Thursday, August 14, 2014

ON RESEARCH

Its in here somewhere...
Writing my latest work Life Unworthy was slower than my previous books for two reasons.  First, I was hesitant to attempt it before because I did not feel that I was a good enough author to do the story justice when I first started it, years ago.  The second reason was research.

When writing a book set in a historical period, you have three choices: make it all up and hope nobody notices, go from memory and what you've learned, or dig in and research while you write.  The third option has risks (it can tend to make you pedantic in your writing; so you end up sounding more like a textbook or a lecture than a story) but its the best of the three in terms of accuracy.

When I set about to write a book set in WW2 Poland, I had a basic idea of the setting and time, but as the words showed up on the page, I found more and more areas I needed to research.  What is a good name for a Polish family?  What street is this building on?  What was it used for in 1942?  What was that park called?  Where would someone get a cage in Krakow?  What was the German word for a colonel in the SS?

The more I researched, the more I found I needed to research.  I estimate that for every hour I wrote in the book, I spent two hours researching, digging, and studying.  I found old maps, charts of military structure, information when bridges were built, and more.  The research was both exhilarating and intimidating.  All this new information was wonderful and it allowed me to craft a more immersive, accurate tale.

But at the same time, it was troubling because I started to worry more and more what details I might be getting wrong.  What kind of floors did the buildings have?  Where did they hang their laundry?  Did many homes have refrigerators or did they use iceboxes?  On and on it went.  The deeper I got into this project, the more concern built that I was getting stupid things wrong just out of ignorance.

And in a story about WW2 Poland, it seems disrespectful to not have the details and sense of the time as accurate as possible, just out of honor for the people who suffered under the evil regime.  After a while I got past the initial fear, but it still haunts me.

So I've been reaching out to every place I can think of, trying to find experts and historically knowledgeable people to look over the book for errors and inconsistencies.  I found a professor at Princeton University who specializes in Polish history during WW2 that I'm in contact with so hopefully he'll at least know someone who can look my manuscript over.  Since I haven't the money (or desire) to pay someone for their assistance, I'm relying on the kindness of strangers.

I know nothink about a proper uniform!
Then there is the military.  The Nazis were bad guys, and the SS were usually nazis and awful people, but they were regular military and followed procedure, had specific equipment and so on.  And I want to make sure that I get all those little details correct.  For example, there's a scene in the book where I have the SS troops advancing in covering formation; they move up one at a time on either side of the street with the others covering them from crouched positions.  

I've seen it a hundred times in movies and I know its standard tactics for that kind of situation in the military today.  But was it used in WW2, by the Germans?  House-to-house city fighting tactics with modern weaponry was first developed in the second world war from very hard lessons, and I'm not convinced the Germans would have used it in the spring of 1942.

Its little stuff like that, such as what uniform a soldier wears, that drive experts and purists nuts when they read a book or see something on the screen.  And as much as possible I want to avoid it.  So more research is in the wings.  And honestly I don't know where to reach out for that kind of information.

So I'm doing my best to get more help with this.  It goes to show sometimes you get in over your head, but its worth the doing to make sure its right.  Because readers will let you know when you get something wrong.