It’s a year ago that I was writing my novel, Saltpans, and as usual doing a lot of research for one of the story lines. The particular incident I was looking at was the Zeppelin raids on the east coast of England in 1915. I was thinking in a blog post I worte about the importance of research and observation.
This is what I wrote, starting with an extract from my little book So You Want To Write:
If you decide to set your novel in an interesting or unusual place, even if you have been there yourself, you may need to do some research to add detail and to make sure your facts are correct.
If your story is set in the past you may need to find out about how people lived in those days. The same applies to character and plot. If your hero is an Albanian, or your heroine is an astrophysicist, you need to make sure you know something about Albania or astrophysics. It is very easy to do research now with the vast resources of the internet, but you may also like to visit your library or local museum. Other people are a great resource; if your story is set in the recent past, interview people who were alive at that time; if your story is set in another place or country you may know someone who has lived, worked, or been there. You may be able to visit some of the places your story is set if they are local to you. Adding extra detail adds interest for your readers; it brings your story alive and makes it more believable.
To illustrate my point I shared an extract from my new book Saltpans, which I hope will be published at the beginning of the summer. This is a sneak preview, from the first draft so there are very likely to be changes and alterations and much editing before it appears in print!
Thomas is researching his wife’s family history; her grandmother was Marie Lesesnes – called Mary, and her sister Azurine in the newspaper reports he reads about dramatic events in the second year of WW1:
Back to January 1915, and a zeppelin, the L3 commanded by Kapitanlieutenant Karl Fritz, made landfall over the Norfolk coast between Happisburgh and Winterton. The Kapitanlieutenant’s target was the naval port of Yarmouth, but maybe getting his eye in, he let slip a bomb over Happisburgh which fortunately missed most of the little village/town but landed on a disused hotel on the road between the village and Eccles…
The report isn’t that clear, but it seems Irene, aka Azurine and her little nine year-old sister Mary were rescued from the burning building by brave eighteen year-old Anthony Finch, who is surely the young milk car man Anatole de Brossard Finch… It says in the article that the brave young man would be awarded a civic medal – he was a dairyman on a local farm just off Blacksmith’s Lane apparently… and Azurine and Marie were in the deserted hotel… how mysterious!
I read another short account, and it seems there were two zeppelins which set off from somewhere called Fuhlsbutterl… that sounds like a swear word – dammit you foolsbuttle!!! I think I shall adopt it…
Be serious, Fuhlsbutterl… I discover that actually it is Fuhlsbüttel, and it is a suburb of Hamburg and it is where the airport now is – so there have been aircraft leaving Fuhlsbüttel for over a hundred years; to begin with as an act of war, but now in peaceful trade and commerce…
But my foolishness turned to serious as I discovered that Fuhlsbüttel became a concentration camp… it had started as a prison, a regular prison, then it was used as an internment camp for the opponents of Nazism, the Communists and socialists, the Jews and the gypsies and gay people as well, then the Gestapo took over the running it and then after Kristallnacht which I remember learning about for my GCSE history, seven hundred more people were sent there… before long it became the departure point for concentration camps such as Ravensbrück and Buchenwald…
Now I am married to a black woman and have children of colour, and also have a nephew and friends who are gay, it really has brought it home to me the full horror of Nazism, and if I was anti-racist before , then I am a thousand, a million times more so now and I would stand up and be counted to fight against it…
I go back to the zeppelins. I find another article; L3, L4 piloted by Kapitanlieutenant Count Magnus von Platen-Hallermund, (what a name!) and L6 crossed the North Sea from Fuhlsbüttel on the night of January 19th. The weather was not ideal and the leader of the operation, Korvettenkapitan Peter Strasser, who was actually operating L6, discovered it had developed mechanical problems and it was forced to turn back home while L3 and L4 pressed on toward England.
The headwinds forced changes to the German plan; they were supposed to head to the north-east of England, to Humberside to bomb the industrial and military areas there, but weather conditions forced them to change their target and they steered a more southerly route towards East Anglia. The L3, under the command of Kapitanlieutenant Karl Fritz, made landfall over the Norfolk coast between Happisburgh and Winterton. Kapitanlieutenant Fritz’s new target was the naval port of Great Yarmouth.
L3 was actually seen from the ground as it passed over Ingham, heading towards its target in the dark. These days, if your country was at war with another, you might expect air raids, but back in 1915, it had never been heard of because this was the first, and this resulted in the first ever casualties in all the world of war, from an air raid.
It only took ten minutes, but they must have been the most terrifying and horrific and endless minutes for the inhabitants of the small seaside town as fire rained down on Yarmouth from the sky, as high-explosive and incendiary bombs, ten of them were released from the airships.
One of the L3 bombs fell on St Peter’s Plain, killing spinster Martha Taylor and a shoemaker named Samuel Smith… I have a quick deviation into the 1911 census. Seventy-two year old Martha Taylor, a single woman was a net mender. There were a lot of Samuel Smiths in Yarmouth at the time, but was this Samuel Alfred, I found, a forty-nine year old boot repairer, living with his parents, Esther and William Pye Smith (a bushman whatever that was), and his two young nieces Elise and Hilda Hutt who were schoolgirls.
Was this Samuel the man who died? If so, how tragic, because even if he had been awake, he would have heard nothing because he was deaf…
The details of the Zeppelin raids are all correct, including the deaths of Martha Taylor and Samuel Alfred Smith.
Here is a link to my So You Want to Write book:
… and to my other Radwinter books: