As J. Kathleen Cheney said in Fantastic History #4, “If you set a book in NYC, in London, in Paris…a gazillion readers will point out every little thing you get wrong. If you set a story during WW1 or WW2, during the American Civil War, during the Napoleonic Wars…enough readers will know that era to spot any glitch.”
Unfortunately for me, I’m writing a book set in London. During World War II.
In the years (more than I care to consider) since I started this project, I’ve studied everything from medieval magic to Hitler’s “vengeance weapons” to the black market in WWII London to the history of the Metropolitan police. But nothing broke the narrative loose for me like reading John Gardner’s Suzie Mountford mysteries and figuring out that my protagonist, Josephine “Feeney” Marston Grove, didn’t have to be a civilian consultant bound by what I thought were the rules of female protagonists in World War II narratives—she could be an active participant in the investigation.
Let me back up a step. My book revolves around a series of supernatural murders in London in World War II. I originally thought it would take place during the Blitz (September 1940—May 1941), but shifted the time frame when I realized that the Yanks didn’t arrive until 1942, and there were few air raids between then and 1944, when the Germans launched the Little Blitz and the V-weapons. And I originally had a hard-drinking detective, estranged from his wife and children, investigating the murders with the assistance of a young woman whose only real qualification was being the granddaughter of a (male) specialist in occult history.
Only he bored me. And she didn’t.
So, I thrashed around for awhile, trying to figure out how my detective—now known as Detective Chief Inspector Arthur Whelan, and happily married with two daughters who love him—fit with the snarky Ms. Grove, whose damp depression rapidly evaporated when she was given a role of her own. Enter Suzie Mountford—a young woman in charge of her own destiny, who takes a lover and pursues the most depraved criminals in wartime London.
I already knew that women had served in the Metropolitan Police since the 19th century, in civilian and volunteer roles, and as constables since World War I. But I’d historied myself into a corner by focusing on what they were officially allowed to do in the Met—represent and protect the interests of women and children, with a particular focus on vice (prostitution) and underage and female prisoners. Suzie helped me read my sources with fresh eyes—see what British women were already doing in the criminal justice arena, and how they might have contributed even more in the chaos of war. And that led me, eventually, to Keith Simpson’s 40 Years of Murder—the memoir of a Home Office Pathologist, who notes that a Woman Police Constable arrested a murderer just a few years after World War II—and Murder on the Home Front—written by the woman who served as his assistant throughout the War. Those books, along with specialized histories of the Metropolitan Police, and particularly of women in the Met, helped me build a bridge across my preconceptions and get myself out of my history corner.
All of which is to say that my fear of those gazillion readers who might call me on my bullshit also helped me convince myself that the protagonist of my heart couldn’t be the protagonist of my book. I wouldn’t trade a moment of the research I’ve done, but I’ve learned a valuable lesson or three about not allowing what I think I know to blindfold me against the possibilities.
Chia Evers is one fourth of Unreliable Feed, a graduate of Viable Paradise XIII, and a writer of novels and short stories. She is also an attorney and a communications associate at the MIT Media Lab.