Saturday, 29 October 2016

Katrina Kirkwood explains why she chose creative nonfiction to tell the tale of a real life WW1 heroine

When I was a teenager, I inherited my Grandmother Isabella’s medical instruments and a strange string of beads. Nobody knew their true story, because Isabella had chosen not to tell, but a rumour remained. As I ran the cold glassiness of the beads over my hands, I would wonder. Was it true that she had served as a doctor during WW1? Had these beads really been given to her by a grateful German prisoner of war? Imagining some wounded hero falling for Isabella and her stethoscope in a romance that smashed through enemy lines, I promised myself that, sometime, I would find out the truth.

Decades later, I dredged up my skills as a research scientist and began my quest. Isabella had left so little evidence that I was thrilled when she turned up in Edinburgh, even more so when she materialised in the Imperial War Museum, and in the Wellcome Library, my astonished whoop disturbed all the other researchers.

Then, one day, the excitement was over. The research was done. My friends were intrigued by the tale: it had a classic narrative arc and it was so unusual that it deserved a place in the WW1 commemorations. But how was I to write it up? I had long since deserted science in favour of art and storytelling, and years spent helping people in the Welsh valleys tell their own tales had made me obsessive about how stories were told. Worthy accounts that killed fascinating lives by merely presenting a cautious list of facts drove me mad.

Idealistically, I wanted readers to be able to slip themselves into my grandmother’s high-heeled button-boots and race through the pages. I wanted people who would never have considered reading a book about a WW1 woman doctor to find themselves gripped.

Isabella relaxing at a hospital on Malta during the First World War
Should I try fiction? Certainly not - the most important thing about this story was that it was true. I spotted a course at Ty Newydd in North Wales: Creative nonfiction. Curious, I booked in. And found the logical solution to my conundrum. Giving myself a working definition - ‘Nonfiction written as engagingly as a novel’ - I tried it out.

It was hard, even harder than writing up a Ph.D. thesis. Using the fiction-writer’s devices to capture the truth without losing historical accuracy, introducing bias or committing any other punishable academic crime made every word a challenge. But there were rewards: a diary enabled me to feel each day of Isabella’s life in a French hospital in 1915, an information gap tossed me into the world of ancient questionnaires, and letters scribbled in the gloriously imperial accent of the time gave voices to important characters, allowing dialogue to break up the prose.

But one worry remained: without access to Isabella’s feelings, was the book doomed to be dry, however much I tried to make the prose live? I started thinking about two books I had loved: Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time and Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes. It was not their conclusions that had kept me reading, it was their descriptions of how they had reached those conclusions - their detective work - that had made both those books unputdownable.

I was tempted - people liked detective tales. That showed in the audience ratings for Saturday night thrillers. I made my choice. Like de Waal and Tey, I decided to relish letting the joys and frustrations of sleuthing become part of the tale, as they really had been from the moment when I began to investigate until the dramatic end, when the solution to the mystery of Isabella’s beads had finally revealed itself and I had discovered the identity of their donor. But of course, I cannot tell whether the book has done what I wanted - only readers can decide that.


The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads: A Woman Doctor in WW1, published by Loke Press, is available on Amazon and by order from all good bookshops. The Ebook is available for seven days at a reduced price especially to readers of this blog. Click here for the link. And, if you enjoy the book, then please post a review on Amazon about it too.


Katrina Kirkwood@kkstories, a former medical research scientist with a passion for stories, is Doctor Isabella Stenhouse’s granddaughter. Equipped with two science degrees and an art degree, she spent many years helping people in the South Wales valleys turn their stories into mini-films before embarking on her quest to solve the mystery of Isabella and her beads. An evening class in Cardiff and a course at Ty Newydd got her started, while mentoring by The Literary Consultancy helped her bring Isabella together. Following features about Isabella on the BBC Antiques Roadshow, in national newspapers, and on local radio and television, Katrina has been invited to write about her grandmother for numerous magazines and blogs. She moved to Norwich last year.

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