We Wenches have blogged about many, many things over the last three years, but the largest single category is probably research in its many forms. Naturally I love reading such stuff—one has to have a certain taste for research to be a good historical writer, I think. (I freely admit that most of the other Wenches are better at it than I, but I do my share.)
This afternoon I e-mailed a novella to my editor. It’s a story for the third paranormal anthology done by Jo Beverley, Karen Harbaugh, Barbara Samuel, and me. We have fun working together on a themed anthology, and our interests are different enough to make the stories enjoyably varied.
But it’s too early to be promo-ing the anthology. Today, I want to talk about some of the research that went into this one little novella. And some of the byways a researcher can wander down! (If you think that Susan Sarah’s Friday blog on distractions has some bearing on this—you’re right. <G>)
For starters, “Strangers on a Train” is set in WWII Scotland, a period I’ve not written about. It’s within living memory, so I needed to make an effort to get the details right, but it’s not within my personal memory.
I originally thought I’d start on the Flying Scotsman, the famous train that runs from London to Edinburgh. Did it even run during WWII? Though it wasn't exactly research, I started by reading Carola Dunn’s Murder on the Flying Scotsman, part of her Daisy Dalyrmple series, which is set in the ‘20s. Not the right time, but I thought the book might give me a feeling for the train.
It did, a little. But even more, it got me hooked on Daisy Dalyrmple. I ended up reading the whole series. <G>
I also ended using a Scottish no name train that is more or less invented—but I did want to figure out where the train lines ran in Scotland, because there aren’t that many. Googling proved fairly useless. I eventually found my best information in a book on the history of trains on my own shelf. Photocopied a map, blew it up, and got out the magnifying glass. And remembered the poky little compartmentalized trains I rode on in England in the 1970s, which were similar to one that would have been used in WWII.
I did manage to find some info on railway blackout measures: black curtains on the windows, and interior light bulbs painted blue. That must have been weird!
I also needed to find out about auto blackout regulations. In the early days, cars could only use sidelights at night. British motorists were doing more damage to each other than Hitler was managing, so the regulations changed to allow three small slits in a sort of mask that went over the headlights. Speeds were limited to 20 mph.
For sentimental reasons, I gave them a Morris Minor after determining the model was old enough. When I lived in England, I drove a Morris Minor Traveller, which was a woody wagon that creaked like a ship at sea when I rounded corners. <g>
Susan King, our expert on all things Scottish, suggested that the Moray Firth might be a suitable body of water for my story. It’s that great chunk of the North Sea that bites into the east coast of Scotland, and indeed it was just right. I researched and yes, U-boats might have snuck in, and it has a lot of cliffs around the edges. Just what I needed, and in the process, I found a holiday rental cottage I’d like to try someday. <G>
I considered using sea lions or porpoises in the Firth, and looked up some info on them, but in the end, I didn’t use it.
Shall I make my Guardian heroine, Jane Macrae, a codebreaker at Bletchley Park? Mmmm, a bit early for that. So I made her an ace analyst who worked for military intelligence while theoretically a secretary. This occasioned a foray into the history of British military intelligence, though virtually none of it shows up in the finished story.
My hero, David Sinclair, is a Canadian from near Halifax who enlisted in the Royal Air Force and became a fighter pilot in the lethal skies of the Battle of Britain. Were there Canadians in the RAF? Indeed, there were 112, and pilots of many other nationalities as well. (574 of them.) Only Poland and New Zealand had larger contingents in the RAF than Canada.
So David is one of the few famously referred to by Winston Churchill in his immortal words "never was so much owed by so many to so few".
What rank would he be? That necessitated more research. Wikipedia was amazingly helpful for a lot of these details. While it might not always be dissertation level accuracy, it’s pretty darned good for a general understanding of millions of topics. I found an article on RAF ranks and decided to make David a wing commander, the equivalent of a lieutenant colonel. He’s under thirty, but promotion was fast in those days. And I learned that it is always “wing commander,” never shortened to commander.
There is a reference to a sister of Jane’s who is also a pilot. She can’t be an RAF pilot in those days, but she could be in the Air Transport Auxiliary, ATA. These were pilots who did the dangerous work of ferrying aircraft around, and something one in eight were female. They were known as the “Atagirls.” <g>
They had the distinction of receiving equal pay and benefits with male pilots, unlike the American WASPS (Women’s Air Service Pilots), who received as little as 35% of the pay of men. Any pilot who could do the job was eligible, even if missing an eye or limbs. They were sometimes called the “Ancient and Tattered Airmen.” <g>
I needed my characters to borrow a private aircraft for a hot pursuit of the villain, so I put the Mayhem Consultant to work on it. He came up with the Fairey Fox, a nifty little biplane that might have been bought as surplus by a private pilot of means during the 1930a.
Okay, what kind of flight check would a careful pilot perform before taking off? Found that, including the tidbit that it’s good to check for mouse nests under wheel cowlings. <G>
What kind of stove would the heroine use to heat the tea water in a simple country croft? Can’t have trauma without tea! Hmmm, peat looks best, and it smells nice. I found when traveling in Scotland that sometimes water comes out of taps brown because it travels through peat layers. Alarming to an American at first!
Another topic to research was male underwear of the time. (This is a romance, after all. <g>) Turns out that the basic styles of briefs and boxers date from the 1930s, so nothing exotic need be explained.
How about bomber jackets, still dashing and fashionable in the 21st century? Turns out they date to WWI, so fine for WWII. Very useful for keeping warm in high flying aircraft that had no heater. <shiver!>
I also wanted to make David a competitive swimmer. I was pretty sure that swimming has been a competitive sport for a long time—Johnny Weismuller went from Olympic swimming glory to the becoming Tarzan, after all—but I still did a spot of research to find out more. Swimming contests started early in the 19th century. Most English swimmers did sedate versions of the breast stroke, and were rather shocked by the wild flailings of American Indian competitors—who beat the breaststrokers all hollow with what became the crawl stroke. Interesting!
What would a Roman era goblet look like? About as one would expect, but still, it’s good to find some pictures.
Hmm, I need some kind of bag to carry an object. Ah, perfect, a buckled canvas military bag. I found a nifty picture of a WWII original on a shopping blog. Unfortunately, it has already sold or I’d’ve been tempted.
And so it goes. This is only a sampling of the grasshopper research that I did for this one modest story. (Though I think it turned out rather well if I do say so myself.)
So that’s how a writers research goes—fun and false starts, and lots of temptations to stray or buy!
I assume if you read the Wenches, you like this kind of stuff, too. What are some of your favorite research bits that you've read? And how many of you have comparable detours and poking around in your own work?
Mary Jo, off to admire that cottage in Portknockie again….