Top 10 Discoveries About My Book

Joe’s Post #180

This is how I imagine the book cover. Only with the shadow of a man in a coat and hat looking all detectivie

Are you surprised how your book turned out?

Now, spoiler alert, this is a longer post than normal. Get into your comfy underwear, pour yourself a glass of whiskey, put your feet up on the dog and continue.

Yager’s War has come so far since it’s inception back in 2016, but my first historical novel has finally been sent off to my first readers – Two professional writers, and one person who lived through that time.

Oh, but that seems so long, ago, now. A lifetime. And in that lifetime, I learned a lot about my story, which kinda surprised me since I thought I pretty much knew everything about it when I sat down to write it.

So, what did I discover?

1) I discovered that I can’t eat well and write. Now, this doesn’t have anything to do with the novel, per se, but if anyone is looking to write a character in a novel who writes for a living, it’s a good trait. Not a healthy one, but something odd. Quirky. Stupid. Peanut M&Ms. Pop. Pizza. Oddly, I didn’t drink. Sorry Hemmingway.

2) I discovered that I sat down to write this because I love history and World War II history in particular. But it’s not a love based on battles, but stories. It’s something that’s not being taught a lot in schools. It’s all about facts, maps, (wait, I love maps, too), and dates. Even without a specific person, there is a narrative that thrills me. The massively outnumbered Jews who fought the Germans in the Warsaw Ghetto. The 500 Spartans at Thermopylae. The Alamo. Then it hit me. I love the underdog. The few who stood up when it mattered BUT died in the end. All knew they would die, yet still fought the fight. That leaked into my novel in a big way (and will certainly be a major part of the second and third novels.)

3)

Iron Lungs. Therapy for polio. But it looks like something out of a horror movie.

I discovered a lot about things we understand now, understand back then. Polio. PTSD. Asperger’s. They’ve all existed since the beginning of time. Like the Queen of England. But we’re only now understanding them fully and I was surprised at the complexity of each one of those subjects.

 

4) I discovered ‘what to keep in and what to take out’ was tougher than I ever thought. Yanking out a whole subplot ain’t easy, my friends. It’s like trying to yank off a skin tag, it’s quite painful and wants to snap right back. I can still use a lot of what I wrote or imagined in my next book,

5) I discovered I could fall in love with one of

Amelia Anderson. (AKA-
Bryce Dallas Howard)

my characters. It’s amazing how much a story can change even from the 2nd draft, to the third. I yanked out some decent writing about my character’s interaction with a family to explore a love interest and I fell in love with that love interest. Amelia “Amy” Anderson, a brilliant red-head with Sherlock Holmesian Asperger’s. Socially awkward. Kind. Driven. Beautiful (of course, cuz, you know, I’m a guy.) I dream about her now. Don’t tell my wife.

6) I discovered it’s tough to choose what research to use and what not to use. I had to cut research out. Oh, that fine line between having authentic historical details and way, way, way too much information… it’s so easy to cross because information is so fun! (You know what I’m talking about, Paula!)

7) I discovered that I could make myself cry while writing. Not, oh god, this is terrible, but I moved myself at some of the tragic scenes. Maybe no one else will shed a tear, but it’s odd that I could actually get in touch with emotion. Without whiskey. Thanks to Don Maass for making me live in the pain for a while.

8) I discovered, much to my horror, that it was not as much fun, sometimes, to do research. Now, this really shocked me. I love learning new facts. Like did you know that the Kaiser, the Imperial Emperor of Germany, fled to Holland? And had the nickname of the Woodchopper? But trying to get all my facts right, like what soap the Dutch used for dishes or what goods were sold in the Waterlooplein market, well, that took a bit of work and I often got distracted tracking down other details.

9) I discovered this is not, at its heart, a who-killed-Roger-Rabbit story. This is a Jewish

Lest we forget

story. Again, a bit of a shock. Not that I didn’t have Jewish elements in it, but on the last rewrite, it really hit home how much I needed to tell the Jewish story here.

