World War I, Mysteries, and Research
It doesn’t matter what sort of book you’re writing. Research is going to pop up to haunt you at some stage, if only to find out if that Italian restaurant is still on the corner of Vine and Broad, and how late dinner is served on Saturday night.In our case, research is essential at every stage. The setting. The war. The period. The language. The murder.After a while, you become accustomed to checking everything. What is the history of this particular village? On what date in the Great War did that happen? What do you call the baggage cars in an English train? What sort of weapon would be available in 1919 to someone who was not likely to have access to a firearm and wasn’t likely to use a knife? And what style hat would a woman of sixty wear to market on a Thursday?Actually, it can be fun to chase down a fact. Sometimes you stumble over information that would be more useful in another chapter or even another book. Or you get lost in something that you never expect to use but sounds really intriguing. And then, to your surprise, it finds its way into a short story.
What’s the biggest problem with research?
In many cases, it’s the impossibility of finding what you need to know. You search and search again, but you can’t find the answer. Often that’s because no one remembers what Grandmother called this. Or no one writing about the trenches ever addresses a particular problem. If the question is crucial and you can’t find what you need to know, you have to come up with a clever way to write around it, even though what you had hoped to use was more exciting.
The greatest danger with research?
You can learn a very great deal about the Battle of the Somme. There are whole books on the subject. The complexities of why it was fought and how it was fought and how long it lasted can be very interesting. But how much belongs in this manuscript? The temptation is to use more of what you know, even if it’s outside the parameters of the plot, to explain too much. Solution? Trim, and then trim again if need be. Tell the reader what he needs to hear—no more, no less. The same thing goes for settings. Or houses. Or backstory for a character. Describe a room with enough information to fix it in the reader’s imagination as the action commences. Don’t decorate it down to the warp and woof of the carpet. You’ll put the reader to sleep before anything exciting can happen there.
On the other hand, we learn far more than we need to use about a particular village setting. That’s important to give ourselves the feel of the area. As the story develops, however, we begin to narrow the space to what is essential to the plot. There may be a lovely gatehouse on the road leading out of the village, but if there’s no realistic reason to take a character there, you must sacrifice it. If you try to work it in anyway, the story line goes astray.
We buy a great many books about England and the war and the landscape and the food and barns and whatever else we can find. One of them may hold a gold mine of information that is referred to often, while another may have only one photograph that works. But that’s all right. It has still paid for itself if it sheds light on a question.
We read books written since the period we’re writing about, but their information must be carefully vetted. Neither an author nor a character can “know” more than was available knowledge at the time. It’s easy to fall into this trap, when you discover something in later works that is perfect for a story. Who will find you out?? Probably a dozen people who read that very book.
The same is true of political correctness. Making characters higher-minded than their contemporaries on our hot issues rather than their own has to be supported by good research.
With all this material available to us, why go to England?
To hear the voices, to see what was and is in a town, to feel and smell and listen. To explore distances and relationships and small details that no book or Internet source could provide—because they seem too ordinary. But these will add unexpected dimension to a story. These can take a reader there. They are the gems that make a good writer look even better. So far we’ve never found any workable substitute.