I was writing a book.
The War Nurses was a fictionalised story of the lives of two incredible real-life women. Elsie Knocker was a motorcyclist- nurse, a dare-devil mother. She and her friend, Mairi Chisholm, were the only women given permission to serve on the Western Front during The First World War. They moved to a ruined cellar in a village in Pervyse, Belgium, where they supported the British and Belgian troops. They had to financially support themselves which they did by fundraising and selling their stories. They were the most photographed women of their day. I was pleased with the way my story was going but I was worried it lacked ‘magic’, that elusive je ne sais quoi.
Then two things happened: one, I got a dog. My daughter has been desperate for a dog for years and we eventually succumbed. After all, I was at home all day, writing: our situation could never be better for having a dog. We got a gorgeous Cockapoo puppy, named him Lenny after my late father, and that was that.
Two, I realised that my two women, the war nurses, had a dog. I mean, I always knew they had taken in a stray dog (or two), but I didn’t properly realise it until I had a dog of my own. It’s like if you get pregnant, you suddenly see pregnant women everywhere. So I had been writing, writing, writing about the War Nurses, when I woke up to the fact that hey, actually I’ve got another key character here: I’d better throw him a couple of bones/lines, too.
Actually, I threw him more than a couple of bones. Just as Lenny became integral to our family, their dog, Shot, became integral to the story. Dogs were integral to First World War. They served as sentry dogs, warning if they sensed danger. They served as messengers through the complicated trenches, and they served as casualty dogs – trained to find the wounded or stay beside the dying on the battlefield.
I rewrote several chapters to include the War Nurses’ dog. I loved those chapters! I developed minor characters: characters who previously had no distinguishing features suddenly became alive – there were the ones who liked the dog, there were the ones who the dog liked. There was the one who was allergic. Because of Lenny, my Lenny, I was able to give their dog, Shot colour and flavour. He soon had his own personality.
You’ll have to read The War Nurses to find out what happened to dear Shot, but I can tell you about Lenny […] He sits on my lap as I write the other books of the War Nurse trilogy. There is magic there. It’s almost as if he knows he has helped inspire it.
Just as our dog Lenny likes digging and then filling holes in my garden, so Shot filled up the plot-holes in the book. Some scenes that I had been struggling to write, now became a dream to write. Shot was the answer to lots of my questions:
- In one scene, the dog visits the soldiers in the trenches but then has a terrible fright and runs for it. Mairi saves Shot, but Elsie is furious that Mairi has risked her own life. I loved this because it showed the growing cracks in Mairi and Elsie’s relationship.
- In another scene, someone (accidentally) shoots at the dog and this showed how some soldiers were cracking up with pressure.
- In a very important scene, Shot saves the War Nurses by waking them up during a gas attack on the cellar house. This one was very hard to write.
You’ll have to read The War Nurses to find out what happened to dear Shot, but I can tell you about Lenny: he sleeps beautifully, (except for that one horrible night he managed to get hold of my daughter’s putty). He proudly walks the children to school and proudly walks them home again. He enjoys his trips to the park and the beach where he walks on the sea-wall. He sits on my lap as I write the other books of the War Nurse trilogy. There is magic there. It’s almost as if he knows he has helped inspire it.