10) I discovered it’s a feminist novel. This came as the biggest shock. BIGGEST. Like finding a spider in your underwear.  Both of my main female characters are strong, independent women in a time where such things were not the norm. Maybe it was all the women in my life who influenced that. My mom who went to university and graduated as the only woman in her class. My wives, Margot and Corinne. My inherited great Baba, who designed and built a frigging church.

But all those discoveries aside, the novel will get one last polish from my first readers, then it’s off to the agent.

It is the best thing I have written, but something not achieved without great pain and anguish. Ask my wife who’d find me wandering around the house muttering, “No, that won’t work, won’t work, my precious, he has to die, yes, die but how, dammit, how?”

It’s been an interesting journey, combining my deep emotional connection to the Netherlands (based on my visits there and my reading of the holocaust), my love of a good thriller, and my love of books that touch a poignant chord within us all.  But, as any writer should, if someone has a way to make it EVEN BETTER, (my first readers, my agent, my editor, Bob the grocery bagger,) then I’ll kick it up yet another notch.

Because I not only want it to be the best story I’ve ever written, but one of the best others will ever read.

Falling in Love With Your Own Writing

Joe’s Post #177

Listen to what Boromir says.

Listen to what Boromir says.

Is there anything better than falling in love? What about falling in love with your writing? Is that a good thing?

Well, no. No, it’s not.

It’s something I’ve been struggling with as I rewrite my novel, Yager’s War, for submission.

Set in 1940, it tells the story of a Chicago detective in Holland trying to find his missing sister before the Germans invade.

When I first wrote it, it had more of a mystery feel. Dead bodies. Gun battles. Lots of tough guy talk. Some hot sex. But from my writing group and my dedicated readers, it became clear that I needed to shift it a bit, and focus on the humanity of the story. Less Jack Reacher and more Gorky Park.

Why? Because I’m trying to write a deeper story. A story with emotional weight.

I spent a TON of time reworking my first 50 pages to see if I could hit this goal, and after many tears, much staring off into space, and a lot of bugging a published writer friend of mine, I think I finally got the right feel to the story. Good pacing. Some heart. Compelling characters in a compelling story.

If my novel was a kitchen, this is what I would like it to look like.

If my novel was a kitchen, this is what I would like it to look like.

For most of 2017, I’ve been hard at work recrafting the rest of the novel to be as good as those first 50 pages. It’s been hard and, frankly, a lot of the novel has been totally rewritten. It’s sort of like doing a kitchen renovation where all you want to do is replace the sink and end with redoing the counters, cabinets, floors, lights and adding a 75” TV, cuz every kitchen should have one.

But perhaps the toughest part has been letting go of some of my best writing. There was one scene that I loved. I loved writing it the first time. I loved reading it the second time. And the third.

It was powerful. It was emotional. Hell, I think I even gotz all the grammar right.

But here’s the horrible truth, a truth that we writers must face sometimes.

It no longer works.

The story has evolved in such a way that this beautifully written passage was no longer relevant.

It’s very sad.

It was hard to let it go.

But then I remembered what someone told me about letting go of things I’d collected in my house. You know, the sentimental things – the ashtray that my mom used to use, the chair my grandfather made that was now nearly in tatters, the 10,000 VCR tapes that I’d collected over the years… the things to which you attach memories, the things that have meaning but take up an awful lot of space and you no long need.

Well, someone said take a picture of those items so you’ll always have the memory. And, you know what? That worked like a charm. A friend saved me from being a hoarder.

So I applied the same principal to that nice bit of writing. I didn’t take a picture of it, but cut it out of the story and pasted it into a file called, “Things Joe Can’t Delete but Loves.” Like my original Sim City from, like, 1989 which hides somewhere in my computer games file.

Doing this allows me to move on.

And, hey, it can be resurrected.

And, hey, it can be resurrected.

