Researching WW2 – treasuring those memories
However you define the term ‘historical novel’, there can be few things more daunting than being asked to write about events which you yourself don’t remember, but which other people do. This was the position I was put in when Rosemary Cheetham at Orion commissioned me to write a series of London based street sagas set during the Second World War.
When my agent set up a meeting to discuss the project, Rosemary’s first words were, ‘Oh dear, I didn’t realise you were so young.’ Obviously this was a matter of opinion! Nevertheless the implication was that she had hoped for someone with at very least a few childhood recollections of cowering under a Morrison shelter in the corner of the kitchen while V2s whistled overhead.
Clearly this was not the case with me but I was reluctant to be defeated at the first post by the trifling problem of my age: ‘Goodness,’ I said. ‘There’s so much material available about the Second World War. I can easily research it.’
It sounded easy enough. But what I hadn’t quite appreciated was exactly how much material there was.
That was over ten years ago. Now, as I start researching the fourth in the Lavender Road series, on top of the published (and unpublished) histories, diaries and letters, the museums, the themed ‘attractions’, the official reports, the local history libraries, the films, film footage and endless BBC documentaries, there is also the internet with a million WW2 sites and a plethora of WW2 online enthusiasts.
But what there aren’t so many of now, sadly, are real live people who remember those eventful years. And it was people’s memories that I found the most interesting element of my research last time around. Yes, historical records are great, but nothing compares with someone telling you at first hand what it was like to be caught in Balham tube station when a bomb severed the water main, or to crawl through the cellars of a collapsed building searching for a trapped child, or to take a tiny riverboat over to rescue soldiers marooned at Dunkirk, or to be parachuted into occupied France. And it’s not just the big events, it’s the small memories too, Americans soldiers sticking their chewing gum on the door of a hospital ward while they visited injured colleagues. a precious pound of sugar carried in a tin helmet, the terror of a war office telegram, the delight in a fresh egg.
Yesterday I interviewed a ninety year old doctor who had been present in the laboratory where they developed the first penicillin cultures. He told me that they had to use bedpans to grow the cultures in, they simply didn’t have anything else suitable. Later on he casually let slip that in 1941 his ship was torpedoed at night crossing the Atlantic and he spent several hours tossing about in the dark on a makeshift raft in his dressing gown and slippers, waiting to be rescued.
That is one of the odd things about the war years, people who lived through it often look back as though it was all quite ordinary. But it wasn’t, it was extraordinary and it forced people to show extraordinary amounts of courage and resilience. That’s what makes it such a fascinating period to write about. At the very least it is a way of preserving some of those precious personal memories.
Hi Helen,I was 9+ when the war began,I was coming down the stairs and my mum and dad were standing in the hall with their arms around each other and mum was crying.I felt really frightened without understanding why,and asked why was mummy crying,and daddy replied,”Our country is at war.”
At this time we lived in the village of Newton above Caswell Bay and life did not change (in a childs eyes) until the Germans bombed the oil works and we were woken up to see this amazing sight.The bombing of Swansea continued for three nights and people came with all they could carry in wheel barrows,carts etc,and everyone in the village took as many folk in as was possible,we had a number of them sleeping in our house until housing was sorted out for them.
Their was talk of Germans landing on the coast and certainly they came from somewhere because one was caught trying to hide in a phone box,some of the ladies in the village got hold of him and if dad hadn’t arrived on the scene he said they would have knifed him, a number of others were picked up on the beaches.
The German planes used to fly low over our house and one night my dad was so angry he ran upstairs with my sister and me in hot pursuit to see him shooting at them from the bedroom window,I hasten to add he never hit one.
Although a child I had a great sense of sadness especially when one saw the telegraph boy arrive at a house in the village,as I understood what this meant.By the time the war was over we were back living in Hereford and I will never forget the excitement of hearing the was was over and the party that followed.
As a classically trained historian and novelist, research and the materials that make up that body of work fall into various categories that yield varied information. If I wanted to find the truth out about a specific aspect of a civil war battle, I would read the OoB (order of battle), the dispatches submitted before – during – and after, the battle reports submitted by the various commands, articles written long after the war by major participants (Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, compilations printed in the latter half of the 19c), regimental histories, and finally the work of modern historians who have written and synthesized the events.
Each has a place in the research and each has its flaws. But I do agree that personal recollection and anecdote are invaluable for adding realism and truth (though subjective) to a story. I rely a ton on the records of the War of the Rebellion for gaining insights into the individual units and what they did, weaving those facts into my stories.
Thanks so much for the comments (both here and elsewhere). Yes, I think what is so compelling about research is the variety of resources, each giving a different angle or insight into the event. Choosing how to use the information, and how to make it accessible and of interest to the reader is of course another huge topic, one which I will try to address in a future post!
Sorry, that was ‘… MY novels…’ and ‘… just stepped over the BODY and…’
Too much of a hurry…
There is so much that I identify with here, as several of mu novels have been set in these period. Historians talk about the ‘unreliability’ of personal anecdote and account, and people rememembering. borrowing or synthesising other people’s memeories. But I think a narrrative truth shines through and does come down to us writers, creators, inheritors in this generation. I particularly value contemporaneous diaries. In the Imperial War Museum I found amazing ‘voices’ in Diaries and of women interned on Singapore for LONG JOURNEY HOME, and wonderful recorded archive- actual voices – in the Coventry Archive for LAND OF YOUR POSSESSION.
I was interested in your point about them seeing is as ‘ordinary’. I think it is only by seeing the events as ordinary that they survived. One man said to me. ‘You just stepped over the bidy and got on with what you had to do.
I think one of the things I really enjoyed about the Lavender Road books were how realistic they were in that although they’re set against a backdrop of war, the characters, such as Jen, very much have their own goals and agendas.. I think the trilogy moves beyond the whole Vera Lynn/powdered egg/ etc wartime cliches and creates a very vivid environment that the modern reader can relate to.
Your post really hit home for me. My parents were part of the WWII generation, and I not only miss them as individuals I miss their values. People who lived through those years and fought for our freedom developed a different way of looking at the world. They were concerned with protecting their country and all it stood for. Modern materialism would turn them in their graves. They had to make decisions we will never have to make, and they had to live with the fear of losing the war.
Anyway…thanks for a good post.
Thanks Helen, for highlighting the importance of capturing the voice and experience of “ordinary people” who lived through extraordinary times, and were so often exceptional in their “ordinariness.” Great post.