Friday, May 09, 2008

It's time when it's time

Charles here, reasonably sober.

Faithful readers of this blog will recall that last week Rose and I went to see Salman Rushdi and Umberto Eco speak at the University of Rochester. I would love to say that it was one of those transcendental experiences that changes your life forever, but then if it was and I realized it already and was willing to blob about such a intimate, personal transformation, it couldn’t have been that special after all. But still, it was a good time. And I took from it a piece of writing knowledge I’d like to share with you. Aren’t you lucky.

In the discussion, the moderator noted that both authors write books that require lots of historical research (especially true for Rushdie’s newest and much of Eco’s fiction). The moderator asked how the authors knew when they had done enough research and that it was time to write. I could tell that this was a question neither man expected since neither had a witty retort at the ready and both actually paused to consider the question. The answer – paraphrased and combined from comments both men made – went something like this: You know.

Okay, that sounds flippant but that’s not what I meant. It works like this. You research and you research and you research more until, when you come across something new in your research, you sort of knew it already. It’s as if you had submerged yourself into the era you are researching so well and so completely that when you encounter something knew you are like, ‘well, yeah, of course, it has to be that way.’ Think of it like this – let’s assume you know the era we live in quite well (a big assumption for some of you, but just play along). Word comes out of Bangalore that a new computer program will allow you to send simulated voice emails over your phone to someone’s website. “Okay,” you’re saying, “I can see that. What’s the big deal?” The big deal is that it’s not a big deal for you – you know this era and innovations that are in line with the era are no big shock. But let’s say you’re researching 14th century Italian monasteries and you come across a description of a typical day in the life of a novice and you say, ‘well, yeah, of course, it has to be that way.’ Now you’re ready to write.

This is a short list (in no order) of the books I’ve read while researching the book I’m writing:

Fubar: Soldier Slang of World War II, by Gordon L. Rottman
The Lost Masters: World War II and the looting of Europe’s Treasures, by P. Harcerode & B. Pittaway
Silent Wings at War: Combat Gliders in World War II, by John Lowden
Nazi Plunder, by Kenneth D. Alford
Anzio, by Lloyd Clark
World War II Infantry Tactics (1): Squad and Platoon, by Dr. Stephen Bull
Yank: Reporting the Greatest Generation, by Barrett McGurn
Europa Turing: Automobilf├╝hrer von Europe, by Hllwag Bern
Four volumes of the Time-Life series on World War II (The Resistance, Partisans and Guerrillas, The Neutrals, The Home Front: Germany)
Operation Dragoon: The Allied Invasion of the South of France, by William B. Breuer
Berlin Diary, by William L. Shirer
The Beardless Warriors, by Richard Matheson (yes, the author of I Am Legend)
Up Front, by Bill Mauldin
Nobody Comes Back, by Donn Pearce (outstanding)
Fakes & Forgeries: The True Crime Stories of History’s Greatest Deceptions, by Brian Innes
Articles of War, by Nick Arvin (brilliant, BTW)
Command Decisions: The ANVIL Decision, by Maurice Matloff
G.I., by Lee Kennett (essential if you are writing about this era)
Pilot Training Manual for the CG-4A, By Headquarters AAF, Office of Flying Safety, March 1945
PLUS, 4 books on the plots to kill Hitler, a half dozen books on life in Nazi Germany, a short monograph on the SS, a stack of photocopies of plates showing uniforms from WWII, a notebook filled with sketches and notes taken when I field tested an M-1 rifle, NONE of which I can find right now (but for which, I assure you, I will be searching for all night).

Why do I tell you all this? Because Rusdie and Eco are right. When you are researching for a book on historical fiction, you start writing when you know.

Guess what?

I know.

Not 100%, that's impossible. Not even 50%. Maybe not even 2%.

But I know.


Vicki Delany said...

Among your many lists of accomplishment, do you read German? (Europa Turing: Automobilf├╝hrer von Europe)

Charles benoit said...

I did study German in college. Rose's family came to the US from Germany in the early 1950s and Rose grew up speaking German. For the past 6 months or so, we've been re-learning what we forgot. Right now I'd say I'm almost back to a basic conversational level. Reading is always so much harder due to the wonderful German habit of creating impossibly long words. But finding information in a post-war tour guide has been easy enough. My Arabic used to be much, much better than my German, but sadly that's slipping away. Maybe it's time to haul out all my old notes and tapes and get back to it.