In my mind, I imagine my kids looking at this after I die and saying, my goodness, Joe REALLY could write. Who knew?

Rest in Peace, Good Writing.

Rest in Peace.

The Joys of Research

Joe’s Post #176

Is it possible to hate Tom Cruise, but love a lot of his movies?

Is it possible to hate Tom Cruise, but love a lot of his movies?

For me, I have a love-hate relationship with research. Like I have a love-hate relationship with Tom Cruise movies or hot curry.

But I come from an age when if you wanted to find something out, you had to go to a library or have a super knowledgeable friend or just make it up. It was an age long ago, an age of encyclopedias, and age long forgotten now.

Because today, we have the internet.

Now if I want to find something, the internet usually has the answer. How cool is that?

radioAnd it has answers for some pretty esoteric stuff. Like, what radio sets did the Germans use in 1940? I mean, seriously, someone has a website about this?

Well, yes, yes someone does.

Or using google maps to figure out how long it takes to get from the Rijksmuseum to the Oud Kerk in Amsterdam.

Or finding pictures of streetcars in 1930s Rotterdam.

Good lord, you wouldn’t believe the stuff you can find. Sure, it’s not always right there in front of you, and I am far from the best search-word user, but the internet is an amazing thing and before Skynet takes over and limits my access, I intend to use the hell out of it.

The only downside is, though, (and this is where the ‘hate’ part of the relationship comes in), it can become a MASSIVE distraction to the actual task of writing. How many hours have I spent looking up small details that would make my story better? Police call boxes in Chicago, 1930. The Red Light District in Amsterdam (ok, I may have gotten seriously sidetracked with pictures of this one). Uniforms of the Dutch army 1939. Hitler’s paintings.

Anne Frank's pictures

Anne Frank’s pictures

It’s fun, even if it is time-consuming.

But without such access, how would I ever be able to make my setting come to life, make my characters interact with proper historical items, or have the correct music playing on the correct device and using the appropriate speakers?

For any novel written in the time I’m living, I don’t really need to look up those things, but for a historical fiction, it’s an absolute necessity.

I am thankful for the age that I live in.

 

Travel Writing for Novels

And maybe acting isn't even important

And maybe acting isn’t even important

Ok, I had one of those rare clarity moments the other day.

You know the type. You suddenly realize that eating a box of cookies doesn’t help your diet at all. You realize that Hollywood will never celebrate good writers as much as they do handsome actors or beautiful actresses (even though no matter how great an actor is, a bad script makes the movie suck). Or you realize you’ll never be really able to keep up with the derpy sus that has become the new kidspeak.

But in this case, it was making location matter more in my book and tying that into my own travel experiences. Oh, I know, duh, right? It’s almost like I have to learn a lesson a good dozen times before it sinks in. Like just because I have a good camera doesn’t mean I can take good pictures.

So, yeah, there I was, lost in my novel, working on driving the plot forward, staying true to my character, blah, blah, blah, when it suddenly occurred to me that my settings were bland. Vanilla. Boring. Oh, I think my details were ok, you know, kind of all detailie, but the settings themselves, boy could they be kicked up a notch.

What do you see in this picture?

What do you see in this picture?

It’s should be part of the fun of writing a story set in another city. Or country. Or universe. Now, while I’ve not been to Outpost Omega-Epsilon-Wanker, I have been to Holland. And Amsterdam.

So why not use those memories, those pictures, those settings? My fellow writer Helga did this brilliantly in the story she wrote set in Europe during the coldest part of the cold war. My other Fivers have used their life experiences, their travels and adventures to enrich their novels. So why had I forgotten about this?

Truth is, I am a bear with very little brain and too much stuff bothers me. For me to write, I can only keep a few things in mind. If I have to think, oh yeah, add brilliant sensory detail from my travels to this scene and don’t forget to have conflict and, wait, is there movement in the scene and is my character acting in character and… well, it all bungs up like me trying to go the bathroom after I’d eaten three plates of cheese.

