Tuesday, November 11, 2014

War, Research, and TMI

Armistice Day. November 11th. A date I’ve known all my life and commemorated annually with a red poppy in the buttonhole as long as I lived in England; commemorated—without really understanding its meaning until I started to write about the 1920s.

I’ve learned a lot about the first world war in the 20 years since. Though I decided not to make its horrors the focus of my series, I soon realized that two subjects that attracted me to the period were inextricably linked to the war. First, the country could not afford the extravagances of fashion, so women’s clothes became much simpler and more comfortable; and second, the huge loss of life in the trenches helped open an unprecedented range of careers to women.

The more I learned, the more careful I had to be to pick and choose what information I used in my mysteries, especially as they’re basically lighthearted. We’ve all read (or started to read) novels where the author has attempted to cram in every scrap of extensive research. Nothing kills a story quicker.

The art is to find the details that will bring your fictional world to life. The rest of the research isn’t wasted, though. The better you know and understand that world, the easier it becomes to convey it to the reader in a way that is integral to the story.

Almost all the Daisy Dalrymple books have some direct reference to the war. Its effects loomed over the following decade. Daisy’s brother and fiancĂ© were both killed in France—that’s part of who she is.

I used the after-effects of the war as motivation for other characters. I didn’t have to go into a lot of detail about battles and trench warfare to convey the horrors that made an army chaplain, the vicar in Styx and Stones, lose his faith.

In The Bloody Tower, a Yeoman Warder suffers severely in a London fog after his lungs were badly damaged by mustard gas. In Superfluous Women (June 2015), three young women make a life for themselves together because the deaths of so many men left a large disproportion of females to males.

In Gunpowder Plot, there are pistols at hand because of the household’s involvement with the Home Guard (Yes, Britain already had strict rules about gun registration!).

All these are reminders of the recent war, but are also germane to the plots and flesh out characters.

Only one of the Daisy Dalrymple mysteries is deeply concerned with the aftermath of the conflict. In Anthem for Doomed Youth, the dual plots revolve around what happened in the war and what it leads to in Daisy’s present. Here the necessary facts are presented by the characters themselves, in speech and in their actions, illuminated by their emotions.

Thus the research blends organically into the narrative. It’s all about people and their stories, not information.

Carola Dunn is author of the Daisy Dalrymple Mysteries, Cornish Mysteries, and multitudinous Regencies.


  1. You nailed it with your last statement. Too many times, authors seem to want to make sure their readers know how much research they did, and they put it on the page to drive the point home.

    1. Or the author thinks, "I spent hours and hours researching; I'm not letting it go to waste - in it goes."

  2. What a thoughtful post on a series of books portraying a difficult period of time. I've always loved your covers. They remind me of Erte, the great illustrator. The success of Daisy's books prove you've managed the right tone and style to appeal to readers. Kudos to you, Carola.

  3. I agree: the more research the better, but the less used in the story... the better as well. The beginning of your post reminded me of the red poppy poem - if people actually read it through, I wonder how many would use that poppy as a symbol. It's really quite a dreadful promotion of war!

    1. I don't think I've ever read it, Dani. My favourite poem about the war is the one quoted at the beginning of Anthem for Doomed Youth (and I borrowed its title), by Wilfred Owen, who was killed in WWI.

      What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
      Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
      Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
      Can patter out their hasty orisons.
      No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
      The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
      What candles may be held to speed them all?
      Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
      Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
      The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
      Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
      And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

  4. I tend to shy away from anything set in WWI and WWII. I can't disassociate the setting from the true horror. I much prefer fantasy battles to real ones. I can pretend they aren't real.

  5. I love a reality backdrop that grounds a story without dominating it. As you say so well, the research blends organically into the stories of the people. Great post, Carola. :-)

  6. Some of my favorite books are set in actual historical wars… love. And I LOVE learning real facts about wars with fictional characters. Fab post. <3

  7. Terrific post, and I agree with Terry about the importance of last line:
    "Thus the research blends organically into the narrative. It’s all about people and their stories, not information."

    That works well even for descriptions. We shouldn't catalog how a room looks, rather show it via the POV of the character. What about the books on the shelves resonates with the woman who just walked into her father's den after his funeral?

  8. debby turner harrisNovember 12, 2014 at 7:01 AM

    Well said, Carola! All novice writers take note.


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