Posts Tagged ‘writing process’

The Lives of Fallen Soldiers: Writing the Biographies for Going Down of the Sun

by Philip G. Winkelaar



“I made an appointment with the niece I’d been told about, and was rewarded with tea and some family stories. It turned out that she had documentary evidence in the form of letters — from the deceased and his brothers, who had also served. In that moment I realized I could — in fact should — dig deeper.”


For years I hardly noticed the brass plaques on the walls of my church that list the people who volunteered and those who died in the two world wars. Except, that is, on Remembrance Sunday, when we have a special ceremony at which the names of the dead are read out and a minute of silence observed. The sounding of the Last Post or the piper playing a lament always moves me.

One year, after that solemn service, as I contemplated the nine names on the World War I plaque, a woman pointed to one and said, “That man’s niece lives across the lane from me.” I looked at her, and at the plaque, and recalled a recent newspaper article about the volunteer refurbishment of that soldier’s grave in England, nearly a century after his death.

In my career as a family doctor, I was continually reminded that one person’s illness affects many others — the family and friends, employers and co-workers. So, of course, must the deaths of these soldiers have affected those around them — why else would the members of the Knox Presbyterian Church congregation have spent effort and funds to place these memorials? That led me to ask other questions: What were the people like — were they destined to be heroes, or were they ordinary people? What kind of family did they have? How did they grow up? Since they were all members of the church, should I assume that they were all paragons of virtue? I had served briefly in the armed forces, and knew how unlikely that scenario was!

I had visited military cemeteries in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, and knew that during both world wars soldiers were buried in the land where they were killed. Their bodies were not brought back to Canada, as they are now. So I asked myself, where are their graves? And how did they die? Were they all killed in action? Were some of the deaths due to so-called “friendly fire”? Did some die in accidents? Throughout history, deaths in time of war have as often been due to disease as to wounds. Was that true of some of these men?

I decided to delve into these questions first by reviewing the newspaper article about the grave rehabilitation. I made an appointment with the soldier’s niece I’d been told about, and was rewarded with tea and some family stories. It turned out that she had documentary evidence in the form of letters — from the deceased and his brothers, who had also served. In that moment I realized I could — in fact should — dig deeper.

My research started with church records. Some were held at the church itself and others in the City of Ottawa Archives. The soldiers’ service records are held by Library and Archives Canada. Many of them have now been digitized and are online.

With so many records available, I realized that I didn’t need to restrict my investigations. I could expand these to include all the soldiers on the plaque. City directories revealed the neighbourhoods where they grew up, and the occupations they (or in most cases their parents) pursued. was another source of information, as were birth, marriage, and death records, all of these giving insight into family backgrounds.

School records from a century ago have largely disappeared, but if you don’t shoot you can’t score, so I tried all the sources I could think of and was rewarded with data that allowed me to visualize not only the young men as students but also their school environments, which were quite different from that I was familiar with and even more changed today.

Regimental histories, written years or decades later, can paint a picture of the events of battle and the conditions the men faced. Regimental war diaries were written within hours or days of events, and although sadly clinical and short, they also illuminate the actions.

Veterans Affairs Canada maintains a website devoted to remembrance, called the Virtual War Memorial. This site has additional information, and some photos, provided by interested parties.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is responsible for maintaining all overseas war graves (an exception was the one being refurbished) and gives basic information about the location of cemeteries and details of the location of individual graves. Photos of the graveyards reveal the serenity in which the fallen now lie.

Admittedly the mass of information was intimidating. I stumbled on contradictions between sources, which had to be resolved, and I had to sort out the relevant from the merely interesting. The latter created rabbit holes into which one could dive, emerging hours later with anecdotes entirely unrelated to the matter at hand.

I began by writing brief outlines of each of the men on the plaque. I then refined these. On the basis of some good editorial advice and criticism, I realized that the backstory I found fascinating had to wait until I had presented the individual, and that some of what I found interesting was likely to be boring to a reader.

