Confirming My Facts
I’ve missed doing a blog for a couple of weeks but it hasn’t been from neglect. I’ve been busy.
I submitted a final draft of my new book to my editor on November 5th. I also sent it to a couple of readers, and proffered a copy to a person here in town who had done a factual review of a local military history book, to see if she would be interested in reviewing mine. My book is an adult-sized 100K word, 200 page historical fiction novel. Most of the book is set in World War II. The main character experiences a number of significant events: initial training in Florida, a year’s training in England, D-Day and the invasion of Normandy, the Breakout, Paris, Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge, crossing over into Germany, a Task Force sent behind the front lines, the end of the war in Europe, the Occupation Army, dealing with the Dachau Concentration Camp, and the return home.
In short, I covered a lot of the war.
I wanted confirmation that I used the historical World War II events and facts correctly. I want to be right in what I’ve written because I’m sensitive to being roasted alive for getting it wrong. I know the book is fictional, but it’s historical fiction, which makes it a different animal. Historical fiction uses a situation from history as a basis for a fictional story, but readers expect that the historical events are basically true. Some readers can be truly hostile if they’re not.
I’ve seen several situations where someone knowledgeable in history blasts the author for making simple mistakes – wrong names, wrong weapons, wrong vehicles, wrong time of the year, wrong vegetation, wrong clothes, wrong food, even the sun being in the wrong place – you name it and the author gets burned by the righteous. Sometimes in public, and sometimes loudly in public. It’s not what any writer wants.
I want to be right. The book isn’t nonfiction but I want to be correct where I can be.
I couldn’t find a historian qualified and willing to review a book that addresses the whole war. My next approach was to find the sources for all the facts that I did use. Obviously, I wasn’t in WWII, I wasn’t an operator on an SCR 584 aircraft warning radar, I didn’t fight in any of the battles, I didn’t live among combat soldiers, I have never dug a foxhole, or cowered in one because an enemy was trying to shoot me. I have not visited Dachau Concentration Camp, gone on a Task Force behind enemy lines, gone cross country in Bavaria to escape German patrols, or ever eaten C rations. Well, wait a minute. I have eaten C rations but it was long enough ago that I don’t remember anything beyond the crackers and the can opener.
Anyway, I haven’t done the things on that list, but I have read about all of them, in some form or fashion. I believe I know enough and am skilled enough that I can write about it with confidence and authenticity. But proving that I know what I’m writing about is something else, and that’s the purpose of my finding source materials to support it.
I think I’ve done a good enough job. See the picture. That’s my office during the last two weeks. There are 28 books, most of which I have read cover to cover, while the others I have skimmed for what I needed; 42 articles that I have printed off the web, all of which I’ve read beginning to end; I’ve used ten or more maps of the areas involved; and I’ve visited England, London, Normandy, the Allied beaches, Paris, a number of major museums, and one town in Germany whose cathedral was bombed by a B-17. Additionally, I had my dad’s pictures, itinerary and military papers.
When I finished, I had cited 137 instances in the book with a factual source for the associated piece of information or event, all the way to quoting from Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler. I had read all of the sources before I wrote the story but I couldn’t point to where. Now I can.
It took every day of two weeks to do it.
I am happy I did. I was surprisingly faithful to the sources, but still found several instances that needed a better job of conforming to the facts; I changed the structure of the book to make it read more in the moment; and I added a few thousand words to make the events more substantial. The major effect was that once I saw all the information sources together, I better understood the story I was trying to write and how the story should be told.
It is stunning to truly see the width, breadth, and depth of the vision that Hitler, Himmler, Goring and the other Nazi leaders were set on fulfilling. If my book can show that vision, if it can make readers understand the fundamentals of waging war, if readers can imagine the level of atrocities that happened and why, and comprehend the terrible consequences of what losing the war would have meant, I will have written a book worth writing.
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Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.