I spent most of a recent Friday crawling around the Nine Oh Nine, a B-17 Flying Fortress, with Ken Mitchroney, my writing partner on Fata Morgana. Besides being a ton o’ fun, it was invaluable for the novel, and educational in some unexpected ways.
I’ve often mentioned that I’m a fiend for research, I think because I usually write about impossible things. The advantage is that it lends credence to what’s essentially an unbelievable idea. The disadvantage is that gritty realism also shines a harsher light on the impossible elements, forcing you to work harder to make them believable and dovetail them into your depictions of the familiar.
Ironically, often the more specific you are, the more you open yourself up to argument. It’s not difficult to believe the line, “He rode the horse across the desert.” But if I write in detail about riding a horse across a desert, and get one of those specifics wrong, the whole thing falls apart. (I wonder if that’s why fantasy fiction has traditionally been so flowery and general: it’s trying to lull you into acceptance, to make you focus on the ornate icing because in truth there’s not much cake. Hmm.) I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, because when it works, you don’t just accept that someone rode a horse across the desert, you rode it yourself.
In my case, I have be careful not to over- compensate. It’s easy to belabor the concrete details as courtroom evidence that these impossible events did in fact take place. It’s something I look for when I revise.
By now I’ve read a ton of books and watched a ton of video related to B-17s. the Eight Air Force, and the European Theater in 1943. Yet no amount of research is a substitute for experience. To crawl around inside that bomber, smell the grease and 108 octane, feel first-hand how crammed together those young men were, is to come away with a handful of One True Things that we wouldn’t have found without being there. Things that give the authenticity we’re looking for.
Still — I’ve promised Ken there won’t be a pilot’s manual in the novel. I think I’ve learned the difference between making a reader believe someone can fly a bomber, and teaching the reader to fly the damn thing himself.
Fata Morgana is about halfway done, and we’re hugely happy with it. Even better, our agent is hugely happy with it.