy soldier to his death. Each artillery shell explosion sent more devils with wings flying through the stinking air. And then one figure, a lone German soldier, appeared out of the mist only ten yards in front of him, screaming as he ran. DeBoise fired automatically and the soldier crumpled to the ground.
It wasn’t real.
It was wrong, very wrong, but it wasn’t happening to him.