Wednesday, 3 April 2013

"C": Crimea, Coldstream & Cardigan?




I'm Cynthia, also with a "C". I'm writing a book about The Crimean Conflict called "Coldstream". Oh, yes, and there's that Cardigan thing.

My novel began as something of a lark. A challenge from a friend about writing a "quick historical romance". Who know it would fit the AtoZ Blog Challenge Day #3 so well!

Back in 2002, when I first wrote the synopsis and then put it away (and lost the challenge) I knew nothing about The Crimean War (1853-1856). Now I'm a paid-up member in good standing of The Crimean War Research Society (CWRS) and devour every quarterly journal and monthly newsletter when it arrives.

Sometimes I wonder: What on earth prompted me to write about The Crimean War? And then I remember. It was simple: an article in that day's newspaper, probably commemorating a battle or a birth or a new statue being erected in London 'in honour of'. More likely, looking back, it was a story about a woman named Mary Seacole that may have caught my eye. 

So much for that  sage and trusted advice to "write what you know". I didn't. Like most people (and probably you included) I knew that the Crimean War was about Florence Nightingale (the Lady with the Lamp) and The Charge of the Light Brigade (made famous by Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem). 

My book is about neither of those things.

I wrote the first 50,000 words of the book I call "Coldstream" during NaNoWriMo 2010 and, in the ensuing 2+ years, the scope seemed to grow and grow as my knowledge grew and my interest to know more increased exponentially. It took a while for it to become an obsession but, eventually, I caved in and I admit it: it's an obsession.

Yes, I've learned a lot since then. More than a lot. Enough to pepper 165,000 words (and cutting) of very rough manuscript with detail and information about this most fascinating of conflicts. Enough to fill boxes and binders and desktop PC folders with more than anyone would ever want to know. Except me. And anyone else who comes across it and thinks, "How did I misss that one?"

The most important thing I learned along the way is that this was an important war--for a lot of reasons. Though it almost seems like 'the war world history forgot' in many respects, nestled there in some backwater of Europe on a time continuum between the Battle of Waterloo and the The First World War, it's not that at all. It's a fascinating piece of history that can still teach us lessons and broaden our understanding of other conflicts--even today.

Here, then, an incomplete list of reasons and facts which led me to conclude that the Crimean War is fascinating, interesting and important to history:

  • A major underlying political cause of the war was disagreement over who controlled Jerusalem (not much has changed, has it?)  Russia was willing to go to war against the Ottoman Empire; Britain, France and Sardinia jumped in to help the Turks. (Of course, it suited them to try and knock out Russia's Black Sea fleet as well...)
  • This was the first war with the media "embedded" on-site and sending reports back (via telegraph) instantly. (William Howard Russell, of the London Times, and others). Russell went on to cover the American Civil War as well.
  • It was the first major conflict to be photographed. Hundreds, if not thousands, of excellent images exist. (Roger Fenton and others). An interesting debate about one of Fenton's photographs was recently settled: the proof is here.
  • There are hundreds of untold stories of women in The Crimea which are fascinating and were virtually unknown until Helen Rapport Published No Place for Ladies: The Untold Story of Women in the Crimean War. The book was just re-leased on International Women's Day, March 7, and is available as an ePub, Kindle Version or as an Audible book. I have all three and it's a book about incredibly brave women which stands on its own, whatever your interest.
  • The Siege of Sebastopol--which is essentially what my book is centred on, was one of the classic sieges of all time, lasting 349 days.
  • The Siege was the subject of Russian soldier Leo Tolstoy's Sebastopol Sketches and the subject of the first Russian feature film, Defence of Sevastopol. (the Tolstoy book predates War and Peace and is fascinating--at least to me).
  • Sometimes referred to as one of the first "modern" wars, the Crimean War introduced technical changes which affected the future course of warfare, including the first tactical use of railways and the electric telegraph.  
  • Major medical advances--such as the use of chloroform, medical ambulances, sanitation as a means of disease control, surgical techniques and more--were first used on a wide scale (and would be used in the American Civil War, less than ten years later, and then the First World War.)
  • About 40 American doctors traveled to the Crimea and worked on the side of the Russians (against England, France and Turkey). Nearly all died of disease; some of the survivors served in the American Civil War as well.
  • The American gun manufacturers made lots of money--Colt and other American companies sold weapons to both the Russians and the Allies so that they could kill each other. (this really shocked me, no question about it)
  • There was also a "Charge of the Heavy Brigade" and Tennyson wrote a poem about that, too. (It never caught on the way the other one did). If you like poetry, it's an interesting comparison to the other.
  • And, finally, several articles of clothing we still wear and use today came to us from the Crimean War: the balaklava (as in Battle of Balakalva), the cardigan (Lord Cardigan) and the raglan sleeve (so called after Lord Raglan, who'd lost an arm in the Napoleanic Wars and had a specific sleeve designed).
Oh, yes, about Mary Seacole. Still a subject of controversy, she was important, too. While not as famous as Florence Nightingale, Seacole definitely has her own place in history and in the hearts of those who served in the Crimea. (AND a new statue in London, itself the subject of controversy). Helen Rappaport's book has wonderful information about her, too. Mary's also got a nice part in my book...Helen just gets my undying gratitude for so much help with the research!


