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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Bird and the Worm—Research to Make Historical Fiction Come to Life


Sarah Sundin is the author of With Every Letter, the first book in the Wings of the Nightingale series from Revell, and also the Wings of Glory series (A Distant Melody, A Memory Between Us, and Blue Skies Tomorrow). In 2011, Sarah received the Writer of the Year Award at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference. Sarah lives in northern California with her husband and three children, and she works on-call as a hospital pharmacist.


Excellent historical fiction immerses the reader in a past era and grants an appreciation for what people experienced and how they lived. Good research lends your story authenticity, gives colorful period details, and provides ideas for plot and character.

To write riveting historical fiction, research with both the eye of the bird and the eye of the worm.

A bird soars high. It sees for miles in all directions and senses what’s happening in many places, but it’s detached from the action. The worm sits in its little spot in the ground, aware of the smell of the earth and the feel of the grass, but only able to see a few feet away.
Bird’s Eye Historical Resources

When you do historical research, you’ll find many sources that offer the bird’s eye view. Movements of armies, actions of governments, cultural trends, dates, figures—information. Bird’s eye resources include government documents, as well as many books and internet sites.

While researching With Every Letter, which follows a World War II flight nurse and an Army engineer, I read accounts of the campaigns in North Africa and Sicily, books about infantry tactics, documents about procedures for medical air evacuation, the combat chronology of the US Army Air Force in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations, and even the technical manual for the M1 heavy tractor.

Have your eyes glazed over yet? Bird’s eye research can do that. But a love of the story and the characters can make the driest material fascinating.

Worm’s Eye Historical Resources

Other sources offer the earthy view from below. Interviews, memoirs, diaries, and oral histories tell you what it felt like to live in an era, what real people did, the day-to-day stuff of life. Experts from museums, national parks, and reenactment groups can provide details of how people dressed, what they ate, and how they made a living. Period newspapers and magazines give you insight into attitudes and language and the cost of sugar.

My research for With Every Letter included letters home from an Army engineer in North Africa to his little daughter, oral histories from flight nurses, and the columns of Ernie Pyle, a journalist who lived with GIs in Tunisian slit trenches. I learned about the feel of the mud, the taste of the rations, the sound of artillery shells, how the average 1942 American viewed the native cultures, and how inappropriately outfitted the nurses were for the field.

This is the stuff that makes the historical fiction writer’s eyes light up. This is the stuff that makes the story feel real.

Bird and Worm Living in Harmony

Most writers prefer either the bird’s view or the worm’s. But quality historical fiction needs both.

Bird’s eye research told me the twenty-five nurses of the 802nd Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron departed New York Harbor for Mers el Kebir, Algeria on February 7, 1943 aboard the USS Lyon. Dry—but necessary to write a historically accurate story.

The bird’s eye view gives you perspective and the framework of your story world. Just as you live, aware of the culture and affected by international events, so do your characters live in their world. A foundational knowledge of the time period, grounded in technical and chronological details, gives you a firm platform for your story.

Worm’s eye research told me the ladies of the 802nd shipped out before they received official flight nurse uniforms, so they cut down what they had and bought trousers off the department store rack. While on board, they got seasick, had limited water for bathing, and had a rotation system for time on deck.

The worm’s eye view gives you color and attitude. Look for snippets about taste and smell and sound, feelings and attitudes and opinions. These are the details that make the reader say, “I felt like I was there.”

Both approaches are needed to tell a rich story—bird and worm joining wing to…well, you know what I mean. With both perspective and color, your story will come to life.


With Every Letter (Revell, Sept. 2012)

As part of a morale-building program, World War II flight nurse Lt. Mellie Blake begins an anonymous correspondence with Army engineer Lt. Tom MacGilliver in North Africa. As their letters crisscross the Atlantic, they develop a deep friendship. But when they're both transferred to Algeria, will their future be held hostage by the past—or will they reveal their identities?


5 comments:

Patty Smith Hall said...

Great article, Sarah! I'm very much a 'worm' with a 'bird' thrown in for good measure. Something to work on!

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Excellent post, and SO very true. I've done loads of Viking research, but the stuff that stood out and spoke to me were the Viking sagas--stories based around real people. Not always completely accurate, and their timelines are often askew, but the intensity of life is all over the pages.

Yes, that "bird's eye" research is crucial to fit all the pieces together. But I decided to hone in on one particular woman in the sagas--Gudrid. Three husbands, Eirik the Red for a god-parent, and she was the first recorded European woman to have a baby in North America. Plus, she was lovely and a Christian, to boot! Her life was just intrinsically interesting to me. I did frequently refer to a non-fiction account of her life and times, called The Far Traveler. But the sagas definitely provided that backbone I needed.

Great post! Your books sound interesting!

Ane Mulligan said...

I've loved your series, Sarah, and can't wait to read this new book. I'm working on a historical and love research. I had to change the location of my story because of research results. But I'd rather have it historically correct. You can bend some things but not totally fracture history. ;o)

Sarah Sundin said...

Patty and Heather - that's the experience of most historical fiction writers. The worm's eye view is what fascinates you in the first place and what inspires your passion for the story - and also what draws your readers in. The bird's eye view is the necessary framework to build a firm foundation for that story world - an accurate one, both to honor the real-life people who lived back then and to not annoy your knowledgeable readers :)

Ane - thank you so much! I've also had to change things in my stories to fit history - and sometimes scrap ideas I loved. In With Every Letter, I wanted a real-life air evac squadron and a real engineer aviation battalion, but they moved around so much I couldn't find an engineer unit that was at the airfields I needed at the time I needed. I ended up creating a fictional unit for my hero, an amalgamation of a lot of real units. I totally agree about the "not fracturing" :)

Cathy Richmond said...

Sarah, I told the historical society writing historical fiction is like one of those dot-to-dot puzzles… only half the dots aren't numbered, some appear to be missing, some are incorrectly linked. And once you get the lines drawn, you still have to get out your crayons and turn it into a picture - all the while hoping and praying you've got it right!