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It’s a media given that in the end you have to abandon the facts - possibly even begin by abandoning the facts - to make good drama.
This may well be true, but I don’t have the urge to invent units and people very much - it just seems disrespectful and a bit wet. I mean, three-quarters of a million men died, couldn’t we just make a bit more of an effort?
The challenge for me as a writer, then, was to find a way to do it accurately that suited me right.
So what I’ve done is drill down past the textbooks and into the memoirs and War Diaries to find real incidents in which our characters can take part - these are the War Diaries written on the spot by real units in real places on real days.
Our characters are legitimately there, taking part in incidents that really happened. As the Jungle Brothers once sang "they play in the rain but they don't get wet". That is, they are there but the historical record just doesn’t get round to mentioning them. There are even examples where History has never been able to work out how something happened - well, it was our blokes who did it. Mystery solved.
And it is not just War Diaries. For example, some of our characters were in real Russian field ambulances - they just didn't get mentioned by the Englishwoman who was there when she wrote her reminiscences. You get the idea.
Another device I'm using is that of the 'attached' soldier, that is, someone who is temporarily with a unit and therefore doesn't show up on their roll. You'll hear this a lot with our officer characters, and it is always in the backstories we write, even if it gets cut for time from the broadcast version. Other ranks are rarely listed, so that sorts that one out before we've started.
I think this method is robust and dignified. The place where it grinds to a halt is in the area of deaths and the listing of such people by the CWGC. But I feel that's a trade-off I'd prefer to the made-up '1st Batt Loamshires' of the past.
Sadly using all-real people was never an option because the research time would have been prohibitive.
I find this sort of history far more compelling. It is trickier to write, but what the hey, it’d be tricky anyway. Let’s bash the truth and see what comes out.