Thursday, September 17, 2015

Digging for Details: Researching Historical Fiction

“The German planes drone with a menacin’ sound while ours hum with their lovely Merlin engines. But the Spitfire—ah, the Spitfire—she sings.”

          Historical fiction has to be my favorite genre. I plead mea culpa to having learned much of my history through novels. Experiencing historical events along with actual or created characters makes history real to me. However, since many people besides me learn history through films and novels, authors should be faithful to ensure their stories remain as historically accurate as possible. It’s no good thinking, “Well, it’s fiction, so I can make it up. No one will notice.”  Oh, yes, they will! Astute readers are happy to point out mistakes. I once had an on-line reviewer castigate my book Inklings for being historically inaccurate because I described my 1960’s character wearing a mini-skirt when the fashion hadn’t been introduced yet.  I was only off by a few months! My goal was to evoke the era for my readers by using a well-known visual image; nevertheless, to cover my bases for future potential nit-pickers, I dutifully added the discrepancy to my list of carefully documented historical departures in my author’s notes for a revised edition. 

            Getting the facts right takes time, but research often yields not only details that enrich the setting of one’s story, but often the story itself. Besides reading a copious pile of history books and biographies when I was working on Evasions, a novel set in WWII Britain, I watched documentaries, visited several war museums, attended a WWII event in Pennsylvania (complete with re-enactors, a big band concert, and vintage planes), read numerous interviews and memoirs, and conducted my own interviews with four people who had lived in England during the Battle of Britain. The museums and documentaries supplied the rich sensory details of the daily living of the period, especially clothing, music, and rationed food.

However, the first-hand interviews and memoirs proved to be the most productive mine for details, leading to plot development, emotional responses to events, and even character dialogue.  In Evasions, my depictions of the sinking of the Athenia, the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the bombing raid on the RAF base at Kenley are based on recorded memoirs as well as historical documents. After interviewing Pamela Allen, who had worked at St. Bart’s Hospital in London, I decided my fictional nurse Annie Little must work there too. One of my interviewees described her feelings about being cooped up in a London bomb shelter during the nightly air-raids, attributing her struggle with claustrophobia to those frightening times. Her husband clarified how he learned, as a boy during the London bombing Blitz, to tell whether approaching aircraft were enemy or friend by the sound of their engines. I quoted his delightful analysis in Evasions when my character Pilot Officer Eric MacKenzie explains to Annie how he discerns the difference: “The German planes drone with a menacin’ sound while ours hum with their lovely Merlin engines. But the Spitfire—ah, the Spitfire—she sings.”

  I still smile when I read that line. Forgive the cliché, but sometimes digging for details yields pure gold.