Is there a place for fiction in historical aviation?

As I am a writer of historical fiction that often involves aviation, you will not be surprised to find that my answer to this question is a resounding 'Yes'! But this is a serious question that I sometimes ask myself.

The reason for this question should be obvious and can be gleaned from the photograph above. These are a small range of the books on historical aviation that were within a few moments reach from my writing table. I could have displayed a lot more. In total I have perhaps 300 books on the subject covering mainly 20th century flying with a clear concentration on my main areas of interest, WW1 and WW2 plus sub-areas; the inter-war years and the late 1940s and 1950s. Only my old camera collection rivals my book buying!

There is, therefore, a veritable library full of books on the subjects already. I only own a fraction of what is out there. 

So far...Give me time!

These books of mine have one thing in common; they are all non-fiction. Every single one of them. I don't, currently, own any historical aviation fiction.

Yet I write it. So why the gap? And how can I explain what I write?

Well, one reason is part of my personal make up. I am a facts junky, I love research, I love finding out stuff. I read history of all types and all periods for pleasure. It's what I do (and that's lucky given my chosen genre - a historical fiction writer that doesn't enjoy the subject of history is pretty much doomed to make one of those factual faux pas that haunts us all).

A second reason I don't read historical fiction is the double fear of committing accidental plagiarism and being put off by other writers prose. The former is a risk because of the fallibility of the human mind and memory; I don't want to risk something coming to me as what I believe to be an original idea only to find out it was something I read somewhere else years before. The latter thing, about other people's prose, is just the fear that other writers might do it better than me...

That doesn't mean I haven't read - and enjoyed - aviation fiction. Like many of my age I cut my teeth on Biggles, indeed I know this gave me my interest in aviation. I also read books like The Mustering of the Hawks and Len Deighton's utterly brilliant Bomber, a book that strongly influenced the form and subject of my novel LMF

So let's return to my original question; why fiction in aviation? Why when there is so much factual material out there and volumes giving the recollections of those that actually took part?

There are a number of reasons, including the fading memories of those who survived and, perhaps, the fact that not everyone giving their recollections are natural storytellers, but I will cite two in particular.

Firstly, there are gaps in the history and narrative. There are things that people did not really talk about at the time - or since. One particular example is LMF (the Royal Air Force sanction, Lacking Moral Fibre - an effective charge of cowardice or malingering) and also the related subject of combat fatigue and stress. Aircrew have talked about it a little - but only a little. These were different times, chaps just didn't speak about such things. I have had a recent example of this in researching my novel The Way Back, the sequel to LMF, or rather trying to research it. Through various sources I found out about a couple of 'refresher' courses for aircrew deemed at risk of LMF or showing, to the RAF, undesirable behaviour or qualities. I know that these were referred to as 'naughty boys schools', and that one was in my home city of Sheffield at RAF Norton but as to what the regime was...not a chance!

As a fiction writer I can fill these gaps in.

Secondly, fiction can give context. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Yes, facts are all well and good but what else is going on in society, in life, in the expectations and the outlook of the individuals involved. One of the glorious things about Bomber was it took the reader outside the limited world of the Lancasters on the raid into the class structure and operations of the RAF, the organisation of the German defences and the lives, loves, history and fears of the townsfolk in Germany who were the target. The context made it real and involving far more than any pure history ever really could. 
That is what good fiction can do.

It is what I try to do in my writing. Examples include the way the RFC/RAF out of the necessity of casualties changed during the course of WW1 from a largely posh-boys officers only club to a more egalitarian organisation drawing in pilots and observers from a much wider background with the associated tensions that brought (my forthcoming Three Brothers) and the political and media exploitation of heroes (Eleven Days). One further context issue I've visited is the less than optimal man-management skills of relatively young pilots (24-26 typically) promoted to be in charge of squadrons and wings (LMF). This is something that occurs in other fields; in football, star players often don't make great managers; in academia, professors who are great researchers often aren't great administrators (yes, I've experienced this myself) and I'm pretty sure it was true of the wartime RAF. Piloting skills and bravery does not necessarily equate to being leaders of men, for all their combat experience.

All context. All things which the factual material and personal accounts touch on but often gloss over.
This is something which I, as a fiction writer, I can correct by putting readers there, letting them experience it for themselves. To make it more real for today's generation and readers by actually making up stories.

And that's it in a nutshell; what fiction writers can bring; storytelling, not  to glorify war or revel in killing or violence - I'd be appalled if anything I wrote came over in that way - but presenting the past in a way that honours those who risked so much in the past, those ordinary people placed in extraordinary situations, I am trying to tell their stories via my created characters so that what they went through will not be forgotten, as a compliment to the factual not a substitute for it.