Ghostly Flyers of WWII– Research for a Mystery Novel

Wrecked Aircraft

Mystery and suspense, like any other commercially published genre, has an obligation to engage its readers. Writers on whole are a lazy bunch (and I should know.) We are always looking for the shortest way from “A” (a good premise for a story) to “B” (greater acceptance of our work.)

Question is, how?

Out of a WWII aircraft graveyard, the answer presented itself to me, hovering in the ether nearly undetected. More of a reminder, really . . . lest I forget.

Research and the Reality Factor

Years and years and years ago I learned that good research is the foundation to a credible story. And without credibility, readers won’t bother. It’s what I like to call the “Reality Factor.” Yes, as writers we make shit up—it’s our job, man. And a great job it is. However, to get words on a page to transform into an engaging story, it is imperative that we write with a high degree of reality.

Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut for this. It simply requires good research.

So buckle up.

The True Test—What Do Readers Think

I recently sent an excerpt from the second in my Lance Underphal murder mystery series to my dear friend (and sister by another mother), B.K. It’s just a snippet, used to enhance the protagonist’s “reality”—a pleasurable scene I recalled from childhood.

Here’s a bit of it:

“Ol’ Wilber was a packrat by nature and an opportunist by trade, always makin’ somethin’ outta nothin’. And behind his Shooting Star Motel he had more junk than a young lad’s eye could easily take in—acres of it. Concrete drain pipe you could walk through upright, a steel tank the size of a house, an old rusted derrick reaching to the sky, tractor tires you could jump through without touching their sides, their tread chunking and crumbling from sun rot. A veritable wonderland for a small boy. Weird and wild, I could spend all day there.

But the best part were the planes. WWII trainers and bombers, their mammoth carcasses partially gutted for scrap-metal and parts, engine cowls empty, propellers the size of windmills laying in the dirt. Huge toys, left behind by some giant child that had carelessly dropped them in a hurry to run off and play, or so it seemed. And I was the lucky stiff who found them. Finders keepers.

An old AT-6 Trainer was a favorite. Nose tilted in the air, landing gear partially collapsed, one wingtip leaning into a clump of weeds while the other soared high above the desert floor, perpetually banking into a steep turn. Crawl inside its cavernous fuselage and it was bare to its aluminum ribs, dust and tumbleweeds it’s only cargo. I’d run up the long wing and climb into the open cockpit, it’s metal-frame canopy frozen open, panes of glass cracked and shattered or missing altogether. I’d drop down into the torn and weathered seat, sinking behind a wondrous array of switches, black knobs and round-faced gauges—the rotted rubber-handled control stick between my scrawny legs, ready for takeoff. It was there I first communed with the dead.”

B.K. was appreciative of the work and inadvertently sent me off to do my homework, referring me to a website with info on the WWII planes parked at the then Army airfield in Kingman, Arizona The website is an brief overview of the airfield and its history, listing several WWII-era aircraft, but nary an AT-6  Trainer. . . Oops! Time to roll up my proverbial sleeves and do some digging.

So What? It’s a Murder Mystery, Not a History Book

A small point, granted. And I could take artistic license, since it was my father that mentioned the AT-6 Trainer. Still, I find that it is often the details of a story that make it work—make it real.

Trust me, readers will notice.

The Real Deal

Turns out my father was right.

An excerpt from the Kingman Army Air Field & Depot 41site –

“March – The aircraft count on the base was rising. By this time, there were 15 AT-6As, 21 AT-6Cs . . .”

I’m still not sure if the plane ‘ol Lance Underphal sat in as a small boy was an AT-6A or an AT-6C.

AT-6 is close enough.

No Excuses

Compared to our predecessors, we writers are damn lucky. It’s faster and easier than ever to do good research. The days of having to go to the local library and comb through endless volumes, searching for needles in haystacks is long gone, dead and buried. The internet gives us instant access to more resources than we’ll ever use. Once you separate out the misinformation from the facts, the rest is easy.

We’re writing for real, now!

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