The Bird and the Worm—Research for Historical Fiction

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By Sarah Sundin

When writing historical fiction, we need to research with both the eye of the bird and the eye of the worm.

A bird soars high. It sees for miles in all directions and senses what’s happening in many places, but it’s detached from the action. The worm sits in its little spot in the ground, aware of the smell of the earth and the feel of the grass, but only able to see a few feet away.

Bird’s Eye Historical Resources

In my new novel, The Sky Above Us, Lt. Adler Paxton is a P-51 fighter pilot based in England in 1944. He literally gets a bird’s eye view of D-day. He can see tiny ships belching fire and miniature landing craft approaching the beaches. When you do historical research, you’ll find many sources offer this bird’s eye view. Movements of armies, actions of governments, cultural trends, dates, figures—information. Bird’s eye resources include government documents, as well as many books and websites.

While researching The Sky Above Us, I read accounts of the air war in Europe, books on D-day operations, documents about American Red Cross clubs in England, and even the pilot’s manual for the P-51B Mustang.

Have your eyes glazed over yet? Bird’s eye research can do that. But a love of the story and the characters can make the driest material fascinating.

Worm’s Eye Historical Resources

Other sources offer the earthy view from below. Interviews, memoirs, diaries, and oral histories tell you what it felt like to live in an era, what real people did, the day-to-day stuff of life. Also, when possible, visiting the locations in your novels gives you the feel for your setting.

My research for The Sky Above Us included oral histories and memoirs from P-51 pilots and American Red Cross workers. I visited a former American airfield in England and walked the streets of London that my characters walk. I learned about the fumes in the cockpit, the overabundance of mutton at the airfield mess, the challenges the Red Cross workers had running the base Aeroclubs, and the difficulties the ladies had in obtaining women’s toiletries and things in a combat theater.

This is the stuff that makes the historical fiction writer’s eyes light up. This is the stuff that makes the story feel real.

Bird and Worm Living in Harmony

Most writers tend to prefer either the bird’s view or the worm’s. But quality historical fiction needs both.

The bird’s eye view gives you perspective and the framework of your story world. Just as you live, aware of the culture and affected by international events, so your characters live in their world. A foundational knowledge of the time period, grounded in technical and chronological details, gives you a firm platform for your story.

The worm’s eye view gives you color and attitude. Look for snippets about taste and smell and sound, feelings and attitudes and opinions. These are the details that make the reader say, “I felt like I was there.”

Both approaches are needed to tell a rich story—bird and worm joining wing to . . . well, you know what I mean. With both perspective and color, your story will come to life.

When writing historical fiction, research with both the eye of the bird and the eye of the worm. @sarahsundin#ACFWBlogs #research #amwriting Click To Tweet

Sarah Sundin is a bestselling author of historical novels, including The Sky Above Us and The Sea Before Us. Her novels When Tides Turn and Through Waters Deep were named to Booklist’s “101 Best Romance Novels of the Last 10 Years.” A mother of three, Sarah lives in California.



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