Sunday, 21 April 2013

Researching Victory by Megan Rix

While I was researching the lack of military trained British dogs at the start of World War 2; and the setting up of the War Dog School, for my latest book 'The Victory Dogs', I came upon the interesting fact that 200 fully trained French and Belgian messenger dogs had been sent over from Dunkirk and had apparently arrived safely in Dover and were never heard about again.

'When the British and French forces were pushed back to the Channel, by the Germans in their drive to the coast, Mark was one of the two hundred Belgian and French dogs, that were evacuated and taken safely back to England at Dunkirk (May 1940).

I'd already been commissioned by Puffin to write my third book about dogs set during World War 2 and immediately wanted to write about one of these dogs but that's when my research hit a blank wall. 

I got in touch with the usual sources: Imperial War Museum, Ministry of Defence Dog Training Centre as well as looking through the newspapers, both national and regional, of the time. There was lots of information about Dover being over-run with stray dogs brought back by soldiers from Dunkirk - but nothing about these fully trained dogs. My search widened. 

One very useful source of help was the animal activist and academic Dr Hilda Kean who had also been wondering what had happened to these dogs. I knew there were strict rules that dogs that weren't registered were put down because of the fear of rabies. It's the starting point for my first book in the series 'The Great Escape' and as I continued researching I was dreading finding out that these dogs had been put down. But Hilda assured me that the animal activists of the time would never have let that pass without reporting it. I thought maybe the boat/ship they were on had been sunk but apparently not. It was really a mystery and one that I intend to keep on looking into but have had to put to one side for the moment. If anyone knows I would love to know...

History I'm finally finding out, when I'm almost historical myself, has lots of interesting facts and once you dig a little you're soon digging a lot - and it's exciting! So much more so than I ever knew. At school I can only really remember writing down facts the teacher read out about The Tudors and we learnt about Kings and Queens when I'd much have preferred to learn about what 'real' people did and how they lived - people like me.

Photo by Bedford Times & Citizen
I love watching the pathe news-clips from the 1940's of the people of Dover being interviewed. Yes, Mr Hitler had been doing quite a lot of damage to their town but they couldn't stand around talking about it all day as their  dinner was waiting for them in the oven! Those are the sorts of quietly brave, and funny, people I like to read about.

My research led me to finding out more about the jobs women did in WW2. I knew there were land-girls and women worked in 'munitions' factories but I hadn't known they were also fire crew and search and rescue team members and countless other jobs. I somehow imagined the people were much more polite and refined (which they probably were) and thought the women would be wearing skirts to do their jobs until I started finding more and more pictures of women in overalls and thought of course they would be wearing them - much more practical and if you weren't issued with some you'd borrow someone else's.

I was delighted to find that I'm a size 2 in WW2 overalls and I was able to buy a pair of originals on e-bay for my school talks, because obviously no adult would imagine they were a size 2, unless they read the small print on the overalls label while they were doing their research (the size system seemed to have gone by height rather than girth.)

As well as overalls there's a plethora of helmets to be found, my one in the picture's restored and sandblasted but I was very interested, although I should have expected it, to find you could buy your own hat-like Zuckerman helmet with it's higher top for 5 shillings and 6d at the time.

I also now know far more about the ventilation systems of tube trains, how people sheltered on the platforms during The Blitz, and what's behind Wood Green station, as well as being an expert on pigbins and how to make lemonade from carrots.

Researching is like being a detective - there's so much interesting stuff out there. I love it.

What research have you been doing recently?

Reviews of 'The Victory Dogs' published by Puffin April 2013:

‘A moving tale told with warmth, kindliness and lashings of good sense that lovers of Dick King-Smith will especially appreciate.’ The Times

‘If you love Michael Morpurgo, you will enjoy this.’ Sunday Express

'The Great Escape' is currently shortlisted for the East Sussex and Young Quills book awards.

Megan supports Make it Possible


Nicola Morgan said...

Fascinating, Megan! I've started a WW2 novel, too, and had to put it aside for other projects. Mine also features a dog as a main character, but in a different way. I certainly agree about the digging and then digging deeper thing. My problem is I get impatient and want to start writing before I've done enough research.

Not sure when I'll get back to mine. You'll be finished longer before me!

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I've been doing research for my latest daydream/book into wings. I'm writing about a girl who is descendant of angels in a far-spun fantasy version of medieval Earth. A lot of details I finalise and investigate will ultimately never appear...but I hope my knowledge in exactly how she flies and how her wings fold will improve my writing!! fingers crossed...

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