Raw Literature: Writing with Mother

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at CarrotRanch.com. She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

May 15, 2018

By Robbie Cheadle

About mid last year, my Mother and I decided we should write the story of her growing up during the Second World War in the small town of Bungay in East Anglia, Britain.

I had listened to my Mother’s childhood stories for my whole life. I thought her tales of chamber pots and an outhouse, food, coal and clothing rationing, icicles inside the scullery windows, washing using a copper tub and a mangle and children being sewn into their vests called stays, were very interesting. The additional overlay of war conditions only added to the excitement as she spoke of buzz bombs that suddenly dropped out of the sky, wreaking devastation on the area below, American soldiers billeted in canvas tents on the common, and the family hiding in bomb shelters during air raids.

I thought my Mother’s story was interesting enough to warrant writing down and I also thought it would be a good way of preserving some of the histories of life in a small English village during WWII and allowing people, especially children, to gain knowledge of the hardships experienced by people living through a war. My rather optimistic reasoning was that if children were made aware of the horrors and hardships of war, they would be more inclined to ensure such a state of affairs never occurs again.

Mother and I embarked on this interesting journey of writing down her history. Initially, I wrote a series of essays based on her different life experiences. These essays were not in any particular order but were written more as she remembered and thought about different events and happenings in her early life. My Mother was only one year old when the war broke out in 1939 and six and a half years old when the war in Europe ended on 8 May 1945. The idea was that we would write the basic information and order and edit it afterward. This process of writing essays took from May until November 2017. Once the basic writing was done, I put the various pieces together and ordered them in a way I thought was appropriate.

We went on holiday for four days after Christmas and my Mother, and I spent a couple of hours a day editing the manuscript and adding pieces of information. It was quite amazing to me how my Mother kept remembering new things as we went through the draft book. The manuscript grew by approximately 3,000 words during those few days. Writing with my Mother was not all plain sailing. She had very exacting ideas about how the story had to be written, and she didn’t want anything that wasn’t “entirely” true included. In other words, it had to be written exactly as it happened and no minor poetic license was to be applied.

At that point, we had a fairly good draft, and I turned my attention to creating the illustrations out of fondant. We had discussed illustrations, and we both thought that keeping to my usual style of fondant figures for the new book was a good idea. We also agreed on the inclusion of a few of our family recipes that were appropriate for the time period and style of the book.

By March 2018 the new book was in a sufficiently good form for me to send it to a few proof-readers/editors. I received good feedback from all three, but Charli gave me two great pieces of advice.

The first was to include dialogue in the manuscript. Strangely, I had included very little dialogue. I am used to writing non-fiction publications on investment in Africa which don’t need to include any “warmer” tones. My Mother had said she thought I needed to make it “warmer” but she wasn’t able to explain what she thought I should do so when Charli mentioned including dialogue I understood what she meant immediately.

The other great idea Charli gave me was to include a timeline of the events of WWII as they pertained to Britain and to overlay my Mother’s childhood over this timeline. This was a stroke of genius as far as I was concerned. I created a detailed timeline, and this led to my including all sorts of additional titbits of historical information. As the advice came from an editor, my Mother was then willing to accept a bit of poetic license so long as I didn’t stray too far from the facts. An editor, of course, must know far more about book writing than me. Letting an older sibling do something which she had done when she was older but which fitted nicely in at a certain point in the story became acceptable.

We are now nearly at the end of the re-write and editing which has actually resulted in me revising most of the original ordering of the book, and I am very happy with it. We are hoping to finalize the manuscript for a final proofing by the end of May.

It has been a wonderful journey of discovery with my Mother, and I have enjoyed it so much we are talking about writing another two books to cover the next two phases of her life. The gradual changes that took place in England after the war and her decision to come out to South Africa.

***

Robbie Cheadle was born in London in the United Kingdom. Her father died when she was three months old, and her mother immigrated to South Africa with her tiny baby girl. Robbie has lived in Johannesburg, George and Cape Town in South Africa and attended fourteen different schools. This gave her lots of opportunities to meet new people and learn lots of social skills as she was frequently “the new girl.”

Robbie is a qualified Chartered Accountant and specialises in corporate finance with a specific interest in listed entities and stock markets. Robbie has written a number of publications on listing equities and debt instruments in Africa and foreign direct investment into Africa.

