How To Write a Historical Novel in Seven Easy Steps: Step Two
2. Do Lots of Research
The problem with doing research for a historical novel is that you don't know what you need to know until you've actually finished writing the book. All you can do at the start is read as widely as possible. In my case, I began by reading general histories of the Second World War.
As you can see from my bookcase, I read about life in England during the war, and then started reading biographies and memoirs of significant people, including Winston Churchill (wartime Prime Minister), Kathleen Kennedy (yes, one of those Kennedys), Samuel Hoare (Ambassador to Spain) and Oswald Mosley (British Fascist). Then I searched the internet for newspaper articles, photos, film clips and other useful bits of information. It was like doing an enormous school assignment, but a lot more fun, because it was a topic that fascinated me AND I got to set my own questions.
The more I read, the more interesting story ideas popped into my head – which meant I needed to do even more research to find out whether those story ideas would fit into the real events of the war. I wasn't writing a history textbook, but I did want to get the facts right. Unfortunately, even trying to find out something as simple as when a particular battle ended could turn up five different answers. Was it the day the first group of soldiers waved a white flag? Was it the next day, when their commanding officer ordered his men to lay down their arms, even though some of them kept on fighting? Was it the day a formal statement of surrender was signed on the battlefield? You get the idea.
I also needed to work out which sources were reliable. I found that books, newspaper articles and diaries written during the war were more likely to be biased, confusing and full of half-truths (or even flat-out lies) than later accounts of the war. This was partly because wartime censorships laws and military regulations made it impossible for people to write the truth while the war was happening. It wasn't until the 1970s, for example, that the people who'd decrypted German codes at Bletchley Park were allowed to talk about their experiences. Ordinary civilians in wartime, relying on censored newspapers and radio broadcasts for their 'facts', often hadn't a clue what was really going on in the wider world.
But even the Very Important People who DID know what was going on behind the scenes, and who wrote their memoirs AFTER the war, could still be unhelpful and unreliable. For example, one part of my plot involved a real event in Spain, in which the Nazis tried to kidnap a particular member of the British royal family. I'd read one version of the event, but I figured the memoirs of Sir Samuel Hoare, British Ambassador to Spain during the war, would be full of useful details. His book had never been published in Australia and was long out of print, but eventually I tracked down a second-hand copy in Adelaide via the internet. And when I read it, it turned out to be ABSOLUTELY HOPELESS. Not only did he fail to mention the kidnapping plot, he wrote a lot of self-important rubbish about what a wonderful Ambassador he'd been and how he'd single-handedly stopped Spain from helping the Nazis, which was TOTALLY NOT TRUE.
So, despite teachers often saying that books are more reliable than the internet, this is not always the case. For instance, I found lots of useful information on blogs and in official online archives when I was searching for details about fighter pilots in the Royal Air Force. The internet also came in handy when I needed to check lines of poetry or find out when particular newspaper articles had been published. It was all SO much easier than having to trek off to the library, which is what writers had to do in the Olden Days. Hooray for the internet!
Tomorrow: Getting all this research organised