Today’s guest blog post, on the topic of writing a family biography, is brought to you by non-fiction writer (of memoir and wine) and diplomatic mystery novelist William S Shepard.
A treasured family possession is my father’s notebook from World War One. He enlisted in the Signal Corps, U.S. Army, was on a July 1918 convoy to Great Britain from Halifax, and spent several months being assigned ever farther east until reaching his front line position in the American Sector at Mousson Hill, Meurthe-et-Moselle (Lorraine). The one date from his notebook that all the family knew was his entry for Armistice Day, as he described intercepting messages from both sides, and finally, the guns falling silent. But with the centennial approaching, perhaps it was time to look at the entire notebook, and see what it contained.
Let me interject that whoever spoke of the past as a different place was quite right. One needs a guide, for 1918 was a different world, and certainly, a different series of battles, than I had understood it to be. When that is understood, then the past can be unearthed on its own terms, not as we would have it. It took a number of stages before this notebook could be understood, let alone be published. Here are some of them.
Like giving up smoking, the essential first step is the determination to transcribe the notebook. It will fight you for weeks, pencil writings sometimes but not always done over in pen and ink. Small victories take place, and will be encouraging – when the writer’s slang or shorthand becomes familiar, for example. It also helped a great deal that I have lived in France, and understood many of father’s references. But the important thing at this early stage, having made the decision to transcribe the notebook, is – like ceasing to smoke – keeping at it through the inevitable difficulties.
There are allies, I discovered, as the work proceeds. An offhand reference to a fire at Halifax, for example, led me to google “Halifax fire”, and discover the cataclysmic explosion and fire that occurred in Halifax harbor in December 1917 – said to be the largest manmade explosion before the development of atomic weapons. Dad was transported across the North Atlantic in a 23-ship convoy, in the HMT Durham Castle, and I was able to find a period photograph of that very ship. Little by little, I had moved beyond transcribing, and was adding details that enriched the text for today’s reader – details that someone from 1918 would already have known, perhaps.
I did a lot of reading to get some context for the notebook. One recent author of a Doughboy history struck me as quite right, when he said that he had decided to write about officers, because enlisted men left out so many details, probably for security reasons, that officers included in their diaries or notebooks. That was quite true in my father’s case as well. However, some 55 years later, while recuperating from a heart attack, he reread his notebook and dictated several memoranda, adding details and depth. I then had this material as well, and included it with the notebook entries at the right dates. I also included information on Father’s whereabouts for each day, which became of particular interest when he and his Signal Corps company moved to the front.