Honestly, personal accounts are the best. That's not saying that a well-informed, well-written piece of historical nonfiction isn't excellent, because it often is—and depending on your subject, sometimes that's the only resource available. But if you want to capture the feeling and spirit of a time period, and understand the way people thought and how they reacted to the historical events you're studying, a good memoir, journal or collection of letters is golden.
On the other hand, a not-so-pleasant conclusion I've recently arrived at—and this isn't just my predilection for old books, but a clearly discernible fact—is that there's a notable drop-off in the quality of grammar, punctuation usage and general writing style in nonfiction books published within the last decade or so. Several times recently, when reading for pleasure or for research, I experienced for the first time in my life the impulse to send a volume sailing in a graceful curve across the room (for reasons grammatical and otherwise). They were library books, however, so I refrained. I did send one of them back with pencil notes in the margin—also a first. I've always felt grateful to those knowledgeable prior readers who make discreet penciled corrections to the model of a plane or the caliber of a weapon, and I felt rather as if I were paying back a debt to them.
On the brighter side—at least it's the brighter side in my opinion; those who have to live with me might think differently—when you do find an excellent research book that is packed with just the sort of details you're looking for, it has the effect of leaving you feeling like you're ready to burst. For weeks I have longed for someone on whom to unleash a torrent of detail about destroyer escorts' size, weaponry, maneuverability, training, and primary uses, along with tales of particular ships' exploits—probably very little of which will actually make it into the pages of my novel, but is still good to know (and tremendously interesting). For the most part I swallow my enthusiasm, not wanting to bore anybody. But I'm still looking for a chance to corner someone and fix them with a glittering eye, like the Ancient Mariner, and tell them all about how the USS England sank six submarines in twelve days or how the USS Samuel B. Roberts made four knots over her maximum speed in the Battle off Samar.
Getting back to essentials, probably the single most vital passage I've come across so far in actual relation to my planned novel is this one relating to the censorship of a ship's outgoing mail:
...Each envelope, after being sealed, was stamped with a small circle in which was inscribed "Passed by Naval Censor," then it was initialed by the censoring officer. The officers stamped and initialed each other's mail unread, on the principle that those who were charged with enforcing the regulations would neither violate them nor jeopardize a fellow officer whose initials attested to his confidence in one's own integrity. That may well have been a violation of the rules, but that was the way it was. There was room, also, even in wartime, for exceptions based on judgement, trust, responsibility and integrity. The same courtesy the officers extended to each other was extended in special cases to solid, responsible individuals in the crew. After a thorough explanation of what could and could not be said, I certified, unread, the personal correspondence of [several men under the author's command]. Other officers did the same for men they knew could be trusted, and whose privacy they felt it unnecessary to violate. (Edward P. Stafford, Little Ship, Big War: The Saga of DE-343)
The issue of mail censorship was one thing that worried me about writing an epistolary novel. Should I just write the letters in full, and make-believe that they reached their recipient that way—or should I try to imitate the appearance of a censored letter by blanking out words and phrases? The above paragraph was an illumination and a weight off my mind: as my male protagonist is an officer, censorship thus becomes a non-issue. (It rang a bell of accuracy, too: I recalled once reading a mention of a sailor who sent letters home uncensored because of an understanding with a superior officer, and this explained the practice.) All I need to do now is find the official censorship guidelines for wartime letters, so I know what he would and would not be able to write.
The journey continues...
The Research Diaries, Part I
image: postwar photo of USS Rombach (DE-364) from Wikimedia.