How I Write My Historical Aviation Novels, by Derek Robinson
Early in World War Two, RAF Bomber Command was using up its elderly stock of bombs. A few had ‘sweated’ their contents. This created a layer of explosive crystals on the outside. Perhaps some detonated in flight. If so, no evidence remained. In World War One, Chinese labour squads dug huge holes behind the Western Front. Some Royal Flying Corps officers thought these were to be swimming pools. In fact they were meant for mass burials from the Somme offensive. These facts, and a thousand like them, I came across in my research before I wrote my historical novels about the RFC and the RAF.
Research, research, research were (and are) the keys to my writing. There are three reasons: first, I uncovered stuff that I could never have imagined; second, I didn’t want survivors from the two wars telling me I’d got it wrong; and third, a historical novel shouldn’t play fast and loose with the facts. A reader once said that my novels are really documentaries disguised as fiction. This is a slight exaggeration. But my novels are reliable as history. So I researched everything and everywhere, including the politics of the day, the geography, the weather, the food and what Wellington called ‘The other side of the hill’: the enemy’s plans. I built many extra bookshelves to carry this library. When veterans and serving RAF pilots told me my stuff was authentic, all that research was justified, even if half of it wasn’t used.
After research comes imagination, and there is little to say about that except either you have it or you don’t. Aircraft obviously play a big part in my flying stories but what really interests people is not hardware, it’s people. I had to get inside the heads of a squadron of fighter or bomber pilot who took nothing seriously except flying. RFC/RAF humour could be very black indeed. If it reads easily, that’s because writing it was hard work. My method was, in P.G. Wodehouse’s words, to stare at a blank piece of paper until beads of blood broke out on my forehead. I have a note permanently pinned to my bulletin board reminding me that Action Is Character. Never say a person is brave. Show him doing brave things. Let the reader do half the work.
I aim to do four hours work a day, seven days a week; although life sometimes gets in the way. If I miss a week, re-starting is tough. Before I begin, I re-read a few pages. This operates on the flywheel principle – it’s easier to keep the momentum going than to get it moving from scratch. I write everything in longhand, double-spaced to leave room for changes. It’s easier to cut stuff in longhand, and if you think your deathless prose never needs cutting, you’re kidding yourself. There is something satisfying about re-reading a page you sweated over, realising it’s all crap and deleting it with one slash of the pen. I don’t get that freedom from typewriters or computers. While I’m working on a book I never read other authors’ fiction if it’s on the same theme. (He might do a better job, in which case I resent him. If he does a worse job, I despise him.)
When the book’s written, I try to find a veteran ex-pilot who’ll read the manuscript. Usually he finds a few technical errors. After that it’s a matter of keeping a close eye on publishers and their editors. I remember an American publisher who sent me a proposed jacket design for my novel about the Battle of Britain. All the RAF pilots were in khaki. Khaki is what the US Air Force wears, and the artist assumed that everyone did the same. Moral: trust nobody, check everything.
Derek Robinson’s author website: www.derekrobinson.info
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