I consider writing fiction books easier than writing non-fiction books; readers don’t expect the same level of “truth” from the first as they do from the second. In fiction, if you need a plot development or a character flaw or a sudden relocation to a different place, you just make it up, right?
That’s about half right, in most respects, but writing a good story still demands authenticity in its characters, locations, and events, even if the “authenticity” is constructed. Science Fiction is a good example – readers are ready to believe anything if you’ve done a good job of creating an environment where it seems real.
My mystery books are true to the geography, the location, and the history preceding the events and, for the most part, succeed in making the stories more relevant, believable, and interesting than if they had arbitrary settings with made-up backgrounds. A side benefit is that any “lessons” in a story are more real because they fit into actual events, people, or cultures that the reader can easily identify with. The “authenticity” works because real history is pretty easy to reimagine, both for me and for the reader.
Ah, those were the good ol’ days.
My current project, currently called Teddy’s War, follows two brothers from 1936 to 1945 and uses World War II as a backdrop. The brothers and their journeys are fictional but the story needs to be accurate in portraying the realities of the war and what would have been the true physical and emotional experiences of typical soldiers.
This is whole new territory for me.
I expected most of my problems would concern names, places, events, and objects involved in the story. That is, I needed to use the real names of guns, armaments, tanks, planes, events, military ranks, fighting unit designations, uniforms, equipment, weather, location, geography, and a few thousand other details that real historians and history buffs would expect (and would likely complain about if I got wrong) and that would give me rock-solid authenticity for the ordinary reader. Basically, I knew that I wouldn’t want want the novel to look amateur from the “facts” point of view and I certainly wouldn’t want to get things wrong.
What I’ve discovered is not the difficulty of being true to the facts but handling all the details that makes writing about World War II interesting in the first place.
Did you know that some of the American dive bombers used in Italy were P-51 Mustangs that had special flaps attached to their wings that, when opened, kept the airplanes from going too fast? The modified wings limited the aircraft speed to less than four hundred miles an hour while flying straight down. Any faster and the pilots would never have been able to pull out of the dive. Even at that speed, the pilots blacked out for several seconds during their recovery from the dive.
Did you know that each Army Division had Grave Registration Units responsible for immediately recovering the bodies of dead soldiers, gathering all of their personal affects, establishing written information archives, including maps, and then burying them in mattress covers in temporary cemeteries until they could be reinterred in permanent locations? They were serious enough that one GRU person jumped into Normandy on D-Day with the 101st Airborne to begin gathering the bodies that he knew would soon appear. From day one, he was negotiating with local farmers to buy fields that could be used for permanent cemeteries. He carried quite a lot of cash.
Did you know that, to get fuel to vehicles as fast as possible, the Allies, immediately after the port was captured, laid three pipelines along the ocean floor that went from the coast of England to the port of Cherbourg, France? Establishing a fuel depot was faster than shipping fuel in containers on ships.
Did you know that the “invasion of Europe” occurred not just along the Normandy coast, but also along the southern border of France, in the Mediterranean? That’s where the Seventh Army came ashore. Imagine truckloads of soldiers riding across the beaches of the French Riviera.
I’ve read a dozen or so books, looked at a few dozen maps, watched Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, other war DVDs, and gone through a number of YouTube videos about the history of the war. The first result was my making a career of irritating friends by quoting obscure facts that they’ve never heard nor cared about. The second result was that I stopped working on my book.
I’ve found so many interesting and fascinating details that people should know that the “backdrop” of my story has swamped the foreground. I’m spending more time reading about the war, finding facts, and understanding strategies, than I am writing, while the overwhelming amount of information that I’m enjoying has nothing to do with the story that I started out to tell.
I expect that I will pull out of my tailspin eventually, but I’m going to have to go back to where I started.
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.