Yesterday, after a few months of intensive work, I typed The End. Cause for celebration, but it isn't really the end. Maybe it's the end of the beginning. I'm writing a book called The Last Lancer about my grandfather, his milieu, his family and what became of them. It's a real family saga, a labour of love and it has been extraordinarily difficult and painful to write.
The research has taken years. I did some of it decades ago, stopped, started again, stopped again. Then, during lockdown I organised my previous research: documents, pictures, photocopies, books, emails, translations, letters. Found out where the gaps in my knowledge were. Did more research. Was helped along the way by a few wonderful Polish people whose generosity with their time and expertise is beyond price.
Two factors were also important. All of the main protagonists in this story are dead. Some of it is so very personal that I doubt if I could have done full justice to it while, for example, my father was still alive. His voice is in the book because he wrote down so much for me before he died. I have wished time and again that he was still here, so that I could ask him about all kinds of things, but still, it would have been difficult to write about times that must have been painful for him, events he had tried hard to forget.
About six months ago, I started writing the book in earnest. I've finished the first draft. Now, the long revision process begins.
I almost wrote 'real work' instead of 'revision process' there. But I've done the real slog. Revising is hard, intensive work, but I love it. Once I have the first draft on screen, everything becomes a lot less difficult for me. Now, I can 'see' the whole thing, I know where where the problems are and where I'm going. I write to find out and that's why the first draft is so often like pulling teeth, especially in a piece of complicated reflective historical non fiction like this, and perhaps especially so when the historical aspects are very personal.
I thought writing my previous book of this kind, A Proper Person to be Detained, was difficult, and it was. But The Last Lancer is a whole other order of difficulty. And real, heartrending sadness.