Fieldnotes: the Great War in Where Oblivion Lives

It's been a while since I've given you some Fieldnotes, so I thought I'd show you a quick one. Some of the most dramatic moments in Where Oblivion Lives come from Diago's flashbacks to battles of the Great War, which was how World War I was known during the 1930s.

During my early research, I came across the following account by Private Wilf Wallworth from the South Lancashire Regiment:

There was a little tramway up the back of the bank leading up to the Bluff trenches. You couldn't be seen by the Germans there, but they had it taped. For a while it was my job to take up ammunition, water, supplies, food and that, to a place just behind the trenches where it would be unloaded. This was at night of course.

For the return trip they put bodies on the trolley -- men who had gone west that day I suppose. I hated the homeward journey. I don't know why because I must have seen thousands of dead men, dead horses, mules, by then, and I was properly hardened to it. But pushing the tram back . . . well, I wasn't comfortable.

You had shells and mortars and starshells going off regular, and in the flashes, especially the starshells which burned for a bit, I couldn't stop myself looking at my load. I didn't want to, but I was drawn to it. The track was uneven and wobbly, and it looked like they were moving, coming back to life. It made my skin creep, but I just couldn't keep my eyes off them when the lights went up.

Everything in that war was down to luck. Although Minnies landed pretty close a few times -- a hell of a crash, they made -- and shook us about a bit, they never got me, and I never had anyone [a body] tumble off; I think I would have left him there for someone else if I did. I had been told of other blokes and their load just disappearing; just a smoking hole there in the morning.

Funny what your mind does. If I hadn't been alone it wouldn't have been so bad, I suppose. It probably sounds ridiculous [to you], but my obsession with looking at those lads -- who couldn't do me no harm, could they -- took away the fear of the shelling.

--The Battlefields of the First World War by Peter Barton

That image--of a soldier wheeling bodies away from the battlefield--remained with me as I worked on the early drafts of Where Oblivion Lives. The scenes took several forms until the final draft, where it's been trimmed and polished to be seen in Diago's first nightmare scene.

In this excerpt, Guillermo's wife, Juanita, who is an angel and Los Nefilim's doctor, has persuaded Diago to let her hypnotize him. They dream his dream together:

“This is similar to hypnosis,” Juanita murmured. “I will take you down into sleep by adjusting my voice until I find the vibrations that best affect your brainwaves.” Her timbre changed as she elucidated through one set of vocalizations and then another. Diago could tell by the subtle variations that she utilized all three sets of her vocal cords. “When I find the correct pitch, you will begin to dream, and then I will follow you into your subconscious. Now close your eyes.”

It wasn’t hard to obey her.

“Think about the music you hear when you sleep. Try and conjure the song.”

Engulfed by darkness, he listened. Silence met him, as deep and impregnable as the void. Then, from faraway, he caught the first isolated notes of the violin. It was his Stradivarius.

Louder now, as if sensing his presence, the music drew near. The bow attacked the strings (Diago recalled making those quick jabs: strike, strike, strike, followed by a smooth pull) before slurring the chords into decay. The intro descended into pallid notes, gray and soft like fog (no, the smell of cordite is strong in the air . . . it is not fog but smoke) drifting over the muddy ground.

The dream solidified, taking him deeper into his subconscious. The faint outline of a château appeared behind broken (burned) trees, shrouded in fog . . .

“Smoke,” Juanita whispered.

Smoke.

The song’s tempo slowed to become a dirge. Diago walked the scorched field. Lumps of clay (bodies) littered the ground. In the distance came the steady percussion of drums (bombs), shaking the earth with furious thunder.

Squinting through the smoke, he perceived a shadowy figure pushing a tram filled with corpses. The arms and legs trembled as the wheels jittered along on the hastily laid tracks of war. One hand opened to release a silver disc that sank into the mud.

Then the bow resumed its attack and punch against the strings (quick jabs: strike, strike, strike) and the night came down and the world went black and silence descended quick and hard, like the stillness that follows the falling of a bomb.

Diago opened his eyes. His heart pounded and for one wild moment, he thought of Guillermo’s Creed Model 7, churning out messages in staccato beats. He became aware of Juanita’s strong hands, pinning his shoulders to the cushions.

This is the first foray into what Juanita refers to as Diago's "prolonged battle stress," because during the 1930s it wasn't called PTSD, but rather battle fatigue or shell-shock. In the original draft, Diago never spoke of his experiences in the trenches, and probably wouldn't have, but my editor placed a sentence in Diago's mouth that ignited my imagination.

In that first draft, Diago didn't have the second flashback. Juanita asked him if anything else noteworthy happened, and Diago blew off her question. Then my editor had Diago answer her by inserting a single sentence into Diago's mouth: "You mean other than all the killing?"

And I realized I'd missed a huge opportunity with both the scene and the novel. So I went a little deeper into my character's psyche and the result was a much stronger scene that set the stage for everything that follows:

Juanita touched his shoulder. “It’s not unusual to be tormented by past engagements. Nefilim suffer from prolonged battle stress just as mortals do. Did anything noteworthy happen during that fight?”

“Noteworthy,” he repeated dully while rubbing his forehead. He found it hard to keep venom from seeping into his words as he answered her question. “Aside from the sheer magnitude of the death toll?” A sudden image flashed through his mind: huddling in a trench as shells exploded around them. Cold and wet and eaten alive by lice, he’d shut his eyes against the mud falling like rain and when he opened them again, someone’s scalp landed at his feet . . .

“Diago?”

He jerked himself free of the memory, uncomfortably aware of his clammy palms. “I don’t know what you want from me, Juanita. After so many days of battle, they all seemed the same.” A never-ending misery.

And that, my friends, is the story of how a tram full of corpses and Diago's PTSD became a huge part of Where Oblivion Lives.

(Obligatory book plug: you can preorder it here: Amazon | B&N | Books-A-Million | HarperCollins | IndieBound or add it to your Goodreads list)