Guest Post & Giveaway from Ellen Baker

I am thrilled to welcome author Ellen Baker back to Planet Books!!  Today is the pub day for her sophomore novel I Gave My Heart To Know This.  Ellen asked me if I would host a giveaway contest for a signed copy of her new book here on Planet Books so of course I’m obliging!  In addition Ellen has written a post describing some of the research she did for her wonderful novel.  I hope you’ll take a moment to read along and then leave a comment on this post with your name and e-mail address to be entered in the drawing.  I will select a winner using on Tuesday, August 9th, 2011 so please leave your comment by midnight Monday, August 8th.  Happy reading & good luck!

When I was working as a curator of a World War II museum in northern Wisconsin, I’d been surprised and fascinated to learn that dozens of warships had been built on Lake Superior waterfront.  In the Twin Ports of Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin, thousands of workers had toiled at several shipyards – hard to imagine, when you wander the ghostly waterfront today.  But I was inspired by photographs of the women who’d worked in these jobs to try to imagine it. 

Only after I started to write did I realize I had no idea what it really takes to build a ship – let alone dozens of them.  My initial thought was that my female protagonist, Grace Anderson, would fall in love with a man named Joe who came into and out of the shipyard each day on a supply train – but I didn’t know if a train had made deliveries to the shipyard.  Happily, by digging through records and consulting with the local railroad museum, I was able to learn that my imagined scenario was possible.  Next, to get an idea of what Joe’s work days would have been like, I interviewed a man who’d been a brakeman for many years, beginning just after the war.  He told me what it was like to slog the length of the train in deep snow and bitter cold; about the hand signals he’d used to communicate with the engineer. 

But what, exactly, would Grace be doing at the shipyard in the meantime?  First, I had to wrap my mind around the vast scale of everything.  Referring to historic photos of an actual shipyard, I wrote an early scene about Grace at my fictional yard in which she climbed up to the top deck of a stories-tall cargo ship.  I imagined the men working all around, the hot smells in the air, the noises of the machinery, the challenge of not tripping over the cables and hoses that littered the ground.  That scene didn’t end up in the novel, but it did give me the sense of how small a person must have felt in those surroundings – and how much work would always have been underway at once.

After getting the visuals in my mind, I hunted for details in shipyard newsletters, which included reports on everything from the various work departments to men’s and women’s team competitions in bowling, baseball, curling, and basketball – as well as intriguing items like: “The baldheaded boys in the front row will approve of the girls in the yard wearing sweaters, but the Safety Department doesn’t.” 

Next, I interviewed some local experts who answered questions that had come up in my research and shared some extra details, including the job of a loftsman.  I hadn’t known that the ships’ original plans were transferred into full-sized paper cuttings of each of the ship’s pieces and laid out in the “loft,” a football field-size room covering the entire upper story of one of the yard’s huge buildings.  From the paper cuttings, basswood templates were made, and these were taken to the punch shed, where men used them to cut the ship’s steel components.  I decided to make Grace’s uncle Chief Loftsman, so she’d be aware of what went on in that department and could share it with the reader. 

The more I tried to write about the work that Grace and her friends would have done, the more I realized I needed to learn (at least in general) the sequence of construction of the ships.  At the University of Wisconsin-Superior archives, I looked at the plans of the C-1 Cargo ships, which were being constructed at the local yards in 1944.  (The yards didn’t hire women until late 1943, so my timeframe was set for me by that fact.)  Also at the archives were copies of job orders, along with reports of official sea trials and of jobs completed.  These materials gave me perspective on all the many jobs large and small that needed to be done on each ship.  I began to appreciate the complexity of the process, and the choreographed way in which workers of all the departments (including shipfitters, pipefitters, pipetesters, outfitters, welders, burners, chippers, insulators, layout men, tank testers, foundation men, and on and on) labored together to get the job done right and quickly. 

From other interviews and sources, I got a sense of the mood of the time.  Most people said that everyone willingly worked the long hours and did the hard work because they wanted to do their part for the war effort.  They admitted the money was good, too.  A man who’d worked at the shipyard as a teenager, before being drafted into the Army, shared with me a copy of a novel he’d written in about 1950 about working at the shipyard, and his descriptions were invaluable.  Finally, the source I ended up referring to most often was a 20-page written memoir of a woman named Carol Johnson Fistler who’d worked as a welder.  I was able to borrow several incidents from her, including a time when she was assigned to crawl into the narrow bilge to make a weld and ended up sick from smoke inhalation, and another time when she was in a rowboat welding on the side of a ship and nearly fell in; she was rescued only by her foreman’s quick thinking. 

As I learned more and more, and wrote more and more, the setting of the shipyard became an adversary for my characters – the long hours, the physical demands of the job, the dangers … and, of course, the changeable, often brutal weather.  Another of my favorite sources was a Superior Evening Telegram article which describes May 1944 as “the warmest, coldest, cloudiest, foggiest, sunniest, rainiest, and snowiest May in several years.”

After studying newspapers and newsletters, ship’s plans and work orders and memoirs and interviews and manuscripts, I had to decide what could fit into my novel.  There simply wasn’t room for all I learned.  (I always thought it would be fun to have Grace and her friends on the bowling league!)  Notwithstanding my fascination for details, my task was to make them as unobtrusive as possible, integrating them into the background so the characters and their story come to the fore.  The research becomes like set decoration – only the beginning, providing the backdrop against which the drama plays out.