We have a special treat today, Bookworms! Historical fiction author, M. K. Tod guest posts today to share some resources for researching historical fiction and how the research process (much like the writing process) never stops.
Interested Bookworms can visit her website, awriterofhistory.com.
I am grateful to Erin Eymard for the opportunity to talk about researching historical fiction on her delightful blog.
Nine years ago, I was an expat wife—often called the trailing spouse in the world of international assignments—who landed in Hong Kong with nothing to do. Having worked for more than twenty-five years, this was a problem.
After many frustrating months, I decided to take matters into my own hands and write a book about my grandparents who lived through two world wars and the great depression—surely their experiences would provide the foundation for a novel, I thought. I had no writing credentials—in fact, I was a Mathematics and Computer Science grad—and as a high school student, history had been one of my worst subjects.
From this vague beginning three novels have emerged. Along the way, I developed a passion for WWI and WWII and a host of research techniques and sources.
- There are an astonishing number of WWI and WWII websites. I have several favorites (WWI favourites are listed here http://wp.me/p29Qar-mF, a few others are on my blogroll at www.awriterofhistory.com) that I frequent for information on battles, maps, timelines, photos, personalities and the tools of war. Drawing from these sites allows me to adhere to reality amidst the liberty of fiction. They also spark ideas to make each story come alive.
Official War Diaries
- The Canadian government has an entire collection of official war diaries recording day-to-day events of every Canadian battalion. I’ve spent hours pouring through these pdf images looking for inspiration and accurate information. For example, my latest novel involves the heroine tracing her grandfather’s WWI experiences to solve a mystery. I placed this man in the 19th Battalion of the 4th Infantry Brigade and using the war diaries, I know exactly where he is every day of the war. No doubt other governments offer similar resources.
Fullbooks & Project Gutenberg
- Much to my delight, I came across these sites offering books of historical interest at no cost. Of great value to me are Edith Wharton’s journals describing WWI France, Mildred Aldrich’s letters written from a small village near the front lines, Charles Inman Barnard’s description of Paris on the brink of war, and Ruth Gaines’ vignettes of Picardy in 1918. They have enriched my understanding of those enduring war on the home front – a central part of my novel Lies Told in Silence.
My growing fiction and non-fiction collection
- Every time I visit a bookstore or browse for an e-book, I look for new materials. Amongst others, my collection of non-fiction includes Vimy by Pierre Berton, Unlikely Soldiers by Jonathan Vance, Inside Camp X by Lynn Philip Hodgson and The Secret Life of Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay. The first is a detailed account of a famous WWI battle, the others relate true stories about WWII espionage efforts. All offer deep insight into the war experience.
- My fiction collection includes authors like Anne Perry, Ben Elton, Pat Barker, Anita Shreve, Scott Turow, Joseph Boyden, William Woodruff, Siegfried Sassoon, Frances Itani and others. Wonderful works. My copies are well thumbed and well marked.
Diaries and letters
- To add reality to my characters’ voices, I have perused many personal accounts of war, particularly WWI, to discover phrases and language patterns of the day. I find it both amazing and heart warming to see so many soldiers honored by their families through websites and blogs containing letters, photos and personal details. British, American, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand stories are there for all to see. If you read French or German, you can find even more diaries.
- A particularly interesting book is The Letters of Agar Adamson, a WWI captain who enlisted at the age of 48. Fascinating first hand account.
Google & Google maps
- Ah, Google! An amazing source as every reader and writer knows, a place to find tidbits such as the construction of a kite or the names of troop transport ships and to stumble upon serendipity such as French marriage rituals or the lions outside New York’s main library.
- Using Google maps I can look at tiny villages such as Villers-au-Bois or larger places like Amiens and can then check the surrounding countryside to see the contours of the land, the placement of crossroads, the bends in a river. I can then match war-time photos with present day in order to breathe life into descriptions of a picnic, a country drive, a battlefield or a behind the lines view.
- I have been fortunate enough to visit museums in England, Canada, Belgium and France. These buildings, whether large or small, house a wealth of photos, posters, dioramas and context to augment my stories. In some cases, they include the sounds of war, which are crucial to a writer’s toolbox. While visiting, I’ve taken many pictures and notes.
- In 2010 my husband and I traveled to northern France with the express purpose of seeing WWI battle sites and memorials as well as the lands of Picardy and Nord-Pas-de-Calais where so many battles occurred. I filled an entire notebook and came home with over five hundred pictures. The following year, I accompanied him on a business trip to Brussels and we took a few days to visit Ypres and its surroundings.
- While sitting in a French cafe having dinner one night, my third novel was born. You never know what a glass or two of wine will inspire!
- Whenever I have the opportunity to watch a movie set in either war, I do using my ever-present notebook to jot thoughts as the movie unfolds. Sounds and visuals are of most interest.
- In addition to photos of the time, I’ve discovered a few fashion websites such as www.fashion-era.com, www.victoriana.com and www.costumes.org. Pictures and descriptions from these sites give little snippets to use when setting a scene or introducing a character.
- Historical radio broadcasts have also helped. Hearing a speech made by Woodrow Wilson or King Edward VIII, listening to a reporter recount the actual Dieppe landing raids or hearing songs from the past make that world come alive in a visceral manner.
I am fortunate that the world wars are relatively recent and as a consequence easier to research. Nonetheless, I often work for hours in order to write a few sentences. Good thing I enjoy the process!
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is available in paperback and e-book formats from Amazon (US, Canada and elsewhere), Nook, Kobo, Google Play and soon on iTunes. Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.