E. L. Doctorow once said, “fiction doesn’t have to be real, it just has to seem real.”
It’s a great piece of advice, and one of the basic tenets when I write fiction. Characters, setting and dialogue all help to create the “real” world of your novel. But research is the mother of it all.
I enjoy the research part of writing, which is a good thing, since my latest project required dozens, maybe even hundreds, of hours of research. And all for a short story of about 5,000 words!
“Death From Above” is a story set over the skies of Germany in the July 1943 Allied bombing campaign of Hamburg. My character, a young Owen Sound man and pilot of a Lancaster bomber, begins to have second thoughts about not only his mission, but also his relationship with the woman he left behind—all while he drops his aircraft’s deadly bombs on civilian targets as enemy fighters and flak guns try to take down him and his crew.
So… what do I know about the Allied bombing campaign over Germany? Not much, but the idea of it fascinated me. I started with recalling interviews I’d done with air force vets over the course of my journalism career. Bomber crews and fighter pilots, the one thing their memories all had in common was their fear. They were scared the entire time they were up in the air, and felt extremely lucky upon their safe return. They weren’t emotionless, conscienceless automatons. They were young guys afraid they would die every time their plane lifted off the tarmac. Luck more than skill saw them return.
Next I consumed five to six books on the subject and watched a few documentaries on YouTube. I wanted to know not only the nuts and bolts of the Lancaster bomber itself (how fast it went, how much payload it carried, the tasks of each of its crew members) but how it felt to be in one. How it felt flying into the bomb run, how it felt when those mighty flak bursts nearly hit you, how the bomber dodged those shark-like enemy fighter planes. And of course, the horror of seeing other planes succumb and soar through the air as flames consumed them.
The horror of what these men went through came to life in my research. And so did the horror of those on the ground. Tens of thousands of civilians died in those raids on Hamburg – not only from the bombs, but from the raging firestorm that incinerated everything in its path. As a fiction writer, it’s up to me to bring that horror to life on my pages, so that the reader sees and feels, hears and smells the terrible tableau from my character’s vantage point.
There were other things I needed to research too, like the movie theatres in Owen Sound at the time, because my character flashes back to his more youthful days back home. What songs, movies, movie stars were popular at the time? What did kids do here for fun in the 1930s? What and where was the arena in Owen Sound at the time?
Research is the foundation on which to build your characters, setting and story. If you can put the reader right into the action and get her to buy into its “reality”, she’ll buy into your character and story as well.
Don’t cut short your research. Embrace it, and your readers will be hooked.