Writing Theatres of War

I had often dreamt about writing a novel but had only managed an occasional first draft of a short story. However, as the prospect of retirement beckoned, the desire to write grew stronger. And when I found an impelling story I couldn't wait to start writing.

I had read about the re-opening of the San Carlo theatre in Naples during the war (see Theatres of War - Background) and had also learnt about the misery of the fighting at Monte Cassino. Both stories moved me intensely and these feelings were heightened by the contrast between events that were happening only fifty miles apart. For a long time this disparity simmered at the back of my mind. Then, unbidden, came the idea of a young woman linked to two soldiers: one fighting at Cassino; the other running a theatre in Naples.

Now I was determined to write this story. I briefly toyed with the idea of taking a creative writing course but as a novice I feared being too much influenced by the professionals. So displaying a heady mix of over-confidence and naivety I decided to learn how to write a novel by writing one.  

I went to Italy frequently (including memorable visits to Monte Cassino and Naples) and read extensively about the war in Italy. I thought a lot about my characters and their backgrounds and quickly realised that the story started in Egypt so I extended my research to cover the Desert War.

It took a year to complete the research and prepare an outline of the story. Finally in March 2007 I sat down at the keyboard and started writing. I wanted the focus of the story to be in Italy so I started in Naples, which I remembered from my visit in the 1950s. But the words came painfully slowly as I tried to get each sentence exactly right. For several days I struggled on, feeling less and less inspired.

In frustration I abandoned the computer and picked up a pen. Ideas began to flow. I scribbled them down not worrying about the scrappy writing or the gaps or contradictions. If I couldn't find the words I simply inserted square brackets and moved on. I felt unshackled and it wasn't long before I'd completed a first chapter. Only then did I return to the keyboard and transcribe what I'd written. Except that it was more than transcription as I corrected the myriad errors, adding or subtracting words and phrases and filling in the square brackets. This became the pattern for the whole novel, which was first written in longhand and then typed and edited on the computer.

After 14 months I had produced an entire novel. However, it was much too long. It started in Naples in October 1943, then went back to January 1942 in Egypt and progressed in a straight line through to the end of the Desert War and then back to Italy. The discovery of the theatre came only half way through the story, after which events moved quickly through to the ending in May 1944. Nonetheless I was very pleased; I had written a novel. I knew it needed polishing but at least I had proved I could do it.

I then embarked on an extensive process of review with guidance from a freelance editor. I restructured and rewrote the novel completely - more than once. And it was only after six years and umpteen drafts that I felt I had a finished novel. And Troubador published it in September 2013 - in time for the 70th anniversary of the landings in Italy. 

 © rjjhall 2014