The Man Behind The Writer: Ernest Hemingway

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The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms – these are but a small selection of novels written by Ernest Hemingway during his lifetime. They drew much acclaim and helped to establish his position as one of the twentieth-century literary greats. But have you read any of his books? While many applauded him, he equally had to fend off his critics. Love him or hate him, his novels are here to stay, and while some have likened Hemingway’s prose to that of an adolescent, it is his style of prose upon which the light brightly shines.

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The Young, Ernest Hemingway.

In understanding how Hemingway became one of the greatest writers of literature in the twentieth century, it is important to look at Hemingway the man to gain an appreciation of his life and experiences and then you will see how they informed and shaped his writing. His life story reads like a novel and is bestowed with richness and all the usual trimmings such as love and loss.

The young Ernest was tall, lean and athletic and enjoyed outdoor pursuits such as fishing and sailing. War, fighting, and death played a prominent role in his life, and the man was voracious, energetic and passionate, embracing experiences and absorbing them body and soul with an insatiable appetite. He enjoyed the company of his male friends and this brought out his competitive streak.
Ernest Hemingway was born in Illinois in 1899. His father was a doctor, and his mother had been a promising opera singer. When he left school at the age of seventeen, he joined the Kansas City Star for several months as a reporter. These early days gave him experience as a writer while war raged overseas in Europe.

At the age of eighteen, Ernest answered the call for ambulance drivers for the American Red Cross and found himself posted to Italy. He went because, as he once said, “I wanted to go . . . My country needed me, and I went and did whatever I was told.”

Hospital, Italy WW1.

The world was in the grip of war and, like many young men of his generation, he was eager to make a difference, to do his duty and above all to witness this major event. Working close to the front, it was only a matter of time before he was injured or worse and that day came after one month.

While he recovered in hospital, he fell in love with a nurse, but the relationship was not to last, something which devastated him and it was from his entire experience in Italy that his novel, A Farewell to Arms was born. Within the story, a love affair blossoms, a precious jewel amidst the horror and total despair of war. Often dubbed the best American novel to have come out of World War One, it cemented Ernest Hemingway’s reputation as a leading writer of his time.


Hemingway in France WW2

Afterwards, Ernest returned home to America and a hero’s welcome and became a reporter for American and Canadian newspapers. He spent time in Europe covering the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) and later, the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). It was from this that Ernest drew on his experiences in his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940).

Between 1944 and 1945 he travelled to London and Europe, as a war correspondent and he witnessed the first Allied landings on D-Day from a landing craft at sea. From his view of Omaha Beach, he saw the first, second, third, fourth and fifth wave of troops who had fallen in their struggle to reach cover. He witnessed battles and was present at the liberation of Paris – a city he knew well having lived there years earlier.

Omaha Beach, D-Day

In 1950, his novel Across the River and Into the Trees was published and garnered much criticism. A year later, when he had completed The Old Man and the Sea (1952) partially spurred on by a swell of fury, he said that it was “the best I can write ever for all of my life,” (E. Hemingway, 1952). The Nobel Foundation awarded Hemingway the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 “for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style,” (The Nobel Foundation).

While Ernest was beginning life as a reporter, he never lost sight of the rules impressed upon him. Write short sentences and keep them simple. Use short first paragraphs and vigorous English. Over the years, he shaped modern literature with his pared-down prose. He became the masterful pruner of words and his lean prose harnesses a strength that shapes and informs and therein lies the brilliance.

And so it was that a young Ernest Hemingway transcended his journey as a reporter, drawing upon his experiences to become one of the greatest and most cherished writers of the twentieth century, forever immortalised in the works he left behind; his legacy of a lifetime of war, love and loss amongst other things. War undoubtedly left its mark on Hemingway.

War undoubtedly left its mark on Hemingway and he was renowned for writing about it and his first-hand accounts from his front line coverage served as fuel for his own writing. Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr has been quoted as saying, “The way we write about war or even think about war was affected fundamentally by Hemingway.”

After the Great War, Hemingway had to deal with returning to civilian life just as any soldier at that time and in his own town, nothing had changed. But war had changed the men who returned. In his book, “Soldiers Home”, a soldier, Howard Krebs, returns home from war and struggles to reconnect with his life and his family. Krebs cannot love anymore, or pray and feels as if his soul was taken from him by the war. Within this short story, the aftermath is dealt with in such a poignant way, as if Ernest was therapeutically working his own way through the mist as he wrote.

