As I share my journey in writing my book, I thought I’d take the time to share a little about the research process. You can read the other parts of this series here: Part One & Part Two. My previous completed novel is a mystery, and since I was an investigator, I know something about solving crimes. As my latest work is historical fiction, I thought it worthwhile to say a few words about how the research process works for me.
The past is like a foreign country. It has its own language, culture, and living conditions. I find it best to approach it in that way. Now, I have always had a healthy interest in the past. I don’t know exactly why, but I’ve been reading about the past since I was five years old. That’s when I checked out my first book from the library and it just so happened to be a history book. I’ve been held captive ever since. I have a personal library of 2,000 books and the largest single subject is World War Two. Both of my grandfathers were veterans of this war. My grandmothers’ brothers all served as well (one was killed). All of my grandparents’ friends either served in the war or went through it on the home front, so in a way I was surrounded by it as a child. I studied history in college not because I planned on actual doing anything with it (I was happily a fireman in those days) but because I enjoyed the subject. The same goes for my graduate degree in History. Then I changed teams and became a police officer, still with no plans to use my degree, though I started teaching part time as an second job way back in 2004. I never would’ve guess I’d get hurt. I’m still teaching, and it is still part time because I’ve been told I’m not “full time material”. But I digress.
My book deals with two interconnected pieces of the war. First, is the bomber offensive against Germany, particularly that waged by the British. Thankfully there are some excellent books and documentaries on the topic. I start at the time and read general World War Two histories, then general books about RAF Bomber Command, and finish off with specific books written by people who flew Lancaster bombers over Germany. I have also consulted books on the British Home Front. Start broad and finish specific. The second piece of the book deals with the German Civil Defense system, particularly the fire brigades and how they coped with devastating fire bombing raids. This proves a little more difficult to research as there is not a large amount of material in English. For this aspect, I use interview notes I’ve complied while speaking with those who experienced the war in Germany as civilians, including some who served in the Luftschutz and/or the fire brigades. These interviews were conducted long ago, and long before I decided to write a book. I also read general history books about Nazi Germany, then books specifically about Berlin during the War (and there are some great ones), and finally the published recollections of German civilians. I’ve also uncovered some excellent training videos done by the German government to instruct civilians how to respond to incendiary bombs. For the sake of comparison, the study of the London Fire Brigade during The Blitz and of the British ARP and Civil Defense system has been important too.
Bomber Boys. 45% of all RAF Bomber Command aircrew were killed in action.
In some ways, I feel as though my entire life has been one big study session and this novel is my final exam. In that case, I hope I pass. I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself. Writing is a difficult enough undertaking, but with historical fiction I feel a solemn obligation to get it as “right” as I can. I feel I’d be doing a great disservice to the men and women who lived through this tumultuous period in our past if I fudge the truth. Maybe that’s asking too much of myself. I’ve read a lot of historical fiction where the author is so knowledgeable that they can’t help but dump massive amounts of information in a single paragraph to the detriment of the story. To help resist that urge, my motto is : “Storytelling first”. Tell the story and weave the history around it, do not weave the story around the history. But get it right, nonetheless.
My book is divided into four parts. It takes place over the space of 36 hours and there are four main characters, one male and one female in England and the same in Germany. (There are, of course, a host of secondary characters who dance across the pages. Some for longer than others.) Each chapter is from the point of view of one character and each part has eight chapters. This is how part one is structured:
Part One: Afternoon, Sunday, November 21, 1943
Chapter One begins with Flying Officer Michael O’Hanlon, 22, as he finishes up his weekend pass with his fiance Grace. He has one more mission to reach his 30th which will give him a spell off of operations and an assignment to a training unit. They have plans to marry then. His reason for a weekend pass? The previous Wednesday he brought his plane back from a night mission over Germany with a dead top turret gunner, a dead wireless operator, and a seriously wounded navigator. His Lancaster received heavy damage and his crew got the time off to allow for repairs and to allow for replacement crewmen to be found. Now he will fly his last mission with half his crew inexperienced.
Chapter Two begins in Germany where Oberwachtmeister Karl Weber is teaching a class to a new draft of recruits. These aren’t military recruits, however. Karl is a veteran member of the Berlin Fire Brigade. One of the few men with experience still around owing to the constant drain on German manpower in Russia. Even Karl served during the early days of the war before a wound allowed him to resume his civilian occupation where he’s served since 1929. His recruits? Four young Hitler Youth boys 15-6 years old. Full of love for their Fuhrer and a belief in their own invincibility. The other four recruits are four young women who range in age from 17-20. It will be with these kids that Karl and the three older men at the station must wage a very different war than that waged by Michael O’Hanlon. While one drops bombs, the other tries to save lives amidst the rubble. Both are scared, yet they do their jobs anyway.
Chapter Three follows Grace Robinson,21, the daughter of a doctor and the only surviving child now that her brother, a Commando, was killed at Dieppe, as she leaves Michael at the train station. She can tell something is wrong with him, but she doesn’t know what. They haven’t known each other for long, just a few months, really, but she desperately wants him to return after his next mission so they can get married. Grace has not told her father of her plans to marry, much less her plans to marry an Irish Catholic from Belfast. She also harbors a deep secret, one which is alluded to, but that she won’t speak openly about. Should she tell Michael before they marry? Grace wanted to tell him while he was on leave but decided not to burden him with it before his next and hopefully last flight. Grace understands as much about Michael’s war as any civilian could. She was in London during The Blitz and knows firsthand the power of bombs. To that end, she and Ursula might get along if their countries weren’t at war.
Chapter Four introduces us to Ursula whom we briefly met at the end of Chapter Two. She’s a serious, redheaded German girl who lives on the edge of Charlottenburg in the western part of Berlin. Her parents are dead. Frau Muller died in an accident in 1937. Herr Muller, a Social Democrat who referred to the Nazis as ‘Hitler and His Circus Clowns’ died of a heart attack on the day Germany invaded Poland. This was perhaps for the best as he was spared the deaths of his two sons, both killed on the Eastern Front. Ursula got those telegrams instead. She works as a telephone operator and shares a small apartment with two other young women, also phone operators. But she nurses her own deadly secret. We follow Ursula as she delivers forged identity papers to a group hidden in a warehouse. They have another assignment for her tomorrow night. Pick up a pistol and deliver it. She leaves the warehouse, in the middle of the blackout, and reaches her apartment building as the air raid sirens begin to howl in the distance.
Each of these chapters are taking place simultaneously. The next block of four chapters which finish up Part One pick up where each of these chapters leave off. My working title is So Others May Live though I am also strongly considering A Terrible Symphony which was how reporter Edward R. Murrow described a night trip over Berlin in a Lancaster ten days after this story takes place. Which one do you like best? Since I’m not finished with the book, I’d not wedded to any particular title.
Many thanks to you all for sharing this journey with me. I do not know everything there is to know about World War 2, but I do know a lot. I’d be more than happy to help anyone with their war related questions and I place my library at your disposal. If you’d like to know specific titles I’ve found useful whilst researching my novel, please ask and I’ll forward you a list.