To say a tank is just a tank when working on a book such as MANNA is to armchair generals like being asked what shade of white you want when going to a paint shop. I am just as bad as any armchair general when some of this comes up. How many Hollywood war movies made over the years featured generic or historically incorrect vehicles? (I can imagine a lot of mumbling at this point.) Of course, there were good fiscal reasons in a number of cases for this- getting the equipment beyond what was in storage on the backlot was too expensive, or building replicas was too expensive, and so on. No doubt some directors and producers probably made comments like “It’s just a tank. Who cares if it’s American and we painted it up to look German? Nobody will know- or care.”
These days, however, that just isn’t on. We do care. Why wasn’t there more debris on the beach in DUNKIRK? Why was a Yorktown class aircraft carrier subbed in for a shot In MIDWAY where the LEXINGTON is shown to be sinking at the end of the Battle of the Coral Sea? Where were the Wildcats in MIDWAY? Why was the bow of the EXETER, as shown in WORLD ON FIRE not given the straight stem it had in real life? Why is a U-Boat of the First World War drawn like on from the Second in a comic book I read recently?
We care. The materials are out there. People still know these things. Why didn’t that information get into the hands of people making these otherwise excellent films and stories? You can actually gain some insight on how this dogs people working in the historic genre from watching an interview with Anthony Horowitz about the making of FOYLE’S WAR and the challenges they faced in ‘getting it right’. I found it enlightening and intimidating at the same time, making me realise that working on historic fiction is a lot like juggling a lot of balls in the air. If you are interested in writing about the war, look up this interview and watch it- if you can find it.
Enthusiasts are well informed and very picky. Computer animation has made recreating the terrible vistas of war much easier. Video games and 3D simulations like BBC’s incredible “BERLIN BLITZ,” (created using the Oculus Rift), can put viewers into the action on an almost visceral level. (I could go on about how disturbing it is that many players seem to derive more fun than horror from these experiences, but let’s leave that for another time. “BERLIN BLITZ” left me in a cold sweat, unable to speak for some time after experiencing it. Others left saying how exciting it was. Hmmm…)
GETTING THE TOOLS TO DO THE JOB
So, facing this, I want to get a number of details in MANNA right and leave any construction of the imagination to things which are not out of the realm of possibility, but are also not crucial to driving the history in the plot of the book.
Getting information on vehicles, aircraft and weapons isn’t that hard. It’s only time consuming and requires fact checking- especially if initial sources are sites on the internet created by enthusiasts not necessarily affiliated with museums, collections or organizations that specialize in keeping or operating the guns, planes or tanks in question. Books are better for that, although, they are not fool-proof. As time passes and some younger authors are writing these works, I find errors are creeping in where once they didn’t. It may be that the speed and convenience of the internet is trumping good ol’ fashioned scholarly research.
Better scholarship is found more these days in books where the author has direct access to archival materials and related primary sources. If possible, meet these people and talk to them. Go to the museums. Visit the archives. Explain the project and ask for help in locating resources. Discuss findings in books with interpreters at these places. I will give you three examples of how this can be useful.
- I wanted information on pilots who evaded capture by the Germans in World War Two and returned to Britain. What happened to them? Were they able to go back into action with their old units? If they’d been helped in their escape by a Resistance cell, how did that impact on their chances of returning to operations in Europe? The National Air Force Museum of Canada in Trenton was very helpful in pointing out resources and either supporting or refuting evidence I had discovered in other places. One meeting was all it took.
- How does one start the engines on a Lancaster bomber? That depends on the type of Lancaster it is. Was it built in Britain or Canada? Is it a Mark I, III, or X? Does it have Rolls Royce Merlin or Packard Merlin engines? Was it built near the end of the war with possible deployment to the far east for missions against Japan in mind? All of this matters, as I discovered when I asked someone at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Mount Hope, outside Hamilton, ON., this very question.
- If gasoline was rationed, how did people get about in occupied Europe during the war? Welcome to the wonderful world of wood or coal gas powered vehicles, carts pulled by dogs in harness, known in the Netherlands as Honderkar, and horses pulling wagons for the Wehrmacht. (On the last point, I discovered the German army was not nearly as mechanized as one would have believed from watching the propaganda movies. Hundreds of thousands of horses were used by the army in the war. One of my interviews with witnesses to the German occupation of the Netherlands revealed that it was rare to see mechanized vehicles under enemy control during the last half of the war beyond Kubelwagens, Schwimmwagens and motorcycles. Trucks were uncommon and then often only moved at night after D-Day.) This will be important as I sort out the conveyances used by one of the characters in the book. She will start with a small car, a van version of the Fiat Topolino, move to a wood gas powered motorcycle rigged up by her husband and finish with a honderkar. Some creative licence may be needed in parts, but only so in parts because everything else has be verified as having existed at that time.
Ask the questions of your sources. You may be surprised by the answers…
LINKING BACK TO OTHER ELEMENTS IN THE STORY
Finally, remember the people who ride the machines are just as important as the machines themselves. Check uniforms. Also, check markings on vehicles and camouflage patterns. If you’re going to portray a Canadian Military Pattern truck from a certain regiment of the Canadian Army in a particular area of fighting, make sure that particular type of machine was there and make sure the markings on the vehicle match units that served in the region at that time.
The only other thing you can do is come up with fictitious markings for a non-existent unit and then you have some latitude in terms of what you can portray in your story. For example, in MANNA, I created a fictional R.A.F bomber squadron flying Lancasters from a fictional place in Lincolnshire. The squadron codes are fictional. The tail markings- highly unusual anyway- are also made up. This was done after careful research allowed me to develop the above with a certain knowledge that none of it existed previously and no one either descended from squardron crews or actually there would come up and tell me I got it all wrong. Frederick E. Smith did this when he wrote 633 SQUADRON and its sequels. You can get the information to do this online or in books. I used both to re-search what I used eventually, coming up with my Lancaster looking something like this-
I hope this helps you realize the nature of the work you have ahead of you. When presenting this material in the class on the graphic novel at George Brown College, I have been greeted afterwards by comments like “Well, I guess I won’t be writing any historical graphic novels any time soon,” or “I think I’ll stick to fantasy.” I love the last one the most because I would pay real money to see the reaction of someone like J.K. Rowling or George R.R. Martin to a comment like that. For historic fiction, at least you have a foundation upon which to base your research. I would think fantasy or science fiction would, if anything, be harder to create.
But that is a topic for another time…