  1. Wow, I am always impressed by people who know so much about history. It is one of my weak points so I will need to continue reading your blog!

    1. Thanks so much for your comment! Actually, I didn't know anything at all about the Crimean War when I began. I moved to England in 1999 and felt like I knew zero-zip-bada-zilch about European history. So it interested me and years later I set off to write a book--and then it kept growing on me. Now it's something of a passion... particularly as it pre-dated the American Civil War by just a few years and there were so many commonalities. Lovely to 'meet' you in the Challenge!

  2. Fascinating. History is also one of my weaker spots, but I enjoyed your post and the points you made for studying the Crimean War. (And I learned a lot!) I am reading Bird By Bird, a wry and funny book on writing by Anne Lamott, and she doesn't say to write what you know. She says to do research and ask people who know that subject, and really get to know your characters. Thanks for your comment on my site too! I'm hopping over from A to Z.

    1. Thanks, Coconut Girl! (still enjoying your "C" post when it pops into my head). I read Bird By Bird years ago but no longer have it--moves overseas cost books :-( --and you make me want it again. Every time I see a Lamott quote, I stop and think 'wow'. I find writing what you DON'T know an adventure, I guess. But, oh my, the rabbit holes I go down in the name of 'research' and then the day's shot and I still don't know which hat they wore into battle! THANK YOU!

  3. Kudos to you for attempting to write a historical novel! Whenever I read novels in this genre, I'm always impressed by how much detail and background story goes into it. Good luck with the A to Z!

    1. Thanks, Amelia. I always loved reading it and I totally enjoy research. But, oh my, it did grow! The A to Z is a challenge, but a good one. I actually posted a section of a chapter today. I put my big girl pants on and just got over my numbing fear of writing dialogue! Cheers and thanks again.

  4. This is a lovely, unusual article, thanks for sharing Cynthia! I far prefer to learn my history in this way, and I too have an interest in the role of women throughout the ages. It is only recently that I have begun to see the influence they held behind 'their men' and it leaves me with a burning desire to write a historical novel of my own one day (when I find time to do the appropriate research!)

    1. Thanks,'s post has some information on swans in England AND what the Romans called the longest river in England. Small stuff but, still fun.

      I hope you find your way to writing your historical novel one day. I love the process, I really do. It's like solving puzzle after puzzle and discovering things you didn't even know existed--and they're true!

      I totally recommend the Rappaport book for an interesting read, whatever your interest if you like reading history. Definitely impressive women to inspire us all.