Hemingway’s prose, renowned for its sparseness, its pared-down style, is magical. It was a new twist on literature, and a different way of writing. He used unpretentious words that spoke volumes. And yet, as simple as the prose may seem upon first sight, you soon discover the genius behind the pen, the master crafter, and the beauty conveyed from each page. His novels scream to be read over and over and each time you do so you will discover something new. Hemingway’s prose makes the reader think, assimilate and perceive for there is much to uncover, and it is his style, his unique approach to writing that has propelled him into the literary canon and identified him as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.

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Sense of Place

When you’re writing, how do you know if you’ve successfully created a sense of place? Crafting a story involves a multitude of ingredients and once you’ve settled on the period and the place where your story takes place, how do you create this world?


Lake Ullswater, Cumbria, England.


The first obvious solution is to visit the place in person. Grab your notebook and walk around the streets of the village or town, soak up the atmosphere. Take a seat in a cafe, drink a cup of coffee and while away the time as you watch life all around you; be observant. As you sit, conjure up all the senses and make notes. What do you hear, smell?

Are you writing historical fiction? You could visit the local museum and check out the tourist information office for places of interest. After that, there will undoubtedly be local historians and other experts who will be more than happy to assist.

Research is essential. If you are writing in the present, then there is not much research to be done, although ‘field trips’ are still useful if you can make them. If not, use the internet. There is a wealth of information at your fingertips and Google Earth is rather useful for places that are just out of your reach. It’s amazing how much more informed you can become by gazing at an online map.


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Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle


Finally, after the research, it’s time to write. Your characters will need to be dressed appropriately for the period unless of course it’s the present day. But if it’s in the past, then everything needs to be right, including the interior of homes, lighting, cooking, cars and other means of transportation, hair styles, make-up, perfume, music, essentially every detail.

Speech is another consideration, in my opinion (which is subjective so you can disagree). We’ve all heard the ‘period speech’ of the Georgian period, for instance, having watched many dramas over the years. However, when it comes to reading about such times, I have no wish to be bogged down in such archaic language. Using the odd phrase here and there is fine, but I believe that speech ought to feel natural and flow. Clearly the language will always be different to the present day, just not riddled with archaic language. And many great authors have decided against replicating the language of the period, simply because they had no wish to alienate their readers. So it’s worth considering.

Another issue with dialogue is flow. Being grammatically correct is all well and good, but do we all speak like this?

“I will go to the shop later, as I am planning to visit Jane.”

No, we don’t. I for one favour contractions and so would say:

“I’ll go to the shop later, as I’m off to see Jane.”

Now, you can see from the example above how stilted that first line is. It simply doesn’t flow, and it’s not music to my ears. So, it’s up to the individual writer, but I’m for the most natural sounding speech. I read a book recently, by a very well known author who had used this type of speech pattern throughout for one particular character, and I decided it must have been her way of differentiating the voice. I loved the story but the dialogue was frustrating and so out of place and I found myself grumbling each time I read that particular character’s speech.

So, to sum up, natural dialogue will not kill your historical story, and it’s still possible to use certain words or phrases to give it a little authenticity without overdoing things, and as long as your world is depicted in all its original glory, then the reader will gain a sense of place.

And one last tip – get a great book for some good advice, such as, “Get Started In Writing Historical Fiction” by Emma Darwin. I can highly recommend it and I’ve found it very helpful. Happy writing.



Writing Forged from War

Writing is a serious affair and, like an affair, it is intense, fraught with frustration along the way and at times, a battle. Equally, it is bursting with passion and all manner of life experiences. Where and how are our best-loved stories born? Arguably experience is an essential element for many writers. The imagination is only part of the mix.


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A young Ernest circa WW1


Ernest Hemingway is one writer who lived and witnessed the fighting of three major wars during his lifetime. Born in 1899 in Illinois, United States, he was working for the Kansas City Star when war broke out in 1914. He volunteered for the Red Cross before the Americans had entered the war and became an ambulance driver in Italy.


Seriously wounded by a mortar shell in 1918, he was rendered unconscious by the blast. When he came too, he picked up an injured Italian soldier lying next to him and carried him on his back to the first aid dugout. For his bravery, Hemingway was awarded the Italian Medal of Military Valour and the Croce DI Guerra.

