Dan Smith: Building the past into your writing
In October 2013, Dan Smith visited primary schools in Edinburgh to talk about his new book My Friend the Enemy - his first foray into children's literature.
Dan took pupils through the research process of writing your own book and discussed what it would have been like to live through World War II. Here, Dan discusses the best way to go about researching your project.
Experience of how a place sounds and smells is a huge advantage when building the world your characters inhabit. If your novel is set in 1940’s England, though, getting that experience can be tricky. So when I set about writing My Friend The Enemy, I had to dig down and do some research – and here are five ways I tried to bring the summer of 1941 to life.
- In an effort to gain some invaluable first hand experience, I spent time at The Imperial War Museum in London, at Eden Camp Museum in North Yorkshire and at The Discovery Museum in Newcastle. Being able to see the clothes people wore, the objects they owned, and how they lived was a massive help when it came to building the world of My Friend The Enemy. I also spent time exploring the stretch of Northumberland coastline where the book is set.
- So what do you do if there isn’t a museum? What if you can’t visit the place where your story happens? Well, lucky for us, we have a gold mine of information at our fingertips: the Internet. I was able to find amazing accounts of life during the war, which revealed all kinds of detail and gave me an invaluable insight into the way people felt about what was happening around them. Access to these kinds of stories is a fantastic way of bringing authenticity to a book.
- When trying to build a world, it’s a good idea to try to engage all of the reader’s senses. How do things feel? How do they smell? How do they sound? When I decided to write an air-raid scene in the book, I wanted it to feel as real as I could make it, so I sat in an Anderson shelter in a museum and imagined I was in the middle of a raid. I even put together sounds, to recreate the incredible noise of planes flying overhead, the whistle of bombs and the thud of ack-ack guns. I then listened to those sounds (in the dark and through headphones) and imagined I was the main character in my book.
- I immersed myself in the era. I looked at hundreds of photographs, watched films and newsreels, read books, studied propaganda posters and memorabilia, and listened to vintage radio programmes. Most of what I learned didn’t even make it into the book, but it helped me get the right feel.
- And don’t forget imagination! This might seem obvious, but it’s probably the most important thing of all. It’s great to know the facts – these are what ground the story in the world I’ve chosen – but I don’t mind twisting them just a little if I need to. Even though many of my books have historical settings, they are not historical novels. I am not a historian. I am a storyteller, and that means the story must be king.