A major challenge cropped up – I knew not every soldier was without failings, some failings, though, might be more sensitive than others. Should I reveal those? Then I had to ask myself, was this to be a hagiography or a true story? Ultimately I opted for the latter; though I knew I risked being accused of blackening someone’s memory, I declined to whitewash it.

Next, since I was dealing with nine individuals, I had to decide the sequence in which to present them. Age? Date of enlistment into the army? Date of death? Alphabetically? Or something else? I finally decided to order them as they appear on the plaque. The church members must have put some thought into the order. Who am I to gainsay their decision?

Two brothers were among those who died — should their stories be told together, or separately? Because a single event can affect individuals differently, it seemed to me it would be unfair to one or the other to combine them, so I had to decide how much needed to be repeated in both stories.

The same question came up when dealing with men in the service who had experienced the same events – they were individuals, each seeing the event from their own point of view, so there was bound to be a certain amount of repetition. The same was true of school events. Ottawa was a small city, and many of the volunteers went to the same schools at the same time. And, of course, many of them attended the church and Sunday school together. Did they have other common threads?

I belong to a writers’ group, and I presented my stories there. Based on others’ response and advice, I revised each of the profiles. Again. And again. I sought advice at a writers’ retreat — and revised everything again. I sought affirmation from my spouse — and revised some more.

I chose a title. Going Down of the Sun is a phrase from the “Ode of Remembrance,” taken from Laurence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen,” first published in The Times of London in September 1914.

Perfection will always elude a writer. But the centenary of the 1918 armistice takes place this year, and I had researched and written the stories for all those who died in the Great War, 1914 to 1918. What could be a more appropriate time to make their lives known once again? So I went ahead and published my little book, finding my own printer and paying for it myself. I was so immersed in the writing and rewriting that I gave no thought to finding a sponsor, nor even to the issues of marketing. I did send the manuscript to an eminent military historian, Tim Cook, for comments. I was gratified that he had the time to read it and in fact reward the work that had gone into the book with genuine praise.

I finished it. I am proud of what I did. I am happy, and my wife now sees me again. But I find myself looking forward to 2020, the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, knowing that the men commemorated on another plaque also deserve to have their lives chronicled.

That will keep me out of trouble.

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PHILIP G. WINKELAAR’s career as a family doctor spanned nearly forty years. For fifteen of those he served in the Canadian Armed Forces, regular and reserve. He has always been interested in learning about people and hearing their life stories. Retirement gave him the opportunity to delve more deeply into those experiences. A lifelong Presbyterian, he is also an elder at Knox Presbyterian Church in Ottawa, where he lives with his wife Linda.

♦     ♦     ♦

The Launch!

The launch for Going Down of the Sun will take place at Knox Presbyterian Church, 227 Elgin Street, Ottawa, 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, November 4, the beginning of Remembrance Week, in honour of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

To purchase a copy ($22.95 plus mailing), please contact the author at

Friday, November 2nd, 2018

She Writes, Indeed, an essay by Suzanne Adam


Suzanne Adam and I met in 2010, while I was leading writing workshops at Los Parronales Writers’ Retreat in Santiago, Chile. I was a structural editor for her first memoir, Marrying Santiago, which was later awarded the 2016 Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award. Suzanne, a member of the long-running Santiago Writers, is about to release her second book, a collection of personal essays. She shares her editing process and pre-publication experience here.


I read and reread my manuscript and am satisfied. It is ready. Time to make the big leap . . . Or is it?

As I read the text yet again, doubts flood me. I’ve read it so often that it sounds flat to me. Will readers actually find engaging this mixed bag of expanded blog posts, travel pieces, and musings from my past? Will a publisher be interested?

There is only one way to find out.

A friend of a friend recommends She Writes Press. I check out their website. It’s a hybrid press (author and publisher share expenses), designed to give more opportunities to women writers. That’s for me. Copy. Attach. Send.

Days later, the publisher’s name appears in my email inbox. She’s accepted my manuscript, Notes from the Bottom of the World, A Life in Chile! Then I read on. My manuscript needs work, she writes, and she assigns me to Annie, an independent editor.

