Black Wings is fiction so I didn’t start writing thinking I’d need a lot of research. The novel’s main character is Bridget Donovan, a Naval Academy grad and public affairs officer, a background I share. Shouldn’t I have been able to rely on imagination and memory? I soon discovered that wasn’t enough. Luckily, the research was fun and interesting.
My goal with research was to get the key details right so the reader would be immersed in the Bridget’s world and have the experience of a “vivid, continuous dream.” I can’t promise there aren’t errors in the story, but where facts mattered I did my best to get them right.
My research consisted of: repeatedly walking the grounds of the Naval Academy, visiting Annapolis and the Pentagon, digging through my old journals and papers from the Academy time, studying books by and about Navy pilots, and reading accident and safety reports. I also had my own memories to mine.
In addition to Bridget Donovan, Black Wings features Audrey Richards, one of the Navy’s first female pilots. I’d been exposed to some aviation training while I was at the Naval Academy, and had even considered trying to become an aviator at one point in my Naval career. The whole aviation world remains fascinating to me. I wanted to do Audrey justice and honor the women who had been early pioneers in the aviation world, but I also wanted to build my own sense of character and lay out critical scenes. I imagined Audrey’s experiences as a Naval aviator before I did any research.
For research, I read two books, both memoirs. In the Hornet’s Nest, by Missy Cummings, is an account of the author’s time as one of the Navy’s first female F/A-18 pilots. Call Sign Revlon was written by the mother of Kara Hultgreen, one of Navy’s first carrier-based female pilots who died when her plane crashed on landing. In addition to those books, I read countless newspaper stories and web articles on the crash itself as well as the decision to allow women into the combat aviator ranks. All of those accounts informed my work.
Because Audrey’s plane crash is suspicious, I did a lot of research on aviation safety and mishaps so I could make a believable account of what might’ve happen.
The most enjoyable aspect of research was returning to the Naval Academy and imagining myself as Bridget Donovan. While I’d attended the Naval Academy for four years, I’d only visited twice since graduation and those had been quick stops. Once back on the Academy grounds, I set out on Bridget’s running routes—past the jetties that girded the Severn River, over the wooden bridge that spanned Chauncy Creek, along the obstacle course and around the edges of Hospital Point, a field flanked by water on all sides. I had my notebook with me and I stopped and jotted down scraps of notes.
I didn’t know the whole story during my visit, but I had a sense of where Bridget would need to go. It was thrilling to wander, to be both purposeless and purposeful, outside of time. When I left the Academy with my pages of “research” notes, I was inspired. I went back to my desk and started writing, letting my imagination draw on the facts but not feeling bound to them.
LT Bridget Donovan suspects the worst when her former Naval Academy roommate, Audrey Richards, perishes in a botched take-off from an aircraft carrier. The Navy says it's an accident, but facts don't add up. Could it be suicide, or murder? Donovan's unofficial investigation into what really happened, both during their past Academy days and in Richards' final hours, forces her to examine the concepts of honor, justice and the role of loyalty in pursuit of those ideals.
About Kathleen - Kathleen Toomey Jabs is a 1988 graduate of the United States Naval Academy. She served on active duty for six years and is currently a Captain in the Navy Reserve. She holds an MA from the University of New Hampshire and an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University. Her stories have been published in a number of literary journals and received several prizes, including selection in the National Public Radio Selected Shorts program. She lives with her husband and two children in Virginia.