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What Would They Do in WWII: Writing Historical Fiction Tips from L.M. Elliott

Posted by inkpopbecki on October 5, 2010

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Here’s the thing to remember about historical fiction—teenagers in WWII, the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, even ancient Greece had the same emotions, the same growing up pangs that you do today. They wanted to fall in love, to square off and beat back bullies, ached when they failed, rejoiced when they succeeded, fought with their parents, and bucked societies’ rules. It’s just that the back-drop of events, the specific challenges the times threw at them were different.  But that doesn’t mean historical fiction can’t open up our hearts and minds to quandaries we face right now. Perhaps even because it’s not raw with today’s arguments.

In A Troubled Peace, for instance, Henry Forester has safely returned from WWII and being hunted by the Nazis, an escape story and look at the French Resistance told in Under a War-torn Sky. But Henry still has battles to fight—now against his disturbing memories and his ingrained battle-readiness that is dangerous, unnerving to his loved ones, and inappropriate for peacetime. Sound like the issues facing our soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan?

Here’s how to make your historical piece real and compelling:
1.  Pick a historical event, keep it focused, and then hone in on people’s emotional reactions and struggles to survive it. Keep the historical timeline and details as backdrop. The human drama is what you’re after.
Wars are the most dramatic episodes, of course. But there are so many other kinds of events that present enormous challenges that require us to react with courage or devotion to others, to grow up quick, to grapple with ethical questions—in these stories we can witness both the worst and the best of humanity.
Examples off the top of my head—what was it like to be a doctor’s child during the influenza outbreak after WWI; a fireman’s wife during 9/11; a person sitting at one of the lunch counters that Martin Luther King’s marchers chose for one of their peaceful demonstrations.

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2.   Do your research. That’s right, research. Believe me, that’s the fun part, the treasure hunt, where you get to be a detective. Accurate details make the narrative so much more real. You need the lingo, slang, music, clothes, cars, and big political questions (like communism and rebuilding Europe) to be right.
These little details are important because they let you “show rather than tell.” Ever heard that? It’s one of the most important “rules” of creative writing.
For instance, I learned in my research (reading, watching period movies, interviewing veterans), that the air temperature in those WWII bombers could be 30 below zero. That’s because the machine guns they used to fend of Hitler’s Luftwaffe fighters were fired out open bay doors.
It’s boring to say, “It was unbelievably cold.” Better to describe a pilot getting dressed for a mission, the layer upon layer he dons to guard against that cold as I did in Under a War-torn Sky—such as long-john underwear that was wired like an electric blanket that boys plugged into the plane’s electrical outlets during their flights. Have the co-pilot call out: “crack down your line, boys,” a duty he was to perform every 20 minutes, because their spit could freeze in their oxygen lines and cut off life-giving airflow.

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