Weekly thirty-minute Skype sessions with Annie are equivalent to a semester in creative writing. We first tackle structure for this essay collection, written over the past three or four years. Picking the first and last piece is easy, as is arranging the essays in chronological order. I’m filled with satisfaction when themes and chapter titles reveal themselves to me bit by bit. I cut up colored index cards, big pieces for chapter titles and smaller ones with essay titles, and set them out on the floor to organize. It’s like a game. I move the cards back and forth and gradually see my book taking shape.

In addition to perfecting my writing skills, I must become a saleswoman. It doesn’t come naturally to me.  I dread facing this aspect of publishing but also see it as a challenge. I can do it! Sales hook, book description, selling points, target audience, biography, key words for Amazon searches, and endorsements. To my surprise I find learning these new tasks enjoyable, as is working on the book cover with the SWP designer. What a sense of satisfaction when we get the cover just right.

Do I need a publicist? Posts on the Fall 2018 She Writes Press Authors Facebook page convince me that I do. The cost of hiring a publicist makes me reluctant, but living overseas I recognize that I will need help if I want to reach a wider public through book talks, news articles, and podcasts. I find Isabella, a local publicist in the San Francisco Bay Area where I plan to spend a month at the time of my book’s publication. Isabella is guiding me through this daunting marketing process. Enthusiastic, she reassures me when I express worry about public presentations. People will want to get to know you, the person behind the words, she says. She has excellent contacts at libraries, clubs, and bookstores. I am even scheduled for a book talk and signing at my favorite independent bookstore, Book Passage, where I’ve attended author talks over the years. A dream come true.

Isabella is planning more activities as we get closer to my November 6 publication date. I must also advertise on Facebook and send out emails to friends and acquaintances. Advance Reading Copies (ARCs), which will look just like the published book, will be sent to me and my publicist within two months, and Isabella will distribute copies to reviewers.

I’ve spent years bending over a computer, dog-earring my thesaurus, jotting down ideas before I forget, and editing, editing, editing. And now, the publication wheels are in motion. This waiting time brings a mix of excitement and nervousness. And my mind spins with questions: Will I get decent turnouts at my book talks? Can I deliver a compelling talk? (This is something I’m reading up on now.) What will the reviews say?

Whatever the next few months bring, I’m ready. I have to be. And most amazing of all, I’ll soon hold my second book in my hands.


§     §     §

SUZANNE ADAM grew up northern California. After graduating from UC Berkeley, she served in the Peace Corps in Colombia before moving to Santiago, Chile in 1972 to marry Santiago. She explores how this experience shaped her life in her 2015 memoir Marrying Santiago, published under the imprint of Peace Corps Writers. Her new book, Notes from the Bottom of the World: A Life in Chile, will be available on November 6, 2018.

She admits to being a tree-hugger, avid reader, nature writer, friend to stray dogs and cats, gardener, CNN news junkie, bird watcher, lover of storms and laughter, and doting granny. Before turning to writing, she worked as a teacher of learning disabled children. A member of Santiago Writers, she has published essays in The Christian Science Monitor, California Magazine, Marin Independent Journal, Nature Writing, and Persimmon Tree. She blogs at Tarweed Spirit.

Both Notes from the Bottom of the World, A Life in Chile and Marrying Santiago can be purchased from



Tuesday, September 11th, 2018

“C” Fundamental (a process): guest post on writing by Carin Makuz

For years I begged my parents for ballet lessons or maybe tap or please please please could I join the Brownies … the girl down the street knew how to twirl a baton, she took majorette lessons, could I take majorette lessons … any lessons?

Yes, they said. I could study the accordion.

We happened to have a full-size one in the hall closet. How handy.

My only experience of it at that point involved a vague memory of watching the bellows expand and contract one Christmas as my older sister oom-pah-pahed her way through “Silent Night” and the cat peed on the royal-blue velvet lining of the carrying case.

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Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013