Over on her blog recently, Susan Dennard has been giving some thought to one of the heaviest of writerly burdens: research. Since she’s written her own historical spec-fic novels, it’s a topic to which she has given a fair bit of thought. (Her posts are a good primer for folks who find themselves contemplating a project that requires its own research, but who haven’t done something like that for a while, or who don’t know how to tackle it.)
Meanwhile, in a completely unrelated turn of events, I bought a new camera this weekend. And find myself completely incapable of using it effectively. (Big surprise). So I thought it would be fun to post a few photos of the bookshelf where I kept many of my research materials while working on the Milkweed Triptych.
Below the cut: blurry photos and puppet robots.
If you look closely at the photo below, you might notice a photograph of Joel Robinson (aka Joel Hodgson), Crow T. Robot, Tom Servo, and Gypsy. That’s right. I labor under the compassionate gaze of the crew of the Satellite of Love. (Why yes, the photo is signed. How did you know?) This gift from the marvelous Pat Rogers brightened many an evening spent slaving away at the desk.
I’ll go into more detail in a moment, but this photo is a good place to point out how the arrangement naturally settled into a few categories. The arrangement shown here is the result of several factors: shelf space, ease of access, and a cursory attempt to keep things in something resembling reasonable order. (Though the most important thing has always been that I could quickly find a book when I needed it, rather than whether its content made for a logical fit with its neighbors.)
That small pile of stuff atop the bookshelf contains maps, reproductions of period documents, and a 1939-1945 Star Medal with Battle of Britain bar. (More on this below.)
The top shelf is mostly history books, mostly pertaining to World War II. It also contains a few reference books, and some photographic collections. (Photo collections and coffee table books can be a terrific source of authentic period detail. They also provide a sense of atmosphere, for the writer so inclined.)
The reference books continue into the second shelf, where they bracket what is probably one of the most definitive records of the war, anywhere: Winston Churchill’s six-volume series. The second shelf also contains some information about the intelligence services, a topic that continues on the third shelf.
The third shelf is a mixture of reference materials and novels, both nonfiction and fiction. This is where I kept books that people recommended to me on the basis of content or style. John Le Carré has a couple of books on this shelf.
The binders on the bottom shelf contain additional research materials, and extensively revised first drafts of all three Milkweed books. At the very bottom of the photo, you can see the electrical cords that I trip over about once per week.
Here’s a closeup of the top shelf. The books here are, in no particular order:
Austerity Britain: 1945 -1951 by David Kynaston
The Order of the Death’s Head by Heinz Höhne
“The Good Old Days” The Holocaust as Seen By Its Perpetrators and Bystanders edited by Ernst Klee, Willi Dressen, and Volker Riess.
A World At Arms; A Global History of World War II by Gerhard L. Weinberg
The Second World War by John Keegan
The Second World War by Martin Gilbert
History of the Second World War by B. H. Liddell Hart
How We Lived Then: A History of Everyday Life during the Second World War by Norman Longmate
The World War II Bookshelf by James F. Dunnigan
The World War II Desk Reference by Douglas Brinkley (director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies) and Michael E. Haskew (editor)
A New Illustrated History of World War II: Rare and Unseen Photographs 1939-1945 published by David & Charles, UK
World War II: A Day-By-Day History (60th Anniversary Edition) edited by Peter Darman
The War: An Intimate History 1941 – 1945 by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns
The Armed Forces of World War II: Uniforms, Insignia, and Organization by Andrew Mollo, illustrated by Malcom McGregor and Pierre Turner
Several of these books are gifts from friends or verrrry long-term loans from folks who took pity on me. (“The Good Old Days” is a long-term loan from Tobias Buckell. See, Toby, I haven’t forgotten! The Armed Forces of World War II is a long-term loan from Melinda Snodgrass. The War: An Intimate History was a birthday gift from Ty Franck and Jayne Franck.)
One thing worth noting (or nothing) in this photo—if you look closely, you’ll see little plastic bookmark tags sticking out of the books in a few places. These represent about 5% of the total number of bookmark tags I used (thanks, 3M), but you can’t see that in the photograph because my preference is to place the tags on the outer edge of a book, where they make it easy to open it to a desired page. My copy of How We Lived Then is positively furry with the damn things. The Longmate book is out of print, and I had to special order it several years ago, but it paid for itself over and over again. Absolutely priceless.