Robbie is married to Terence Cheadle, and they have two lovely boys, Gregory and Michael. Michael (aged 11) is the co-author of the Sir Chocolate series of books and attends school in Johannesburg. Gregory (aged 14) is an avid reader and assists Robbie and Michael with filming and editing their YouTube videos and editing their books. Robbie is also the author of the new Silly Willy series the first of which, Silly Willy goes to Cape Town, will be available in early July 2017.

<<?>>

Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at wordsforpeople@gmail.com.

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111 Comments

  1. Ritu

    Wonderful piece Robbie! I am looking forward to reading this when it’s finished!

    • robbiesinspiration

      Thank you, Ritu. At this point, I am looking forward to finishing it!

      • Ritu

        Bless You!

  2. Charli Mills

    It’s full of great details about a side of life not often covered in the WWII era. I think it’s amazing that you worked on developing this book with your mother, and honoring her vision for it. Thanks for sharing your work here, Robbie!

    • robbiesinspiration

      It is my pleasure, Charli. We are delighted to feature here. I showed my mom and she was thrilled with the article.

      • Charli Mills

        I’m so happy she is pleased!

  3. TanGental

    This is such a perfect task to do. Before mum died I managed to squeeze from her some family tree history but this sort of detail passed me by. I think it’s brilliant and another two books would be fascinating especially around the decision to emigrate. Good luck with this Robbie.

    • robbiesinspiration

      Thank you, Geoff. From a personal point of view, this has been a most rewarding exercise.

    • Charli Mills

      These details are so precious and yet we often miss them. I’m glad Robbie has had the opportunity to work with her mom, And yet, Geoff, I think you have done wonderful stories out of the letters, poems, photos, and memories in your own family.

      • TanGental

        Thanks Charli she’s doing a fine job isn’t she

      • Charli Mills

        Yes, she is!

  4. calmkate

    delightfully written and what an interesting journey for mother and daughter to make together!

      • calmkate

        trying I expect but also great rewards!

    • Charli Mills

      I appreciate Robbie’s graciousness in working with family members to publish books.

      • calmkate

        absolutely, I’m doubtful I could work with me let alone any other relatives!

  5. Annecdotist

    Interesting to read about your experience of writing with your mother, Robbie. I smiled at the idea of her accepting amendments on the advice of an editor but not from you – I think many would recognise that mother-daughter dynamic! I also wondered whether from your point of view you were ever sceptical about the accuracy of her memories?

    • robbiesinspiration

      Hi Anne, that you for your comment. I have researched and checked the detail of any historical events and the mechanics of any equipment and cooking methods mentioned as she was only 7 when the war ended. I visited my Uncle last year and chatted to him about some of the details and he confirmed a lot of her memories (he is 7 years older).

    • Charli Mills

      An interesting question, Anne. It can feel doubtful at times with one’s own memory! And yet, I’m interested to know that Robbie talked with an older uncle. Recently, I’ve reunited with an older cousin with whom I hadn’t seen since I was 7. He’s four years older and in that small age difference, he remembers so much more. Memory (and family) is a fickle thing.

      • robbiesinspiration

        The family are all very interested in this book, Charli. My Uncle Reggie and Aunt Edna both gave input and even my Uncle Allan, who was born after the war, has given insight for the next book. It is very collaborative.

      • Charli Mills

        You have brought your family together through the page.

  6. susansleggs

    What a treasure, to be able to spend time with your Mum on such a project. I know it will be an interesting, educational read. I’m looking forward to adding it to my collection of books by people I “know” from my internet circle of friends.

    • robbiesinspiration

      Thank you, Susan. This has been a wonderful and fulfilling experience. I have done a lot of research too and have learned a huge amount about life during the war. The living part as opposed to only the dry factual part.

    • Charli Mills

      Life in the English countryside during the War is not a glimpse we often get. I think this story can open up to experiences we might have taken for granted.

  7. Annette Rochelle Aben

    Such a gift, not only for each of you, but for your families, and the rest of the world. We can read all we like in history books, but there is something to be said for information as presented through the memories of those who were there. <3

    • robbiesinspiration

      I absolutely agree, Annette. This book has cast WWII in a completely different light for me. Living through a war is a terrible thing and I definitely don’t want to experience such a thing in my lifetime.

