I am happy to welcome author Robbie Cheadle back to my blog. She’s here to talk about her foray into historical fiction writing. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t as ‘easy’ as she’d expected! Take a moment to read about Robbie’s fascinating process of turning her mother’s earliest memories into a captivating memoir.
The process of writing a historical book
When I embarked on the journey of turning my mom’s early years into a book, I didn’t have a plan. She had told my siblings and me all sorts of tales about her early life while we were growing up and it seemed a simple thing to get her to jot down her memories and for me to turn them into a continuous story about her childhood. My mother grew up during WWII but that didn’t faze me at all. Even though I knew she was only seven years old when the war ended, it didn’t occur to me how much research would be required to get her story to hang together in a believable and factually accurate way.
We started off with her writing down her memories of various events during her life and I typed them up into a fictionalized account of her reality. Already, research was required. I had to learn an awful lot about everyday events during the period 1939 to 1945 such as what kind of swimming costumes were available during the war, what food could be grown and bought, how did the rationing of food work in practice, how did a dairy farmer sterilize the milk bottles and how was milk delivered. My mom could remember all sorts of oddments of information about her life and family, but this sort of detail was not available from her memories. Another issue I encountered early on during our writing process was the fact that my mom did not necessarily have her memories in order or in the correct timeframes.
I did a lot of research and a fair amount of writing but I still didn’t have a plan other than a vague idea that my mom’s story would be a bit like the stories presented in the Little House series written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I did not plan on including a strong story line as this book was more of a fictionalized autobiography than a fictional story.
When I was finished writing our book, however, I was not entirely happy with it. I particularly didn’t know how to pull the ending together. I decided that some assistance was required, after all I had not studied creative writing. I asked my good friend and mentor, Charli Mills, if she would developmentally edit my book for me.
Charli agreed to do this and in due course I received a bundle of brilliant notes and pieces of advice from her. One of the most important recommendations she made was for me to prepare a timeline of WWII and overlay my mother’s life onto it. Adding more historical facts into the story in a natural way would make it a more interesting tale but, she emphasised, the historical facts needed to make sense and be accurate in terms of the timeline of my mother’s early childhood. The other important fact Charli pointed out was that my book had no storyline. Little house in the big woods does have a storyline, she said. It is subtle but it is there. What is the storyline in your book?
I took a week off work and commenced the re-write of While the Bombs Fell. I drew the historical timeline as suggested and wrote the events of my mom’s life into it. This had the effect that I had to reverse every chapter in my book and start off with a summer setting rather than a winter one. I did a mountain of research. Fortunately, WWII is well documented and I found numerous sites with lots of interesting information about life during the war. I checked the facts I used to at least four or five sites, if possible, before incorporating them into my book. It was a lot of work but I needed to be sure the information was correct. Some of the information that is specific to Bungay town could only be found in a few sites but I did the best I could and even bought a couple of books on the subject of Bungay to help my research. Research is something I find fascinating and it is easy for me to become so engrossed in it that I end up reading a lot of information that is not relevant to the task at hand and hours pass. I had to get myself in check and focus on obtaining the information I needed. I was amazed at how detailed the research need to be: how did a copper for washing and a mangle work, what was a radio called during the war, how was the blacking out of windows achieved by common households, where did the American bombers flying from Bungay bomb during the war. Writing an autobiography, even if it is fictionalized, is not easy. It takes a lot of effort. The fictionalization was to fill in the bits my mom couldn’t remember but they had to be correct.
At the end of the process, I was happy with the book we produced and its theme of hope and good overcoming bad. I read a lot of posts about authors disliking the editing process but I a must admit that it is my favourite part. I learn so much during that process and improve both my book and my writing going forward.
While the Bombs Fell by Robbie Cheadle and Elsie Hancy Eaton
What was it like for children growing up in rural Suffolk during World War II?
Elsie and her family live in a small double story cottage in Bungay, Suffolk. Every night she lies awake listening anxiously for the sound of the German bomber planes. Often they come and the air raid siren sounds signaling that the family must leave their beds and venture out to the air raid shelter in the garden.
Despite, the war raging across the English channel, daily life must continue with its highlights, such as Christmas and the traditional Boxing Day fox hunt, and its scary moments when Elsie learns the stories of Jack Frost and the ghostly and terrifying Black Shuck that haunts the coastline and countryside of East Anglia.
Includes some authentic WWII recipes.
Buy While the Bombs Fell now on Amazon.
About the Author
Robbie, short for Roberta, is an author with five published children’s picture books in the Sir Chocolate books series for children aged 2 to 9 years old (co-authored with her son, Michael Cheadle), one published middle grade book in the Silly Willy series and one published preteen/young adult fictionalised biography about her mother’s life as a young girl growing up in an English town in Suffolk during World War II called While the Bombs Fell (co-authored with her mother, Elsie Hancy Eaton). All of Robbie’s children’s book are written under Robbie Cheadle and are published by TSL Publications.
Robbie has recently branched into adult horror and supernatural writing and, in order to clearly differential her children’s books from her adult writing, these will be published under Roberta Eaton Cheadle. Robbie has two short stories in the horror/supernatural genre included in Dark Visions, a collection of 34 short stories by 27 different authors and edited by award winning author, Dan Alatorre. These short stories are published under Robbie Cheadle.
Robbie has also recently published a poetry collection, Open a new door, together with fellow South African poet, Kim Blades.