Here’s the next shelf:
The Illustrated Directory of Guns by David Miller (on loan from S. M. Stirling)
British Infantry Equipments 1908-1980 (Men-At-Arms Series #108) by Mike Chappell (on loan from S. M. Stirling)
Inside Hitler’s Germany: Life Under the Third Reich by Matthew Hughes & Chris Mann
1945 by Gregor Dallas (a gift from Terry England)
The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan
A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous (a gift from Dr. Barbara DeVolder, a coworker)
Hammond Family Reference World Atlas
Visitors’ London Atlas and Guide, published by Geographers’ A-Z Map Company Limited. (This was absolutely invaluable for the general geography of London, but obviously wasn’t my final definitive reference for the streets of 1940 London, since this was published in 1998. For period-accurate geography, I used the fantastic web site Maps of London. Dear Whoever Decided To Post High-Resolution Scans Of A London Map Published in 1940: I owe you a beer. Or nine.)
The Second World War, Volume I: The Gathering Storm by Winston S. Churchill
The Second World War, Volume II: Their Finest Hour by Winston S. Churchill
The Second World War, Volume III: The Grand Alliance by Winston S. Churchill
The Second World War, Volume IV: The Hinge of Fate by Winston S. Churchill
The Second World War, Volume V: Closing the Ring by Winston S. Churchill
The Second World War, Volume VI: Triumph and Tragedy by Winston S. Churchill
Unexplained Mysteries of World War II by William B. Breuer (where else can you read about the plot to kidnap Hitler’s corpse?)
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer
The SS: Alibi of a Nation 1922 – 1945 by Gerald Reitlinger
MI6 by Stephen Dorril
The third shelf is a mixture of historical reference, nonfiction novels, and fiction novels:
Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal by Ben Macintyre
Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man And a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory by Ben Macintyre
Roosevelt’s Secret War by Joseph E. Persico
The True Intrepid by Bill Macdonald
A Man Called Intrepid by William Stevenson
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (recommended to me by Charles Coleman Finlay, as an example of style)
Four Complete Lord Peter Wimsey Novels by Dorothy L. Sayers (Whose Body?, Clouds of Witness, Murder Must Advertise, and Gaudy Night) This is a long-term loan from Melinda Snodgrass, who recommended I take a look at Gaudy Night. Neither of us remember why it seemed relevant four years ago.
Illegal Action by Stella Rimington (Dame Stella was the Director General of MI5 from 1992 to 1996)
Hitler Victorious: Eleven Stories of the German Victory in World War II, edited by Gregory Benford and Martin H. Greenberg. It behooves anybody writing in a popular playground to be aware (and beware) of what others have done. This collection includes David Brin’s famous story, “Thor Meets Captain America,” which some people refer to when trying to describe Bitter Seeds (likewise the related graphic novel, The Life Eaters).
Niccolò Rising, The First Book of the House of Niccolò by Dorothy Dunnett. This was recommended to me on the basis of style and structure by both Melinda Snodgrass and Daniel Abraham. I’m sure they can’t imagine what they were thinking when they decided to try to encourage me by pointing to “the blessed Dunnett” as they call her.
They Used Dark Forces by Dennis Wheatley. I discovered Wheatley’s novels when I was about halfway through the first draft of Milkweed #2, The Coldest War. I was a little put out when I learned that a former member of Churchill’s War Cabinet had written a series of novels about spies and black magic! But ten minutes of perusal were all it took to stop me from sticking my head in the oven. Our stories couldn’t be more different. (Perhaps because Wheatley was actually there and therefore knew what he was talking about, whereas I draw most of my knowledge of the day-to-day world from half-remembered episodes of Pop-Up Video on VH1.)
My Silent War by Kim Philby (wherein one of the most notorious double agents in moden western history tries to explain himself)
Tinker Sailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré (the undisputed master of Cold War spy fiction)
The Honourable Schoolboy by John Le Carré
Spy Handler, Memoir of a KGB Officer by Victor Cherkashin with Gregory Feifer
Code Breakers: The Inside Story of Bletchley Park by F. H. Hinsley and Alan Stripp
Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS by Elizabeth P. McIntosh
Secret Wars: One Hundred Years of British Intelligence Inside MI5 and MI6 by Gordon Thomas
And here’s the bottom shelf:
The binders marked “Milkeed Triptych 1” and “Milkweed Triptych 2” are not rough drafts of Bitter Seeds and The Coldest War. Those binders contain research materials that didn’t come from books: photocopies from period newspaper articles; printouts of essays from the BBC Peoples’ War archive project; printouts from high-resolution scans of a 1940 map of London; character sketches; org charts for fictional organizations; timelines and calendars; plot outlines; research notes taken while watching the television series Foyle’s War (which won much acclaim for its attention to historical accuracy); cross sections of U-boats; maps of von Westarp’s farm; and just about anything else you might imagine.
