Our readers are often curious about the process of writing and publishing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts. This latest addition to the Publishing U series comes from Michael Grant, whose latest novel, Front Lines, goes on sale today and earned a rave review from Booklist‘s Sarah Hunter. We’re delighted to share this fascinating look at how one writer does historical research for writing fiction—read on and see why you might want to follow his lead.
I am a writer of fiction. This is the definition of a fiction writer: someone who makes stuff up.
I think I’m pretty good at making stuff up. With my wife, Katherine Applegate, I made up a lot of series that you probably know: Animorphs, Everworld, and Remnants. On my own I made up the Gone series, where everyone over the age of 14 disappears and those left behind develop super powers. I made up two different nanotechnologies fighting for control of human brains in BZRK. And two more series called the Magnificent 12 and Messenger of Fear.
In short: I make stuff up.
My finely honed instincts warned me of trouble ahead with my new project, Front Lines, which is an alternate-history version of World War II in which a Supreme Court decision has made women eligible for military service. At first I was going to basically transplant WWII to an alternate universe full of made-up names. Why? Because then I could still make stuff up. But no matter how cleverly I renamed Nazi Germany, readers (including myself) would just think, “Oh, he means Nazi Germany.” And that euphemistic, alternate-universe thing got old in a hurry.
So, for the first time since the long-ago days when I was writing restaurant reviews (typical menu item: mastodon) I was forced to use, you know, like . . . facts.
There were a couple of problems with that. First of all, in terms of sheer weight of potential story, WWII is gigantic. Enormous. Let me put it this way: there are entire theaters of the war (Britain vs. Italy, Germany in Greece, Russian partisans, the Murmansk run) that most actual histories can barely spare a paragraph for but which, at any other time, would have been huge all by themselves. WWII is so enormous that you could subtract the U.S. entirely and it would still be the biggest war the human race has ever waged.
That much story is a problem for me because I don’t like telling half the story. I want to tell all the story, but the best I can do in three books is tell one percent of the story. Once percent of one percent, whatever that is. (Math: not my strength.)
This is why I dropped out of high school.
My teachers all wanted facts.
The other problem is that reality simply refuses to arrange itself neatly into three equally strong acts. I don’t want to criticize FDR, Churchill, Stalin, Hitler, and Tojo (well, those last three), but they really had no idea of pacing. It’s as if they didn’t even care that my characters would be getting older between major high points. And no one apparently even considered the fact that you can’t have a character at both Anzio and D-day, so you have to choose one over the other and guess who wins every time? (D-day, duh. Front Lines: Book Three, on sale January 2018.)
So, as much as it pained me, I had to do research. That meant reading. Lots and lots of reading, everything from hard-core history, like Defeat at Kasserine: American Armor Doctrine, Training, and Battle Command in Northwest Africa, World War II, by Mark T. Calhoun, to first-person narratives (many of which are in the self-published space), to great contemporary observers, like cartoonist Bill Mauldin and Ernie Pyle. But I also, of course, have tons of very specific books on weapons and uniforms that I would run to whenever questions came up.
Here’s how that goes. “Rio leapt from the [find out what model of tank, look at picture, describe] as the [figure out what model of Luftwaffe plane would be there] roared out of the sun with its [machine guns or cannon?] blazing.”
Every page has a question. Sometimes several. And then it’s dive into the books or go online to search up grainy video. The whole “fact” thing really slows the process down. (This is why I dropped out of high school. My teachers all wanted facts.)
Now, on the plus side, despite (or because of?) my lack of formal education I actually like history. I care about history. History is the backstory of the character named Homo sapiens. If you don’t know some history then every time you turn on the news you’re jumping into the end of a book with no idea who’s doing what and why. So I had a surprisingly good grounding in the basics, and having just read Rick Atkinson’s wonderful Liberation trilogy, I was extraprimed.
And yet. How long is the fuse on a standard fragmentation grenade? (Five seconds.) What are the differences in polite greetings between Sicilian Italian and Roman Italian? Italian phrase books and Google helped. What would it smell like in the bowels of the Queen Mary when it was transporting troops across the heaving North Atlantic? (Vomit, sweat, tobacco smoke, diesel fuel, more vomit.) Leggings or no leggings? (Leggings were used early on and later discontinued, but it was not consistent across all units, so I made the executive decision to avoid leggings.) How heavy was that pack? (Thirty to sixty pounds, depending.) What did they eat? (Canned rations with such gourmet offerings as meat stew with beans, franks and beans, pork and beans, and beans.) How much did they curse? (Constantly. Like Gordon Ramsay faced with an overcooked scallop. Like Christian Bale with a difficult cameraman. Like Snoop Dogg when his bong water gets rank.) What was the effect of the Great Depression on the fitness of recruits? (In 1923 the army required male recruits to be 5’4” or better—which incidentally is the average height of an American woman today. By 1944 that minimum requirement was down to 5’. The Depression caused widespread poverty. Many recruits lacked teeth, many suffered the effects of malnutrition, many had uncorrected vision problems.) Who would be at the Stork Club? (Everyone who was anyone.)
The paragraph just above this one? I could make that paragraph a hundred pages long.
I know: it does sound like lighthearted fun,
doesn’t it? It’s the Trail o’ Blood Tour!
On the plus side, we live, ladies and gentlemen, in the Age of the Google. When I was wondering just how you would aim an M1 Garand, Google served up an actual full-length army instructional video! When I wanted to know what the rear end of a Sherman tank looked like? Hundreds of pictures. Want to know what a soldier with his leg blown off looks like? (No, you probably don’t.)
And then, there’s eBay. What does a hand grenade feel like? (Comfortable in the hand, annoying hanging from a belt.) How heavy is a helmet? (2.85 pounds and feels like more when it’s on your head.) How thick is the wool of a US Army coat? (Not thick enough for an Ardennes Forest winter, that’s for sure.) I know all this and more because I bought things and touched and smelled and felt them.
Books, Google, eBay, and the fourth leg, travel. I went to museums in Washington, D.C.—the Smithsonian has a beautiful re-creation of WWII barracks—and in London I visited the Imperial War Museum to get a sense of what it’s like to stand in front of a tank. (Not reassuring.) Because the first book is set in North Africa, I wanted badly to go to Tunisia. I wanted to go to Kasserine Pass. Unfortunately it seems various terrorist organizations also enjoy the country around Kasserine, so, um, no. But I was able to spend time in Sicily, Italy, and the UK, and this summer I’m off to see Omaha Beach, the hedgerow country, Hürtgen Forest, the site of the Battle of the Bulge, and Buchenwald. I know: it does sound like lighthearted fun, doesn’t it? It’s the Trail o’ Blood Tour!
Despite the dozens of books, the thousands of web searches, the hours of video, the endless photos, the travel and the museums, I know I will screw up a detail or two. I’m waiting in a cringe for the history nerds (my people) to come at me on Goodreads.
There are three main characters in Front Lines. One comes from Manhattan, one is from Tulsa, and one is from Gedwell Falls, California. Say what? You say there is no Gedwell Falls? I know, I made it up! Hah! Because I really just needed to make something up. Yep, I made that up, that town. I made up the presence of women in combat roles, I advanced the presence of black combat units by about a year, I invented training camps, and I inserted my characters Zelig-like into various events.
Everything else? As real as I know how to make it. Cross my heart and hope not to cry at Buchenwald, I have tried very hard to get the facts right. Because I may be a fiction writer, but I take facts seriously. I take history seriously. This is important to me. I’m only touching on a tiny fraction of the story of WWII, but I want very much to get that fraction right.