    • Charli Mills

      It is a greater gift!

  8. robbiesinspiration

    Reblogged this on Robbie's inspiration and commented:
    My Mom and I are visiting Charli at Carrot Ranch today to talk about our writing experience together for While the Buzz Bombs Fell. Thank you, Charli for hosting us.

  9. robbiesinspiration

    Thank you, Charli, for sharing my Mom and my writing experience. It is such a wonderful experience to write your Mother’s memories.

    • Charli Mills

      Soo happy to welcome you and your mom to the Ranch, Robbie!

  10. Aweni

    What an amazing project to take on.

    • robbiesinspiration

      It has been a lot of fun and a great bonding experience.

      • Aweni

        I can imagine.

  11. thebookwormdrinketh

    I can’t wait to check this book out!

  12. Teagan R. Geneviene

    Hi Charli. Thanks for hosting Robbie. This was fascinating.

    It was exciting just to learn about how it came together, Robbie. I know the story will be wonderful. I like the timeline element too. I remember reading something years ago that was done that way. As someone who enjoys a bit of history (but not getting too far into the weeds), it added to the story for me.

    I’m looking forward to this one. It will be grand! Hugs to you and to your mom.

    • robbiesinspiration

      Thank you, Teagan. I never studied creative writing at University although I did study language and business writing. It is wonderful to get advice like I got form Charli. It enabled me to put my finger on what I needed to change to get the story right.

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks for stopping by, Teagan! I enjoyed learning about the process Robbie and her mom took on for this book, too.

  13. LucciaGray

    What a wonderful post. It must have been an emotional writing journey with your mother. Lovely to know more about you! I’m looking forward to reading your mother’s memoir.
    My mother also lived through a war, the Spanish civil war (36-39) and has told me about many events, but I have a problem with writing about such personal information. I’ve often suggested writing a fictional version because I don’t like the idea of writing non-fiction, but my mother, like yours insists on her ‘true version.

    • robbiesinspiration

      Thank you, Luccia. My mother was very young during the war so there is a fictional element to the story as I had to fill in the missing details. The events that relate directly to her family are all real but I have fleshed them out a bit and worked the history into the tale. I found with my Mom that it was best to write the essays exactly as she told me the story and get her to approve it. I then wove it together and gradually worked in the historical and fictional elements afterwards. She then saw how all hung together and endorsed it. Baby steps with elderly people.

      • LucciaGray

        Sounds like a huge task of patience, love and literary feat. Looking forward to it.

    • Charli Mills

      Oh, wow, Lucy, that could be a difficult one to write. Have you thought about doing an oral history? At least recording the stories for future use? Interesting how both women insist on the “true” versions.

      • robbiesinspiration

        For my Mom, Charli, it is because she sees this book as a tribute to her Mother and Father. Her Father died of appendicitis when she was only 16 years old. She wants them, and her other family members, recognizable in the book.

      • Charli Mills

        How tragic she lost her dad at 16. This book will give the whole family a legacy.

  14. Mae Clair

    I think it’s wonderful that you’re undertaking this with your mother, Robbie. You’ve got your Sir Chocolate books with your son and now this with your mom. A family act, indeed!

    I liked the look into the creative process and those old photos (something I love) are fantastic!

    • robbiesinspiration

      I am lucky that my family are all involved in my book undertakings, Mae. Writing a book together is very bonding and fun. I am hoping to write a few short stories about my hubby’s gran. Her husband fought in the South African unit during the war and was stationed in Italy. She was married in a shared dress and borrowed silk stockings.

      • Mae Clair

        Wow! What an astounding life story!

    • Charli Mills

      I like the family connections, too!

  15. Bette A. Stevens

    A fantastic post, Robbie! Love the great tips you shared from Charli too… How absolutely marvelous that you and your mom are working on this historical memoir together!

    • robbiesinspiration

      Thank you, Bette. It is a fabulous writing adventure. WE have been discussing book covers this morning. She is so animated and interested. Charli has helped me tremendously, with this book and generally with my flash fiction and writing.

