I’m pleased to offer the following guest blog post, by Cathryn J. Prince, author of Death in the Baltic: The WWII Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. The story of this ship is a remarkable one — and one that, until now, was not well-known. I expect this book will change that, however. I’m enjoying reading it, and I hope you will, as well. Ms. Prince has done a great job of telling people about her book, from C-SPAN discussions to bookstore readings (she’s headed to my hometown of Ithaca, NY, November 9 & 10).
I also think this blog post, describing how an author does maritime history research with modern technology, is particularly valuable and insightful. Thanks very much, to Ms. Prince, for sharing these views with us.
In the past several years the Internet and then various social media outlets have become invaluable research tools, the former I welcomed straight away, the latter – not so much. However, since I opened both my Twitter account and Facebook account I have to confess that social media has won me over. In fact, I couldn’t do the job I do without social media. As an author, reporter and researcher I find that Twitter, Facebook, tumblr and yes, even Pinterest, essential. This became especially apparent during the research, writing and launch of my most recent book, Death in the Baltic: The WWII Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.
At its core “Death in the Baltic” is an oral history about the lives of several survivors of history’s worst maritime disaster. More than 9,000 perished on January 30, 1945 when the Soviet submarine, the S-13 torpedoed the Gustloff as it tried to cross from Gotenhafen (present day Gdynia, Poland) to Kiel, Germany. However, to tell the story of the Gustloff and its survivors I needed to do some maritime history research.
Through Jill Swenson of Swenson Book Development, I learned about shipindex.org. Whether you’re just discovering this site, or are already a follower, you’ll see that it is an essential tool for a researcher. Not only was I able to get the names of ships, I was able to find a vast list of books, online articles, and magazines that mentioned a specific ship.
Through Twitter I’ve connected with Polish historians, poets, and those who endured the last days of World War Two. Indeed social media is an essential arrow in a writer’s quiver because it offers a way to connect with others who may have expertise in your field, potential readers and those with shared interests.
It was through Twitter that I discovered @PolandWW2, which also has a Facebook site. Because of Google alerts I learned about Mike Boring, a deep-sea diver who visited the site of the Wilhelm Gustloff wreck. Through Twitter I’ve connected with World War Two enthusiasts like @ww2resource and @WWII_experts and @shipwreckology.
Nothing replaces traditional face-to-face interviews, and that’s why this book had me traveling from north of Toronto to Las Vegas to Tecumseh, Ontario and on to Ascona, Switzerland. It’s why traveled back and forth to Washington, DC to the National Archives and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
In addition, several publications, from the Journal for Maritime Research, a fully online, peer-reviewed journal is key for historical maritime research. There is also the International Journal of Maritime History, IJMH, which is the journal of the International Maritime Economic History Association. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is an excellent source to find out past weather. Likewise The Old Farmer’s Almanac can be helpful.
Museums and libraries are another source for anyone researching maritime history. I contacted the US Submarine Force Library and Museum in Groton, CT. Home to the USS Nautilus, the museum houses a well-managed and extensive archive. Museums such as the NJ Maritime Museum, the Mariners’ Museum of Virginia, the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, the National Museum of the US Navy, and the Maine Maritime Museum all have collections – large and small. Now I didn’t avail myself of the collections each museum had to offer; but I did find that staff at each institution more than willing to point me in the right direction.
I’ve begun work on my next project (which I will keep close to the vest right now) and again find myself tracking down information about old weather reports, ancient sea routes, shipyards and construction. Like “Death in the Baltic” maritime history is a big piece of the story. Again I am again finding the maritime community generous with time and explanation. Each connection yields another connection.