Friday, April 6, 2018

When research gets ugly

So, last night the First Reader offered to look over the Blitz chapters of A Tapestry of Fire, check them for accuracy. A generous offer, but things started to get tense right away.

"This scene where someone looks up and sees a British plane shooting up a parachute bomb? Couldn't have happened. They didn't fly over London."

"That's based on an interview with the fire brigade superintendant at Elephant and Castle. He seems to think that he saw exactly that. And BTW, my character is at the Elephant and Castle intersection when she sees it."

Grumble. "Eyewitness accounts are notoriously inaccurate. Anyway, it gets worse. You have this German bomber pilot being attacked by a Spitfire! That couldn't happen! The RAF never used Spitfires for night fighting. They used Hurricanes, Defiants, and Beaufighters."

"Funny thing, that. Want to read these accounts by the RAF pilots in 266 Squadron? They seem to have suffered a mass hallucination that they were ordered into the air at 2 AM on May 11 to attack the German bombers. A couple of them even hallucinated that they shot down Heinkels. And Baron von Siber, whose account is in the German section of this book, imagined that his port engine was shot up by a Spitfire."


No coffee cups or books were thrown during this calm, purely intellectual exchange, though the ambient tension did increase when I offered, very politely, to wait while he looked up 266 Squadron and refreshed his memory as to what aircraft they were flying in 1941. Relations were frosty, but under control, until I unwisely observed that the trouble with the First Reader's WWII expertise seemed to be all the things he "knew" that just weren't so.

Diplomatic relations have been restored as of this morning, after I made the concession of agreeing that Spitfires were poorly suited for night fighting and wouldn't have been anybody's first choice, but with the number of German sorties on May 10-11 the RAF must have felt the need to throw everything including the kitchen sink at the waves of bombers coming at them.

The episode did make me aware of the different ways historians and novelists have to approach research. The First Reader takes the historian's view and deals in generalities: the best night fighter aircraft were radar-equipped Beaufighters, most aerial dogfights did not take place over London, and so forth.

The novelist, on the other hand, is forced to deal with specifics, and that's why I eat up contemporary personal accounts like candy. Sure, you discount a certain amount for human error and more for the confusion of the scene. The fire brigade superintendant may "remember" that the water supply from the Surrey Music Hall dried up at 1:45 AM, and the incident reports may say that the Surrey Music Hall wasn't bombed until 2:05. It's not like everybody involved had synchronized their watches, or had nothing better to do than make notes of exact times! But when someone says of the water failure that "the water seemed to have crawled back into the hoses," or someone else gets treated for minor burns from the cascades of fiery sparks in the air, or someone looks up and sees the burst of golden veins across the sky where a parachute bomb was just shot and exploded... those details I believe and use.

And on a different topic, I've got a new post up at about the dangers of overselling the humor in your book: Trying too Hard


  1. There's a story about the Beaufighter: apparently, when it first came out, it was regarded by pilots as a dangerous airplane. Getting killed by the Germans was one thing, getting killed by your own airplane was worse.

    One day, a Beaufighter was delivered from the factory to an airbase. Depending on which version of the story one believes, the pilot came in fast, did some low-level aerobatics just for the fun of it, then landed, taxied up...and took off her helmet. Many fewer complaints about the Beau after this, at least according to the story.

    Discussion of this story and commentary from a former Beaufighter pilot:

  2. I am tempted to make the sexist remark, "Men! They think they have the market cornered when it comes to military information." And then David adds his story in his comment. Maybe my remark is not all that sexist after all. ;-)

  3. Well, to be fair, the First Reader does know more in general about airplanes than I do. He once came out of watching a WWII movie with our daughters to complain that they were totally uneducated: they couldn't even tell a Spitfire from a Messerschmidt!

    I tried to explain to him that planespotting is just not a girl thing and that even the best-educated females - me, for instance - weren't likely to pass that test. David caught me on that comment too, and warned me that the Political Correctness Police would probably want my scalp for saying something so Incorrect.

    1. We cannot win, can we? I was thinking of my own late husband who was such a WWI & II buff and was particularly interested in aircraft as his grandfather flew a Jenny (I think I've got that right, see, it IS a girl thing - he pointed one out to me at the Museum of Flight in Seattle and spent a lot of time studying it.). He was indisputably the authority on these things in our household, so I could vividly imagine the proof-reading scene you described.

      On the other hand, I have recently found out that the wife of the family my parents were close friends with was a plane spotter during WWII as part of the our town's war efforts. Northern Idaho was hardly near the coast where one might conceivably spot an enemy plane, but apparently because of the mines in the area, it was considered a potential target, so lights out after dark and spotters on the mountain sides. Our fair sex can rally and have broad interests as well. :-)

  4. And you didn't even cross the Hurricane versus Spitfire debate. How genteel of you both. ;-)


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