      • Charli Mills

        Robbie, I’m excited to hear your mom is interested in the book cover process, too!

    • Charli Mills

      How wonderful to have that learning opportunity, Linda.

  16. lbeth1950

    I wrote my mother’s memoirs with her help. I learned so much. Looking forward to reading yours.

    • robbiesinspiration

      Thank you, Linda. You definitely need a lot of input from the other person when you write their memoirs but it is very interesting and fun.

  17. willowdot21

    Yes a really interesting sounding book I am looking forward to its release! ????????

    • robbiesinspiration

      Thank you, Willow. I appreciate your support.

      • willowdot21

        It exciting isn’t it. ????

    • Charli Mills

      I’m looking forward to its release, too, Willow!

  18. dgkaye

    What a wonderful experience to be able to do this with your mom. 🙂

    • robbiesinspiration

      I can’t explain how lovely this experience has been, Debby. My mom and I are very close and we even look so alike if you look at her photograph.

      • dgkaye

        I can see it! 🙂

    • Charli Mills

      I think Robbie has a special knack for drawing out the storytellers in her family and guiding the overall books.

      • dgkaye

        I agree 🙂

  19. Jennie

    I love this! Reading about the entire writing process with your mom, and then Charli Mills adding her terrific advice was a pleasure!

    • robbiesinspiration

      I am very grateful to Charli for her amazing advice, Jennie. A great writing adventure that I will always remember.

      • Jennie

        That’s terrific!

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks, Jennie! It’s a privilege to get to work with a project like this.

      • Jennie

        You’re welcome, Charli. ????

  20. Writing to Freedom

    Congrats Robbie. It sounds like a wonderful book and experience for you and your mother. Most of us have stories to share, but don’t in our modern lives.

    • robbiesinspiration

      Thank you for visiting us over here, Brad. They do say that everyone has a book in them.

      • Writing to Freedom

        Yes, and an organization called Story Corps travels around recording peoples stories in the US. 🙂

    • Charli Mills

      That’s such a good point — we don’t often take time to share stories in the business of our modern world.

  21. Tandy | Lavender and Lime

    Writing is a very interesting process and it sounds like the book is taking shape quite nicely.

    • robbiesinspiration

      Thank you, Tandy. It is but it has been a much better undertaking than I originally expected. I am grateful for the learning curve it has afforded me.

      • Charli Mills

        It’s a big learning curve, but a good teacher!

  22. Jules

    Robbie – how lucky you are to share this writing experience with your mother.
    I too had a loss of a parent while young. And the rest of the family felt it was better to say nothing than to relate any stories at all about my mother.

    Only a step-mom is still about and unfortunately in another state. I did try to ask my Mother-in-law (may her memory be for a blessing) about some photos she had of younger life. But she got too sad, and then too old – She lived through the war in the states while her hubby fought overseas for WWII.
    And once he returned he only spoke of good experiences – never of the bad. It wasn’t until he passed that my hubby (as family historian by default) inherited his ‘war chest of memories’ that had never been opened while his father was alive.

    Continued success in all of your writing ventures. ~Jules

    • robbiesinspiration

      Thank you, Jules. I think I am lucky too. It sounds like you have a great book possibility in your own family. The war was hugely traumatic for many people which is probably why your father-in-law didn’t want to speak about the bad things.

    • Charli Mills

      Wow, Jules — a war chest of memories! I inherited one, too from my Grandpa Sonny. I was helping him write a book when I was in college. He passed away before I graduated, and two years later family finally got me these boxes he set aside. It was all his notes, research, and memories from WWII. It blew me away. I still am uncertain what to do with it all, but I’m letting it simmer. Did your husband have any unexpected surprises?

      • Jules

        I’ll send you an email…

  23. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

    How wonderful to collaborate with your mother in this manner. I too will look forward to reading it when it comes out.

    • Charli Mills

      I think it takes a special relationship to collaborate on a book.

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        you would both have to bring something to the mix and be on a wavelength that accepted another’s viewpoint.

  24. OIKOS™-Redaktion

    It will be a pleasure to read. “First hand information” not only the “global thing”. Thank you Robbie! Michael

    • Charli Mills

      Thank you for supporting Robbie and Family in their writing projects!

