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Past papers, present text

To mark World Book Day, Theresa Breslin will be talking about researching fact to write fiction, reports Denyse Presley

This year's World Book Day on Thursday, March 14, is described by its organisers as the biggest reading initiative in the UK and Ireland. Events here are being organised by the Scottish Book Trust, which is focusing on Edinburgh, though Scottish authors will visit schools and libraries all over the country.

One highlight of the day will be Theresa Breslin's appearance at the National War Museum of Scotland, in the grounds of Edinburgh Castle. Ms Breslin did much of her research for Remembrance (Doubleday), her latest novel for young adults, at the museum. She will give an illustrated talk to Gracemount High S2 pupils about how she did her research and will be joined by the museum's librarian, Edith Philip, who will demonstrate sources within the library which can be used for further study by schools.

"The library has not only books, but other documents and photo albums," says Ms Philip, "and the expertise of the museum staff is also on offer."

Remembrance is about five people from the same Scottish village who have different reasons for serving in the First World War. The book engages several themes, including class struggle, women's equality and politics.

One character in the novel, Maggie, starts out as a munitions worker but gives up her job when she becomes aware of the injuries munitions cause and becomes a nurse. As the character develops, her opinions change.

Much of Ms Breslin's research centred on personal letters and diaries. "I had no idea where to begin," she says, "so I started writing letters because when you study the lives of soldiers you realise that letters were a huge thing to them. They wrote and received letters every two days."

Sometimes Ms Breslin didn't know what she was looking for until Ms Philip brought it to her. She had already written part of the book when she came upon a key moment in her research.

"It was a medical textbook written after the war but based on accounts from it. It was an unemotional guide for doctors and nurses dealing with wounds."

Before the wounds were described came a raw insight into the armaments and how advanced they had become since the Boer War. There were very careful descriptions of the effects of bullets and shrapnel and how they drove through flesh. The damage was compounded by the moist soil that harboured infection-inducing organisms.

"They were losing more men to infection than to wounds," says Ms Breslin. "The guide was written in such a spare way it really chilled me. But it made me quite spare in the writing of the book."

The immensity of the war hit Ms Breslin on her research tour of the French and Belgian battlefields and memorials in late 2000. "When you actually see the huge loss, it's mind blowing," she says.

Some teenagers from Liverpool were also there. Shown the grave of a 15-year-old soldier, many laid down poppies. "They were so moved, and it occurred to me that they were about the age of these young soldiers," she says.

The idea for the World Book Day event at the National War Museum came about because Ms Breslin still has boxes of research material, including French magazines, British propoganda magazines, letters and her own photographs from her trip, she says. Other artefacts include a decorated tobacco box and tiny pieces of shrapnel. "It's a creative writing workshop using fact to make fiction," she says.

To find out more about using the National War Museum of Scotland library as a research resource, contact Edith Philip, tel 0131 225 7534For more World Book Day events see www.scottishbooktrust.com and www.worldbookday.com

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