Are various. But over the past few days I’ve been writing a part of my book that deals with a civilian air flight from 1947, and it’s been fun finding out which manufacturer produced the barley-sugars that the stewardess handed out, or the start-up checklist for the Avro Lancastrian.
One great difficulty with the past is dialogue. We’ve all seen those black-and-white films from the period, but how exactly did people talk unscripted, in real life? Well, the crew of the Lancastrian in question were all ex-RAF Pathfinders who had seen action during the Second World War. You think, perhaps, that being a tightly-knit group, the crew would refer to each other by their first names during the flight. That’s how I originally wrote the dialogue.
But then I heard a primitive recording of the internal communications loop on board a Lancaster bomber, over Germany, under fire. It makes for fascinating listening. When one considers that many of this crew were in their early twenties, and referred to those comrades over twenty-five as ‘old man’, it makes one stop and think. The recording, hosted by that excellent organisation, the BBC, is here. Be warned that the crew celebrate the ‘downing’ of a German fighter, whose pilot might have been seemed equally plucky had a recording survived of him. Listen to the recording, or view the transcript.
When I listened to this with my parasitic writer’s hat on (what an image), the first thing I noted was that the accents are absolutely spiffing. The second is that, if I incorporated such dialogue into my book, no reader would believe me! ‘Good show’? Crikey.
Another great source of material is British Pathe (they seem to have dropped the accent acute). I had to write a scene involving Air Vice-Marshall Don Bennett, and with only still photographs to go on, I would have had a rum time of it (sorry) imagining his mannerisms, etc. But, presto, a quick search of British Pathe came up with a number of reels in which Bennett — flying the route to South America for the first time, for example — comes alive. From this, I could hear that Bennett has no Australian accent, despite being born in Toowoomba, Queensland. He’s a charismatic but nervous man. Excellent material for a writer. I went on to locate footage of school children being given a tour of a Lancastrian identical to the ‘Star Dust’, and from this I could get a feel of what it might be like to walk around the cramped cabin, identify the kind of steps used to board the aircraft, and a thousand more details.
So, research: a great way to avoid writing. A blog: that too.