1940s, historical fiction, history, Research, writing

(2) Writing historical fiction: What’s in a name?

In book three, with a possible working title “The White Flash Made By Little Boy,” the year is 1942 and the setting is the Philippine jungle on the Bataan Penninsula. The principal character in Chapter 1 is Barbara Kiss. You met her before found HERE. What have I been researching? How does one create a historical climate?


Naturally, books are what I grab first to catch up on general knowledge of events. I picked Pure Grit by Mary Cronk Farrell whose non-fiction account is well researched and an easy read. I didn’t know much about the nurses who were forced to evacuate Sternberg General Hospital, Manila, into the jungle after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese pressed. By the end of December, Hospital No. 1 was forced to retreat into the jungle. The Japanese pressed some more. The Army decided to send bulldozers deeper into the jungle ten miles by the Real River. Hospital No. 2 was created. It resembled an ant farm of interconnecting rooms that served as wards. It was open-aired, and the walls were vines while the roof was trees. Under the Acadia branches, the hospital hid from a Japanese attack from the sky. Initially, it was a convalescent hospital, but became a surgical hospital, too.

World War II sites abound. My buddy and WW2 expert, GP,  was kind enough to relay applicable links for personal testimonies.  The most informative site, thus far, is the WW2 Medical Research Center. I can read unit histories, articles, testimonies, and inspect the database. Check out their site at WW2 US Medical Research. Why would I do that? I’m not a nurse from 1942. I haven’t a clue how they treated the wounded. What did nurses wear in the jungle? Malaria was a huge problem. What were the symptoms and what was it like for the nurses and patients who suffered? Testimonies are vital for the details that help me recreate a time period. For example, monkeys, iguanas, caribou, rats, spiders, snakes, and the omnipresent flies and mosquitos made it extremely difficult to ignore while administering aid or to sleep at night. Now add strafing, half rations, capture, and enduring time in a POW camp. The nurses lost a third of their body weight from starvation before rescue in February 1945. Pictures provide clues for the answers to my questions and allow me to accurately describe the past. 

The Filipino medical staff and civilians 

The Filipinos helped the US Army by providing civilians to build Hospital No. 2. Filipino nurses and doctors worked alongside American nurses and doctors. If I’m attempting to create the past, I need to know something about Filipino culture, including their names. As it happens, I have a high school student whose father is Filipino. Great! I asked her to investigate and create a list of her ancestors who lived in the Philippines during the WW2 era. That was helpful. In short, asking people to share their personal histories is paramount in looking for the similarities soldiers and medical staff experienced. It’s not surprising that veterans worried, cried, laughed, and leaned on each other to get through the catastrophe. The number one reaction of being in a nurse under attack? Most said there was no time to be scared. There were too many patients to take care of.

NARA (National Archives and Records Association, Washington DC)

Here’s where the fun is. It’s detective work. The primary documents tell a story and reveal a truth whereas recollections over the decades can be selective. I found daily reports, rosters and hospital records, 1941-42. https://catalog.archives.gov/id/16837727

The records show me the numbers, the names and rank of personnel–both Filipino and U.S. doctors and nurses. Supply lists show me what they had and what they needed. This helps me “see” the hospital. For example, at its height, Hospital No. 2 had over 2,000 patients. I didn’t conceptualize the jungle hospital was that large and/or crowded. The facts shape my descriptions.

Writing historical fiction is about asking questions and finding clues to the answers. Everything requires research when you describe a setting and create believable characters across the world. For book two, Inside the Gold Plated Pistol, the setting is outside my front door. I live and breathe the history of Clarkdale, Arizona. But the Philipines in 1942? I know very little. It’s more of a challenge, but I enjoy the process of envisioning the past. During this month of Coronavirus, I have been allowed to research and write at home. It’s my silver lining. Do you have any personal stories about nurses or about Bataan? I’d love to hear what you have to say. I will be back at the end of April to share more.

45 thoughts on “(2) Writing historical fiction: What’s in a name?”

  1. I visited the Philippines many times during working years and lived south of Manila not far from the volcano that recently erupted for a while. So have heard hair raising stories of life under the occupation and how some of them actually supported Americans implanted behind the lines at great risk to their own safety during those times.


    1. Oh, wow, Ian. Gosh, I wish I could pick your brain hear about those “hair-raising” stories. The Filipino’s probably didn’t want any nation on their soil, but they hated the Japanese and their atrocities so much they were willing to work with the US to help thwart a horrible enemy. What I’ve read so far is how inspirational they were. Giving, cooperative, and they knew the land. A great ally, indeed!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m afraid my old brain at age 83 is not retaining as much of those stories as I could in the past Cindy. But your are right. they are a very independent people and from my experience very loving friends. πŸ™‚


          1. Well at least your suggestion got my brain working again Cindy. Part of the focus will be around the coast here but will have to share that with Singapore where I spent ten happy years πŸ™‚

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the mention, Cindy, but you know I love research – helping a friend like yourself was a pleasure!! I’m just thrilled to know I did something to help you in this current work-in-progress!!


  3. GP is a gold mine about WW2 in The Philippines. Why not also contact Arlene? She is too young for that war (60+), but I am sure her relatives will have stories, and her Mum is still alive. https://arlene1956.wordpress.com/ She lives in Manila now, but has family around the country.
    Names in historical fiction are important. When I set a serial in the past, I look up names appropriate to the period. There was nobody called Darren or Chanice around in the 17th century. πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚
    Best wishes, Pete. x

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating post, Cindy. Historical fiction is an integrity driven genre thanks to dedicated scholars, like yourself,who put in loads of work to the already intensive discipline of book writing. When I read historical fiction–it is my third favorite genre–I’m always appreciative of this and glad to learn.


    1. You are the best, Pam. You truly lifted my spirits today. I was accepted into the Ph.D program for history at Northern Illinois University. I wanted to be that scholar! When I finish this project (six in a series), if I’m still alive, I’d like to write a non-fiction book.
      Anyway, thank you for commenting today. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I just ordered another few books – can’t wait till they get here. “We Band of Angels” (nurses taken prisoner from Bataan) and “Death March: Survivors of Bataan” and “Deliverance at Los Banos”.


    1. I have We Band of Angels. I haven’t heard of “Deliverance at Los Banos”. I just got “Angelsof the Underground” and I’m waiting for ” Red Cross Kay: My Journey of Service in WWII by Kimmy Tavarez. I’ve decided Zorka is going to represent the Red Cross.
      That’s the challenge — so much to read it’s hard to put words to paper!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I am answering you back here in the event you wish to delete.
    I am also confused by the list you retrieved, for one, the Allen Johnson was a destroyer, if I’m not mistaken and the dates don’t jive because she was sunk in the Battle of Leyte in Oct. 1944. Another thing is the John Burke I know was a Liberty Ship.
    If I’m not mistaken, your nurses would have been sent long before the P.I. was invaded by Japan, correct or no?


    1. Yes. They were. I’m trying to get Zorka to Manila via Red Cross. I don’t think it’s possible in May of 1942. Too late. I read of Kay who was sent to New Guinea in 1944. Maybe the site information was wrong. But it is the U.S. Merchant Marine.org site which should be relevant.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m still looking into things for Zorka, unfortunately I found this.
    By World War II, our role was limited to recruiting nurses for the Army and Navy Nursing Corps. During the war, approximately 153,000 nurses held β€œactive” status on Red Cross rolls and 71,000 of them served with the military at home and overseas.
    As far as I can tell, no Red Cross nurses were in the P.I. when Japan attacked. They all worked in the U.S.


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