How I Researched “Code Name Verity”

If you’re lucky, you’ve got a best friend to go through all of life’s ups and downs with. But what if those ups and downs included spy missions, Nazis, and plane crashes?

In Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, two young women, Verity and Maddie, develop an intense friendship while working for the British war effort in the 1940s—a friendship that’s put to the test when Verity’s captured by the Gestapo. Building a believable backdrop for this unconventional love story took a lot of hard work and deep research—but luckily, Elizabeth was up to the task. Read how she winnowed the pukka gen from the bumpf below. 

I started off my research in the traditional way—reading books from the library. Eventually, after I’d renewed a book for three months and was desperate to scribble notes in it, I’d break down and invest in a personal copy.

I found a lot of the contemporary details in books and movies, but I also confess to extreme Googling. Nothing else is so efficient for picking up quick information on how cigarettes were packaged in 1940, where the Jewish population of Manchester comes from, and the specifics of the Geneva Convention. I couldn’t have written this book without the Internet. Fifteen years ago, I would have spent hours in a research library tracking down explosive types used by the Special Operations Executive—now all I have to do is look it up on Wikipedia. I am cautious about verification, but it’s just so much easier finding details than it used to be. (I wrote a blog entry about the research process while I was in the middle of writing the book.)

There’s another aspect to my research that I ought to mention: an obsession with maps. I never write a book or a short story without referring to at least one map. For Code Name Verity, off the top of my head, my reference tools included: a British road atlas dated 1940, an undated prewar linen map of southern England, a set of five Royal Air Force flight maps from the 1930s, a 1940 silk escape map for northern France (with the UK blanked out!), modern flight maps of the UK, modern road maps of France and Britain—I even drew up a flight plan for Maddie’s Lysander trip to France. It doesn’t always occur to me to mention map-reading as research, because it is just as natural and integral to my writing process as making up the plot and characters.

I find that slang is one of the hardest things to verify—date and origin—even on the Internet. I’ve now invested in a fabulous 1400-page-long printed Dictionary of Slang by Eric Partridge, edited by Paul Beale. The RAF slang mostly comes from an online list.

I was amazed, reading that list, how much RAF slang my own vocabulary already contains. Bumpf, prang, piece of fluff, piece of cake—a lot of it has become everyday pilot-speak, and some of it’s even crept into everyday civilian language.

French WWII secret agent Violette Szabo

Probably the two most influential books I read in preparation for writing Code Name Verity were The Women Who Lived for Danger: The Women Agents of SOE in the Second World War, by Marcus Binney, and The Forgotten Pilots: A Story of the Air Transport Auxiliary 1939-1945, by Lettice Curtis. Binney’s book devotes a chapter each to several women who were involved in the Special Operations Executive, each of their stories harrowing and riveting—and often tragic. Queenie’s story does not exactly parallel any of them, but it is recognizably similar. Violette Szabo and Noor Inayat Khan were perhaps the most immediate influences in my mind when I invented Queenie.

British Special Operations Executive agent Noor Inayat Khan

Lettice Curtiss isn’t remotely like Maddie in terms of personality, and she was a far more experienced pilot than Maddie. But the incidents and characters she describes from her years in the Air Transport Auxiliary all went into creating Maddie’s background. (The flight instructor who tells Maddie to fly a heading as long as it takes to smoke a cigarette was a real person.)

There’s a detailed blog post over on Daisy Chain Books devoted to my real-life inspirations for Code Name Verity, with lots of links to profiles and books about these and other amazing people.

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