The other three binders do contain rough drafts of all three Milkweed books. Once I’ve finished the first draft of a novel, I like to print the whole thing out and then stick it on the shelf for a while, until I can look at it with fresh eyes. Then I pull out a pen and spend a couple of weeks rereading the book, editing as I go along. It’s a slow and painful process, but the end result is inevitably better for it. This is also the stage where I incorporate most of the comments and suggestions received from my writing group during the previous year.
Thanks to my friend Mark Falzini, I had access to some terrific research materials from the Imperial War Museum.
The picture at left shows a packet from the IWM, which contains a wealth of documents reproduced from originals that date to the Battle of Britain:
-The front page from the Daily Sketch, 31 May 1940.
-If The Invader Comes, a government leaflet from June 1940.
-Membership card from the Local Defense Volunteers circa May 1940 (note the LDV became the Home Guard in July 1940).
-Don’t Help the Enemy! Careles Talk May Give Away Vital Secrets, a poster dating from 1939.
-Spot at Sight Chart No. 1: Enemy Uniforms, a poster from 1940.
-A Last Appeal to Reason, transcript of Hitler’s speech to the Reichstag in July 1940 which was dropped as a leaflet over Britain in July 1940.
-An extract from Spot Them In The Air, an aircraft identification book published in 1940.
-A map compiled in late summer 1940 for the German Naval High Command in preparation for Operation Sealion.
-A notice prepared by office of the Chief of the German Secret Police for Great Britain, to be used after the invasion.
-The August 31, 1940 diary entry from one Mr. J. H. Rumens, containing his eyewitness account of a dogfight between German and British aircraft during the Battle of Britain.
-A combat report submitted by Lt. A. S. Forbes of the 303 Polish Squadron, RAF, after his attack on a German formation on September 7, 1940.
-The front page from The Times, 15 September 1940.
-Never Was so Much Owed by so Many to so Few, an RAF recruiting poster from 1940.
Several of these objects featured directly in Bitter Seeds. So, for instance, when Marsh comes home after a particularly long day at work, and accidentally knocks to the floor a leaflet titled If the Invader Comes, I was describing an object I physically held in my hands. Likewise the Spot On Sight poster that appears in the Charing Cross Underground station.
Also included in the above photograph is the 1939-1945 Star Medal that I mentioned earlier. This is a lovely piece of WWII memorabilia, and I couldn’t help but include it in The Coldest War. (Thanks, Melinda!)
The Imperial War Museum also has a packet pertaining to daily life during the war. It contains reproductions of the following objects:
-The front page of the Daily Mirror, 4 September 1939
-Gas Attack, a poster intended to instruct the populace in anti-gas measures
-Look Out in the Black Out, a poster containing guidance for motorists who had to modify their cars to keep in line with the blackout requirements
-An evacuation tag for a child who was evacuated from her London home on 2 June 1940
-A page from a Liverpool police Incident Officer’s Record for the night of 21-22 December 1940.
-A letter home from a 13 year old evacuee describing the destruction of her foster home in a massive bombing raid in April, 1942.
-The cover and sample pages from a ration book, circa 1940.
-A National Registration Identity Card.
-Ministry of Food War Cookery Leaflet Number 11.
-“Make-Do and Mend” newspaper advertisement issued by the Board of Trade in 1944.
-Cover Your Hair for Safety (a poster aimed at the many women working factory jobs at the time).
-A map showing V1 attacks on Kent up to September, 1944.
-A page from the log of V2 incidents kept by Map Room officers in the Cabinet War rooms.
-A certificate of service issued to a Home Guard member after the war.
-Front page of the News Chronicle of 8 May 1945.
Again, several of these objects made their way into the Milkweed Triptych. So, for instance, when Marsh and Liv reluctantly send their daughter out of London for safety, the evacuation tag pinned to Agnes’s clothing is based directly on something that I held in my hands. The ID card, the war cookery leaflet, Look Out in the Black Out, and the ration book all appear in various locations in the trilogy.
Two more books appeared in the first photo but were accidentally omitted from the close ups:
The CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception by H. Keith Melton and Robert Wallace
The Goetia: The Lesser Key of Solomon the King translated by Samuel Liddell and MacGregor Mathers
And one was omitted completely, because it was sitting on my desk when I took the photos:
Put Out More Flags by Eveleyn Waugh
So there you have it. And now you can see why I’m really looking forward to my next writing project, which will not take place in a historical period.