      • OIKOS™-Redaktion

        Always my pleasure! Have a good weekend ahead. Michael

      • Charli Mills

        Thank you! It was a splendid weekend!

  25. Norah

    What a fascinating post, Robbie. I didn’t write with my Dad, but I typed up a lot of his stories for him and compiled them into a book for family members. Many of his stories were of his participation in the war. What a horrible experience it was for so many. He also wrote many poems. A couple of verses of one of his poems is engraved in marble on a war memorial in his home town. I saw it when I visited there recently. It’s quite an honour, I think.
    This is wonderful that you get to write your mother’s story with her and I’m pleased that you’ve had such good feedback and are almost ready to publish. How affirming it is for your mother too. What a treat for both of you, and for others then to read.

    • Charli Mills

      Oh, wow, Norah. That must have been emotional to see your father’s words in marble. How good of you to get his stories collected and shared, too.

      • Norah

        It is very special to see his poem honoured so.

      • robbiesinspiration

        Having your Father’s poem forming part of a war memorial is a wonderful honour, Norah.

    • robbiesinspiration

      Thank you for your lovely comment, Norah. I wonder if a larger audience wouldn’t be interested in your Dad’s stories and poems. The war was a terrible time for so many. My Mother is doing a final read of the edited book and it is amazing how diligent and interested she is.

      • Norah

        I think Dad’s stories and poems are worthy of a wider audience, Robbie. I’m just not sure how to go about it yet. He didn’t give permission before he passed and I haven’t checked to see what may be possible – yet. Too much of my own to do first. 🙂
        I’m pleased to hear your Mum’s story is nearing completion.

  26. Teri Polen

    How wonderful you could share this experience with your mother and learn so much about her past, Robbie.

    • robbiesinspiration

      It has been an amazing journey, Teri.

    • Charli Mills

      Robbie is an inspiration to others who might be thinking it’s possible.

  27. Tina Frisco

    Robbie, you are so fortunate to be taking this fantastic journey with your mother. I’m sure the book will be amazing ??

    • robbiesinspiration

      Thank you, Tina. I have learned so much about the history of my Mom’s small town as well as life during the war in England.

    • Charli Mills

      I think she is fortunate, too, Tina!

      • Tina Frisco

        Bravo, Charli!

  28. Annika Perry

    Robbie, what an incredible journey for you and your mother! It must be an emotional one for her and tasking for you to balance her wishes with the needs of a book. It seems you have it brilliantly thought and I can’t wait to read the final book! A joy to read this detailed description of the creative journey!

    • robbiesinspiration

      Thank you, Annika. It has been interesting walking this path with my Mom. She is quite set in her ways in some respects so I have had to coax her a bit to try different things. On the whole though, it has been fabulous.

    • Charli Mills

      I appreciate learning how Robbie balanced her mother’s wishes with a professional presentation of her story.

  29. trinitygrau

    I would love to read this book! My own family has a very interesting history that I’ve always wanted to share, so seeing someone else write about their own fascinating lineage is wonderful! Great post.

    • Charli Mills

      I agree that when we see others write their stories, it reminds us that our stories have potential, too. Thanks for stopping by!

  30. creativewritingmommy

    Hi! I’m so interested in this piece! My nan is currently 93 years old and is unfortunately suffering with Alzheimer’s. My mom has always said I should write the story of my nan’s life (as it is such an interesting and also heartbreaking story) and I have never known where to start. It must’ve been a wonderful journey to go on with your mom, and even though my mom knows my nan’s life like the back of her hand, I wish I could share it with my beautiful nanny ??

    • Charli Mills

      You are fortunate to be so close to your mom and nanny. I’m sorry to hear she is suffering from Alzheimer’s. In a way, we become memory keepers for those who no longer can contain them. The decision to write the story can be emotional and yet rewarding. You don’t have to start “at the beginning” — start writing down stories and memories the way fiction writers craft scenes. You can decide later how to arrange it.

      • creativewritingmommy

        I’ve been writing bits and pieces since I was in college, it’s just gotten away from me over the years. Reading this has definitely reignited the flame ?? thank you ????

  31. Charli Mills

    Thanks for sharing!

  32. Charli Mills

    Thanks for sharing!

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