Like bathing in fire: How to write about World War II.

okinawa charge pd

I’m a writer, a historian and I’m very busy day in and day out, so it should surprise no one that I am working on several major projects simultaneously. One of the things I’ve been working on since spring, and very intensively since early summer, is co-writing (with friend and fellow historian Lucas Erickson) a novel about World War II in the Pacific. This book doesn’t yet have a title and for a number of reasons I’m not at liberty to tell you a whole lot about its contents, at least not right now. It’s historical fiction, but just barely; it’s inspired by and drawn heavily from real experiences, and it involves presenting a vision of the war from perspectives of people, both Americans and Japanese, who were there in the most ferocious heat of it. Since it’s been a while since I’ve done a “writing advice” article, I thought I would do this post to describe a little bit about what it’s like to be working on this sort of project, in the hopes that perhaps other writers who are drawn to the subject of the world’s deadliest conflict might draw some advice on how to do it.

Our book concerns the Pacific War, which was a very different conflict than the one that raged in Europe, though I’d like to think my advice would be equally applicable to both subjects. Even within the confines of the Pacific, it’s a gargantuan topic. There are so many battles, campaigns, aspects and subjects that a writer must have a pretty good and pretty specific idea of what he or she wants to write about before you even start. My friend and I began with a specific aspect of the conflict, which mostly centered around a single battle, that of Okinawa in 1945, but if you begin writing about even what you think is a small aspect of the the war you’ll quickly discover it touches so many other things. Another thing you’ll discover quickly is that you can’t be emotionally detached. Writing about World War II–I mean really trying to write about it, to capture it–is like giving your soul a bath in fire.

world war ii books

This stack of books and films is only a small part of the research I’ve had to do in preparing for my own World War II book.

Needless to say, it’s a big process, and one you must commit to. You aren’t going to write a World War II novel during “NaNoWriMo.” Here are a couple of pieces of advice I would have for any author who’s thinking about writing historical fiction concerning World War II, whether a novel or even a short story.

Know Your Subject.

World War II was one of the most complex events ever to occur in world history, and like a giant machine, each little piece of it affected something else. Thus, it’s crucial to go into World War II writing with an overall understanding of the whole thing, from a bird’s-eye perspective. If you’re interested enough in the war to want to write fiction about it presumably you know the basics, but the more you know, even about things that may not concern your specific subject, the better off you’ll be. You’d better know what fascism is, why militarism appealed to people in the 1930s, what Hitler and the Japanese were trying to do in a big-picture sense, how the Allies planned to win the war, and those sorts of things. A short book that’s well written can probably give you a better big-picture view than a longer one, and something like this is worth reading even if you think you know a lot; I recommend R.A.C. Parker’s The Second World War: A Short History.

Research, Research, Research!

I can’t stress this enough. You need to know your specific subject, and have access to a lot of data on it. Don’t even think about relying on Wikipedia and Google. You’re going to have to go to a library, check out a stack of books and read them all. If you’re writing a spy story, you need to find books on espionage and the spy services of the countries involved as well as their opposite numbers. If you’re writing a romance involving women on a home-front assembly line, you’re going to need to know where the factories were located, what the working conditions were like, what the hours were, what jobs women did, how they were trained for them, etc. If you’re writing about the Holocaust, you need to know where the death camps were, who ran them, where their victims came from and everything you can find about how they lived before the war. If you’re writing about military combat (as I am), you’re going to be cramming technical details: weapons, vehicles, formations, organization, logistics, who’s in command and what ranks they are, etc.

hiroshima letter

This letter was written by my grandfather, who was in the Navy, and dated August 6, 1945–the date of the Hiroshima bomb. I have read many of his letters as part of my research.

Sounds like a big job? It is. Tracking down these details is not easy, and depending on your subject it’s likely to be extremely harrowing, emotionally, especially when you begin reading eyewitness accounts. But it’s necessary and unavoidable. Be ready for it.

Collect Details.

In the course of your research, you will need to “collect” things you can use in your writing, details, anecdotes and descriptions that will make your story live. First-person written accounts are the best way to go about this. Do not rely on popular depictions of the war such as movies; those may and do help with atmosphere and mood, but they may be inaccurate in actual details. Trust people who were there. (I’ve been reading the letters written by my grandfather, who was in the Navy in the Pacific). What does the hold of a Navy ship smell like? What popular song might someone be whistling, maybe something that was on the Hit Parade in 1944? What was the weather like just before the Marines hit the beach at Guadalcanal? What would you expect to eat for dinner at the house of a Hasidic family in Warsaw the night before the German invasion? These things sound trivial, but they’re vitally important: they’re the stuff of good fiction, and the more accurate, the better. Keep copious notes.

Appreciate the Enormity.

This is the hardest and most harrowing thing to do: appreciate the enormity of the loss, devastation and fear that the war brought to the world. You can’t remain detached, no matter how horrible the subject, and World War II is full of horrible subjects. You have to get emotionally involved, because the characters you’re writing about are emotionally involved. If you’re writing about combat, you’re going to have to understand what it’s like to be in combat, or as close as you can get–they say no one who hasn’t been on a battlefield really gets it, and that’s probably true. Many people all over the world suffered incredible anguishing loss during the war, and you can’t shut it out. If you’re writing about the Holocaust or Hiroshima or something of that nature, this process is going to be especially devastating for you. This is why I say that writing about the war is like bathing in fire. Some things I’ve read and some places I’ve taken my mind while in the process of writing our book have been inconceivably awful, just soul-wrenching. That was the reality of the war. You have to tap into it if your’e going to write realistically about it.

auschwitz shoes by dawid galus

If you’re going to write about the war, you’re going to have to know the horror of it–like these shoes from the victims who went to the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

I hope this article has provided at least some food for thought in writing about history’s greatest conflict. It’s not easy, but it’s important. History books can provide the facts and detached analysis, but the true vehicle for transmitting the reality of World War II to subsequent generations who did not live through it is literature. Take the responsibility seriously. Strange as it may sound, you may come out of this bath of death and conflict thinking about peace–and life–with a changed perspective. That’s what happened to me.

The photo of the Auschwitz shoes is by Wikimedia Commons user Dawid Galus and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license. The photos of the books and the letter are by me, all rights reserved. The header image is public domain.
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8 Comments on Like bathing in fire: How to write about World War II.

  1. Though it sounds daunting I know your end results are going to be fantastic! Good luck!

  2. I notice novels in there among your research. You are writing fixtion at NaNo, correct?

  3. Wow, I should re-read my fixtion/fiction before I send a comment, eh?

  4. This is a well-thought out piece on the historical fiction writing process, thank you!

  5. I love that words have a distinct power to carry emotion. Seeing the image here of the thousands of shoes as well as hearing the article’s thoughts about them is quite stirring. There is a lot of respect and appreciation to be gained from reading stories about this time period. Even if the story was fictional, there is still emotion to be gained from the time that the story is set.

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