Deconstructing research

Helga’s Post # 94:   I was intrigued with Joe’s last post ‘Researching Research’. I can totally relate to his challenges as he plans his WWII novel set in Holland. He has neatly outlined all the possible sources for doing research: books, workshops, librarians, personal interviews, Internet, and so forth.

All have their usefulness, to a point. Any one of these tools, or taken together, can be a formidable arsenal to a writer of historical fiction.

But the most powerful tool by far an author can use is to ‘walk the location’ just as Joe did for his previous novel set in the California desert. To actually experience a place first-hand will yield information that none of the other sources would be ever be able to yield.

What about the time difference, you may ask. How can a place, a location, yield ‘authentic’ information when the story takes place fifty years ago? Is the location still relevant?

I would like to say a resounding ‘Yes’. Take Holland. (Especially Holland). Do you think the Dutch have changed their innate personality, their characteristics, in fifty years? I don’t think so. Talk to any Dutchman or Dutchwoman and you will find a uniqueness that they got from their parents or grandparents long ago. Traits they will keep for the rest of their lives. Not just Dutch people, of course.

And they still get around mainly by bicycles. Just as they did 50 years ago.

Holland's main transportation - today as always

Holland’s main transportation – today as always

Younger generations of any culture are forever becoming more homogeneous thanks (or perhaps regrettably) to the evolution of technology, especially the Internet. Still, in the end, you can take a Dutch out of Holland, but you can’t take Holland out of a Dutch. None of the tools we talked about – books, libraries, the Internet, etc. – will let a writer glean the subtle differences that will make his or her novel truly authentic. For that, our writer better pack his bags and get to visit the location of his choice.

Easier said than done. Depending on the setting, it could well be unaffordable. Most writers (or first time authors) are not as well-heeled as American bestselling mystery writer Elizabeth George! While she lives in California, her research takes her to Britain on extensive trips, time and again.

But there is still another choice, one that Joe also alluded to in his post: Older family members. I believe that is the next-best thing to actually setting foot on the novel’s location.

I well remember my dad’s stories of WWII. He often repeated the same ones, time and again. No use telling him, ‘dad you already told us’. He didn’t need an audience as much as satisfy his own need to verbalize his experience and in so doing, re-live it over and over. So, while I never was in Russia (well, except for a short trip to touristy St. Petersburg, which doesn’t count), I learned much about the country, seeing it through my dad’s eyes, feeling it through his story-telling in the most minute details.

It also helps if the writer actually grew up or lived extensively in the setting of her novel. My motivation for writing my first novel ‘Closing Time’ was the setting: Vienna. Not only the setting, but the time too – the Cold War era of the late Fifties. That’s where I grew up and I remember much of that period. Come to think of it, I should give Closing Time another try, especially since some time has passed since the sting of the last rejection letter.

Vienna's wine gardens 'Heurigen' today like 100 years ago

Vienna’s wine gardens ‘Heurigen’

But this time there won’t be any more rejection letters. Self-publishing can do that.

10 thoughts on “Deconstructing research

  1. Helga, so good to hear your voice … and read your (always) wise words. I agree about experiencing a setting in person, if at all possible. Even a “touristy” trip leaves an impression of the history and culture and vibe of a place, if you’re looking for it.

    • Thanks, Silk. Yes, it’s good to be back, because life goes on in spite of all the dire events. Blogging can be therapeutic I am finding out.

  2. Helga, you’re so right about actually visiting a place and the cool thing about Europe is that there are often areas that have stood for a very, very long time. Amsterdam, for example was not destroyed during the war, though some buildings and neighbourhoods have disappeared due to progress. I don’t know if I can afford to go there for a bit, but I do remember my visits there.

    • Amsterdam is one of the most fascinating cities. It’s labelled ‘The Most Liberal City in the World’ for good reason. Full of contradictions, a writer’s dream. No wonder so many great novels are set in Amsterdam. Take John Irving’s ‘A Widow for One Year’ for a glimpse of the dark underside of the city.

  3. Love hearing all your suggestions for gathering the history and “feel” of an era or place outside the author’s life experience. One thing that has been extremely helpful to me is obtaining a buddy born and bred in the U.K. to read over a recent manuscript set in his country. I’ve joined his writer’s group to keep current and really enjoy the differences in the way we think about things; food, politics, spirits, cars, etc. Suffice to say there are more differences than just spelling (getting rid of those “z’s”)and I continue to work at being anglinised, as he calls it.

    • One cannot over-estimate the usefulness of a writing buddy who is willing to share experiences and considerable time. In fact, most writers couldn’t produce a novel without one. Lucky you for having found one! Thanks for your comment, ohiogirlwriter.

  4. So what does a guy like me do? For reasons that I myself don’t understand, my “historical” fiction is stuck in bronze age mythology. My one finished novel is set in the Trojan War, and I’m hoping to write another that is set in the Old Testament. Even if I knew the Trojan dialect of Hittite, or ancient Hebrew, there’d be no locals to talk to, and the geography of the dardanelles and the middle east has changed significantly in the last 3,000-4,000 years. I researched Greek mythology, Greek and Anatolian geography, and the archeology of Troy (or what’s believed to be Troy), and now I’m reading the Old Testament analytically, and taking detailed and cross referenced notes, but I don’t think going to either location would be of any help. Any ideas?

    • I don’t have the answer, but this is of course fundamental to all historical fiction. If it deals with an era such as what you are writing about, nobody has been there to tell you what you are writing is not how it used to be back then. So research is all you have to go by. I would not dismiss visiting the area though even with the changes in the 3000 or 4000 years since the time of your novel. You might still pick up some clues, even if it’s just experiencing the climate, colour of sky and water and feel the local winds. I don’t know, just a thought.

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