Researching for Historical Fiction

A fiction writer must know intimately the world he/she is trying to describe. Place, time, local culture, and the attitudes of the people of the time all play a part in the story. The best place to stage your story is a place that remains as it was at the time your action takes place. That’s usually not possible with historical fiction. Even stories about the recent past frequently involve changes in the places being described. More distant, yet still modern, times can be researched using photographs, paintings, or sketches. Descriptions of places, written by people who lived there at the time your story takes place, are helpful, but seldom provide the panoramic view that allows the writer to look around and feel part of the venue.

In addition to place, technology also changes over time. As obvious as that sounds, a few months or years during periods of rapid technological  change can make a tremendous difference. An example is the telephone, not to mention computers.

Finding sources useful in fleshing out a past period can be challenging. Diaries, interviews of people who lived at that time, and bureaucratic records, to name a few, can make a time in the past come alive. Unfortunately, people writing during that time take many common objects for granted and do not spell out how or when those objects may have been used. They may simply make reference to them feeling these items were too common to describe. Photographs can be helpful, but even a photograph doesn’t describe how an object was used.

My era of interest is World War Two, and specifically the aerial aspect of that war. I have found autobiographies by pilots of that era most helpful. Interviews done during the war or immediately after might be less valuable if classified material of the time is avoided, glossed over, or redacted.

The setting of my most recent writing, the Soviet Union, is particularly troubling for Americans because most of us, (myself included) do not speak or read Russian. We are dependent on translations of works. Another problem with documents written in the Soviet Union during the war, such as newspapers, and books published for mass distribution, were politicized. More recent documents, though more forthcoming, are frequently fogged by the passage of time.

Archives, available here in the west, are helpful, but these documents also suffered from political manipulation. More recent documentation released after the dissolution of the Soviet Union tends to be more realistic.

Walking the battlefields I describe would be helpful, except that several of them are battlefields once again. Regrettably, for me, the costs of travel are also a deterrent.

My main references are books about the aircraft and operations from Soviet sources translated into English. These books and articles provide very good information in most cases. I have spoken with, as opposed to interviewed, a very successful German fighter pilot from World War Two, and discussed the characteristics of a Yak-9 fighter with a pilot who flew a model provided with an Allison engine, rather than the original Klimov. Both discussions provided insight for me, colored, of course, by pre-conceptions based on my previous study.

Biographies of Russian pilots lack fine detail. One of my books includes interviews with twenty Soviet women who flew in combat with the Soviet Air Force. Bruce Myles, who interviewed these women in the 1970s, wrote the book Night Witches, telling the true stories upon which my fiction is based. Unfortunately, he barely touches upon the things most important to people, and which can be most revealing about their lives. Items such as food, hygiene, and personal care make a tremendous difference in morale and influence the attitudes of people, not just women, who put their lives on the line for their country.

Finally, combat is a supremely messy affair. Many veterans decline to discuss their feelings while in combat. Many times the events in which they partake occur so quickly that analysis of those feelings doesn’t take place until after the events they describe. Even if they relate those events to others, they hide the feelings they have as they reflect on those events. Only those who actually participate can know how those feelings actually temper and change the person involved. Any writer who wasn’t there can only imagine, probably unsuccessfully, their reaction. Consequently, I have only my books, my own flight experience, and my imagination to attempt to re-build the world of fighter pilots on the Eastern Front of World War Two, known to the Russians as the Great Patriotic War.

Sources: Night Witches, Bruce Myles, Presidio Press, 1981

The Soviet Air Force in World War Two, Edited by Ray Wagner, Translated by Leland Fetzer, Doubleday & Co., Inc., Garden City, NY 1973

Yakovlev Fighters of World War Two, Yefim Gordon, Sergey Komissarov, Dmitriy Komissarov, Hikoki Publications Ltd, Manchester, England, 2015

Yakovlev Aces of World War 2, George Mellinger, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2005

One thought on “Researching for Historical Fiction

  1. keithschuette February 6, 2020 / 10:38 am

    Your advice is applicable as well to writing non-fiction summarizations of historical events. Great advice. Thanks.

    Like

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