The blast that injured Hemingway was ferocious; shards of mortar shell fragments ripped into his legs, chest, and head. He was also partially buried by earth in a dugout. In later years, his fiction would portray his war wounding and more besides. It left an indelible mark on Hemingway, the man, and the writer. He once said how he feared the dark and for years could not sleep without a light.


Agnes von Kurowsky


While recovering in a Red Cross hospital in Milan, he met the American nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky. Hemingway was nineteen and Agnes was twenty-six and engaged to a doctor. Over a period of a month or two, they grew closer, holding hands openly and writing notes to one another. Agnes reportedly carried a picture of Ernest with her wherever she went. Late in August, Hemingway wrote a letter to his mother informing her that he was in love. But just as summer gave way to autumn, their relationship also suffered change. Agnes was posted away, and although they maintained contact by writing letters, it seems that the distance apart gave Agnes time for reflection. By March 1919, Agnes wrote a letter to Hemingway breaking off the engagement. He was devastated, having been so in love. However, rather than lose himself in sorrow, it seems he chose to fight back and immersed himself in work and went on to achieve something great.

So, for Ernest Hemingway, going to war brought almost the equivalent of a lifetime’s experience. Not only was he physically scarred and injured, but psychologically scarred too. Putting his experiences to great use, he went on to forge one of his best-loved novels, A Farewell to Arms (1929), which portrays the love affair of a young ambulance driver and a nurse on the Italian front during the First World War. Working as a journalist covering the Spanish Civil War, he would later go on to write For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). This novel captures the essence of the Civil War, illustrating it in all its brutality.


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Ernest Hemingway and Colonel Charles T. “Buck” Lanham with captured artillery in Schweiler, Germany, 18 September 1944. Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.


During the inter-war years, he became acquainted with many of the modernist writers of the era, such as Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein. Working as a war correspondent in World War Two, he was present at the Normandy landings and the liberation of Paris. Hemingway went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1952 for his novel, The Old Man, and the Sea, while in 1954, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature.

His style as a writer bears a similarity to modernist writers in that his prose is very minimalist, tight and direct. Often things are unsaid and left for the reader to concur, but his prose is equally moving, beautiful and eloquent. According to James Nagel, Hemingway’s prose “changed the nature of American writing.”

In considering whether Hemingway’s war experiences informed his writing, Henry Louis Gates believed it was fundamental. After World War One, many of the modernist writers “lost faith in the central institutions of Western civilisation” and created a new style of writing through which meaning is established through dialogue, action, and prose permeated with silences.

He truly was one of the greatest writers, and it was a tragic day in July 1961 when Ernest Hemingway took his life. Having suffered from a form of depression, like his father before him, he committed suicide.

Arguably, without his experience, we would today be devoid of at least three of his greatest works. Like many writers and poets over the years, he has taken periods of political unrest and war and used them to illustrate the brutality and futility of such conflicts. His writing is no polemic but has the power to bring the reader to ponder and question while lost in the beauty of his prose.images (1)images



My Journey to Publication


Well, it has been a long time coming but this year there is an anniversary that is specific to my story and as such I have decided to take the plunge and self-publish. It may sound rather mad to anyone else, but to me, I saw it as a sign to get a move on.

I find myself in the process of revisions once more. However, things are moving on and I have a book cover – professionally designed – and I have been wrestling with writing my own book blurb for weeks. The thing is, everyone I speak to about this says the same. We might be writers, but writing blurbs is a whole new territory. It’s essentially copywriting and it’s a sales pitch. Perhaps writers are the worst choice for this job because we are too close to the story. But there are people out there who write fantastic blurbs and I now have someone on recommendation, so hopefully my problem is solved.


What else? Oh yes, websites. Your author platform is not complete without one. A blog is great but having a professional looking website is even better. Having secured a domain name I now have a website, not that it’s fully functional as yet, but it soon will be. There’s so much to do including marketing and I’m spending hours googling everything I can think of in a bid to learn and be prepared. I need to decide who to use for printing my paperbacks but my book is being released first as an E-book, and so I have a little extra time for this.

For the time being I need to complete my revisions and send off to my editor. I’m hopeful that I will be ready to release my debut in August/September 2016, but if not then it will be a case of “Coming soon” as it has to be as perfect as I can possibly make it before I will allow it to breathe. And, in the spirit of WW2 I shall do this: