Debut author and fellow Book Bounder, Rowena House, recently won a writing competition. The winning story was chosen to be published alongside some very well known YA authors in War Girls, which was published on the 5th of June. I am really pleased to welcome Rowena onto the blog to tell us all about how her story was chosen.
I’ll never forget the buzz in the lecture room at Bath Spa University when we learnt that Andersen Press was running a short story competition just for us - the Masters students in creative writing for young people.
The rules turned out to be simple: it had to be set during World War One, the main character had to be a girl, and the story had to be suitable for 11+ readers. The prize? Publication! I jumped at the chance, not only because I really wanted to be published, but also because I already had an idea for a story.
A few years earlier I’d seen a TV documentary about a terrible event that began at a British military camp in northern France. (I won’t say what because that’s the point of the story!) I immediate began wondering how a young French girl might have been caught up in this event.
Before I could begin, however, I had to give myself permission to write about a subject as appalling as World War One. After all, I wasn’t there so how could I possibly know what it was like? I was already researching the history of the war, but that wasn’t enough. I needed a closer, more personal connection. So I studied my grandfather’s diary from the Dardanelles, listened to veterans on the Imperial War Museum’s sound archive, and trawled the internet for letters and diaries. Then I took a copy of the complete works of Wilfred Owen to Étaples, the town where I knew my story had to end.
Owen’s war poems had upset me hugely when I read them at school, and they still colour my attitude to war today. Reading them again in streets where he walked, where soldiers and nurses dealt daily with death, and the townspeople heard heavy artillery pounding the Front: these things created an emotional bridge to the past, and allowed me to ‘become’ my main character, Angelique Lacroix, and to imagine how she would have felt coming to this town.
Her story starts hundreds of miles south of Étaples, deep in the countryside. She is a 14-year-old peasant girl who works hard, helping her mother run their small family farm. She’s already left school, and only meets her friends once a week when she takes their washing to the village lavoir - a big stone trough where all the local women do their laundry and gossip.
One day, the postman delivers fateful news: her father is dead, killed on a distant battlefield. After mass, Angelique makes herself a promise: the farm will remain exactly the same until her brother comes home from the Front. ‘I think of it like a magical spell. If I can stop time, if nothing ever changes, then maybe Pascal won’t change either.’ But a storm spoils their harvest, her mother falls sick, then the soldiers come ... As Angelique struggles across war-torn France, in a desperate bid to save her home and her brother’s inheritance, a new danger stirs - a danger more deadly than World War One.
When Andersen Press emailed to say my story had won the competition, and would I like to come to London to sign a contract and discuss edits, I felt so happy it was almost unreal, like an adrenalin rush of pure joy. It took several months to tighten the plot, copy edit and proof read, but then in the post came two copies of War Girls.
Tearful and excited, I opened the beautiful front cover and there it was: my story, The Marshalling of Angelique’s Geese, alongside tales from Anne Fine, Melvin Burgess, Theresa Breslin, Sally Nicholls and four other authors I very much admire. I felt tremendously proud, not just to see my name next to such amazing writers (which is, of course, fantastic) but also to think that each of our characters is a guide to one fragment of the great and terrible story of the ‘war to end all wars’.
What a beautiful and inspiring post!
The War Girls is available to buy right now.