I knew that I needed to write her story, but how could I give her story authenticity when I’ve never even been outside the French airport? I know a handful of French words, at most. And my only experience with 1940s culture consists of swing dancing. If I wanted to transport my readers back in time to her world, I was going to need some valid resources.
Interviews: My first step was a no-brainer. I knew her and saw her twice a week at church events. Once I had asked if she would mind talking about her past, I generated some questions to get a sense of her world and to develop the beginnings of a timeline of events. My questions led to not only the answers I was seeking, but also a better understanding of how she processed those experiences 70 years ago. One time I brought my laptop and showed her a booklet of pictures from the invasion of France. I’ll never forget how her eyes widened as we looked at a photo of people fleeing from their homes. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think that was my father.” Together, we were transported back to 1940. On other occasions, I came to her with a few follow-up questions.
Pictures: While her memories were helpful, I knew that I would need help visualizing the setting. I began looking up photos of her hometown via Google and Google Earth. I was able to locate photos of the coal mine, which was so central to the town. It was difficult to find much from the World War II era, but when I came upon photos from World War I, it hit me just how frightening the threat of war was for the people of this town. It made sense that few adults would talk about the possibility of another war—and why she referred to the “Boche” with such disgust as she reminisced.
Public Domain: Old postcard , scanned and edited by Jeremy Jannick (Photographer unknown)
Documentaries & Movies: In an effort to further immerse myself in the historical context, I also began watching documentaries and movies. I found that many of the movies set during World War II focus on either the experiences of Jewish individuals and families or soldiers. It certainly made sense that these accounts have been featured, yet I also felt it was important to dig for other types of stories. I initially began my search for movies and documentaries through Amazon, but soon branched out with a variety of Google searches. One of the most powerful documentaries included rare color footage from World War II. There is something about the color that makes it feel more real—and terrifying. However, I began to realize that I have to step back from my research and writing at times because this time period is so very dark.
Maps: I have always been a huge fan of maps—sort of a low-key cartophile, you might say. The beauty of the Internet is that numerous maps are available to us with the click of a finger, and yet I still wanted tangible, printed maps. I asked my dad, a AAA member, to pick up maps of Germany and France so that I could take the specific information from those online maps and see them in relation to other towns, cities, and regions. I wanted to know precise military movements so that I could convey the invasion and my characters’ experiences with a greater degree of accuracy.
Books: Historical books can be a daunting undertaking for someone who does not have substantial time, so I’ve had to be strategic in selecting books. Since I am writing for teens, I’ve immersed myself in historical works of fiction and nonfiction written for this particular audience. Both fiction and memoir have helped me to experience these events as an individual would, while the historical nonfiction books tend to paint the broader historical portraits that I need in order to develop the backdrop of my story.
Librarians: Recently, I realized that I was struggling to locate some information that would really ground the timeline of my story, so I contacted two academic librarians with whom I’ve been fortunate enough to become acquainted. I admitted that the project was personal rather than professional, but both were quick to assist me in locating relevant sources and encouraging me to seek out a librarian at another institution that might have even more resources.
Perhaps the greatest challenge I encounter is finding the right balance between conducting the essential research before or while writing—and going overboard at this early stage in the writing process. I have to constantly remind myself that I can always go back and conduct more research once I have completed my draft, particularly if I’ve made note of relevant resources in the margins or using a tool like Scrivener.
For those of you who do historical research and or writing, what does your process look like? What resources have you found most valuable? Have you found a particularly effective strategy for organizing your research?