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Look Out in the Black-Out!

February 28, 2008 at 10:06 pm

For a hopeless perfectionist like me, writing a World War II novel can involve a frankly crushing amount of research. Which is why I couldn't have been more delighted when I received a package from my friend Mark Falzini yesterday.

Mark is an author, bagpiper, world traveler, historian, anglophile, and the archivist of the New Jersey State Police Museum.

I met Mark Falzini when I was living in Princeton, along with another Mark of Italian extraction, the unstoppable Mark Lopez. (Or the Don Lopez, as I respectfully refer to him. You would, too, if you saw some of his acquaintances from his youth on the mean streets of Trenton. Seriously. These are some scary looking guys. Just sayin'.) The New Jersey Marks went well out of their way to make me feel welcome in the short six months I lived out there. And I have to say, New Jersey couldn't have two better ambassadors. I celebrated my 30th birthday with the Marks and their families. A Fourth of July, too. (Falzini and I won the bocce ball championship of the universe that day, as I recall.) I met Mark Lopez while he was volunteering for the OSETI project, and it was through him that I once had dinner with Freeman Dyson and his son George, but that's a story for a different blog post. And then there was the day Mark, Mark, and I took a side trip to Grover's Mill, NJ, to visit the spot where the Martians landed on October 30, 1938. On that particular day we blundered into the midst of a very large and very joyful Mongolian celebration taking place in Van Nest Park.

It's through his job at the NJSPM that Mark Falzini happened to become one of the world's experts on the Lindbergh kidnapping. (Hey, what do you know-- I share my birthday with the Lindbergh baby.) Much (most?) of the evidence pertaining to that famous case are in Mark's care in the archives. He's been interviewed about the case many times, both in the newspaper and on television, and a few years ago he even discovered a new piece of evidence regarding the case that had gone undiscovered for 70 years. We went out to the Lindbergh house one day (the one in New Jersey, not the one in my home state), where Mark laid out the known and speculated sequence of events on the night of the kidnapping for us.

I'm happy to report that I made it through all of these adventures without once seeing Mark in a kilt.

Anyway, that's a long aside. What did I find on my doorstep yesterday?

A bounty of research materials from the Imperial War Museum: full-size, full-color reproductions of World War II era posters, leaflets, evacuation labels, ration books, identity cards, Home Guard certificates of service, RAF combat reports, newspaper pages, and even a map compiled for the German naval high command outlining the first phase of Operation Sealion.

Mark's timing is just plain perfect, now that I'm deep into the second draft of Bitter Seeds. I've labored long and hard to evoke the era, to give the novel that invaluable feeling of verisimilitude. My dining room table is buried under the research materials I've compiled since starting to work on the Milkweed Triptych (some day I'll post a photo), but even so there are days when it feels like I'm just scratching the surface of such a vast topic. In the novel I've made references, some oblique and some direct, to many of these items, or ones like them -- the ration books, the posters, the evacuation tags... In some cases I've obtained small, blurry photos of posters and leaflets, and in other cases I've made do with just the transcribed text. But it's not the same thing as actually holding a ration book in my hand while looking up at a poster declaring "Gas Attack! What To Do!" (I visited the uber-amazing Cabinet War Rooms in London back in '98 or '99, but that was long before I ever entertained the notion of writing a World War II novel.) Thanks to Mark, I find myself transported to another time as I work on this rewrite.

Now, if you'll excuse me, the air-raid sirens have just sounded, so I must get to my Anderson shelter.


Type your name here March 2, 2008 at 7:02 pm
If you ever find yourself in Germany, do check out the science and technology museum in Munich. I saw an enigma machine there! Among many, many other WWII items.

Admit it, though. The research is fun.

SarahP March 2, 2008 at 7:07 pm
sorry, that was me, forgetting to put my name in the space thingy.
Ian March 2, 2008 at 7:43 pm
You're right, it is pretty fun. I love finding the little
details that fit perfectly into a scene, or when I'm reading
for research and find I don't have to look up an acronym because
I've already learned it. That's rewarding. Also, I just find
it fascinating.

Now you're making me think I need to take an extended trip
through England and Germany and then write it off as a business
expense :)

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