Getting The Research Right For Your Historical Novel, by Douglas W Jacobson
As the old saying goes, “The devil is in the detail.” One of the reasons I have always loved historical fiction is that it is a truly marvelous way to learn a bit of history. Some authors of non-fiction (Stephen Ambrose comes to mind) have a flair and style of writing that make their work enjoyable and easy to read. But, in my humble opinion, there’s nothing quite like curling up with Herman Wouk’s War and Remembrance or Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth for the ultimate reading experience . . . and a great way to learn history.
That brings us to the issue at hand. Writing good historical fiction places a special burden on the author to get it right. Getting it right doesn’t stop with the big stuff; the dates and locations, the battles and who won the war. It gets right down to the detail. For example, what would a serf in the thirteenth century be likely to eat for breakfast? What type of profanity would a soldier likely have used during the Napoleonic wars? Did the troopers of the Polish cavalry carry lances during World War Two?
It’s the detail that immerses the reader in the time and place of your story. It’s the scent of the kerosene lanterns and the smell of the boiling cabbage, the sticky mud of the footpaths and creaking of the yardarms that give a story its life and vitality. It’s what makes it real. But making it real, of course, means doing the research.
When I set out to write my first novel, Night of Flames, I had been studying and reading about World War Two for most of my adult life. I knew a lot, but not nearly enough. For instance, I wanted to write about the Polish cavalry because the notion of horse-drawn armies in WW2 has been largely ignored, even though almost all the armies in the first few years of the war – including those of Germany and Russia – relied heavily on horses for transportation. But how was a Polish cavalry brigade organized? What type of weapons did they carry? What did their uniforms look like? How far could they travel in a day? Where did they find food for the horses and who re-shoed them when necessary? Did they really charge tanks?
Let’s stick with this issue for a moment to pursue the ways and means of research. You can learn a lot on the internet these days and, indeed, I found numerous websites filled with detail about WW2 era cavalry. I also found a marvelous book entitled, The Cavalry of World War Two, chock full of information about specific cavalry regiments from Poland, France, Germany and Russia, their organization and leadership, the types of horses and weapons, battles and anecdotal accounts. But the most fascinating of all was my experience at The Battle of the Bzura Museum in Kutno, Poland, which I visited during one of my trips to Poland. It was a treasure of maps, artifacts, displays of uniforms and weapons, canteens and knapsacks. And, even more fascinating, was an encounter the next day with an elderly gentleman in Walewice, Poland who happened to be sitting on the front porch of his home while we were wandering around the town square looking for some type of commemorative plaque. Through the translation offered by my friend and Polish history scholar, Slawomir Debski, the elderly gentleman confirmed that the Wielkopolska Cavalry Brigade did, indeed, cross the Bzura River and confront a German infantry battalion in that town on 14 September, 1939. He knew… because he was there. And that’s the best kind of research.
This is exactly the same discipline I used in doing the research for The Katyn Order.
Douglas W Jacobson’s author website: www.douglaswjacobson.com
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