Mmmm. Cheese.

I know one of my writing friends, Sheila, has this incredible ability to see it all in her head like a movie. So for her, those setting details come easy. For me, it’s going to have to be enough to know I need to add them on the 2nd draft.

However, for locations, why settle on a meeting on a street when you can set it in the rijksmuseum?  Why have a fight in a bar when you could have it in the flower market? Why have a chase through the alleys, when I have a city full of canals?

One of the masters of setting IMHO

One of the masters of setting IMHO

Dorothy Dunnett was a master of this. She’d set a story in a great location, like Florence, then have that place become a character with a variety of clever details and sensory elements, BUT then she’d make use of the special aspects of the city, having a chase across the red tiled roofs. Not a chase on the streets, on the roofs.

Anyway, I think I’ll have to save the details for the 2nd draft, but the larger locations, boy those can change immediately. It’s not too taxing on my brain to ask myself, self, can I set this in a better location? Can I bring out a unique aspect of that location? Can I make that location active in some way.

Damn, I sound like Don Maass. But that’s not a bad thing. And it’s even kind of fun. Hmmmm… Amsterdam, 1940… I can’t use the Anne Frank house, she’s hasn’t been murdered by the Nazis, yet, so, yeah, what else can I use????

*****

Best show last week – Game of Thrones, best show ever? For all time? Yup.

Book that I’m reading at the moment –  Reading Sean Sommerville’s latest book. The Unforgiven. Man that guy can write.

Pages written on new book  4 weeks now and I have hit my goal of 10 pages a week. I’m finding more time and, more importantly, finding my groove, again. Can I increase this for next week?

Social media update – Derpy sus, people. Derpy sus.

Best thing last week  epic trip to Science World. Oh, I’m sure I’m going to blog about that!

timeWorst thing  I’d like to buy more time, please, Alex. Honestly, there just doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day to get everything done. Luckily, I’m pretty sure I’m the only one that happens to.

 

 

Balancing writing and research

Joe’s Post #123

fireworksOk, here’s the good news. I started my novel. The bad news, it’s still a challenge for me actually writing and not bogging down in research.

I know, big surprise, right?

I did, however, come up with a solution, but first, let me give you an idea of the problem.

bridgeSo my character crosses a bridge in Amsterdam. What did the bridge look like? I looked up maps of Amsterdam, then old maps, then 1940’s maps, then I tried to find pictures, then I tried to find pictures from 1940, then I tried to find a detail that I could haul out, then I tried to link that detail to my character’s past which lead to looking up bridges in Chicago, which led to pictures of bridges in Chicago, which led to looking for 1940’s pictures, which somehow led to research on the districts and areas the gangs controlled.

After about 2 hours, I wrote a sentence.

Next week, I’ll talk a bit about research and details, or how much is too much, but it was clear after writing that one sentence in 2 hours (and not even an amazing sentence at that), if I ever hoped to get this novel done, I would have to find way to balance off research and writing.

A part of it was that I was rusty at writing. Yup, flaking-orange-rust-rusty. It happens. It’s like anything. You don’t practice enough, and it’s all kinds of hard to get restarted. Like getting back to exercise. Or getting up at 5am for morning hockey practice.

rustyThe only way to get over being rusty is, wait for it…. Practice. Again, big surprise right?

Sounds like I have a serious case of Captain Obvious, but it’s something that’s easy to forget. It’s like you know you used to be able to run around a football field chasing a ball and god bless us, but we think we can do that again after 20 years of sitting on the couch. Or think of starting a car after it has sat in a field looking picturesque.

So I’ve dedicated myself to writing every day, again. Even at the expense of research. I’m going to try to get that flow back. I’m going to bang off the rust.

It won’t be pretty. And that research-Gollum still clears its throat when it thinks I need to stop and look something up.

Hey, it’s fun to look stuff up. Oh sure, it can be frustrating at times (due to either lack of skill on my part or lack of information in general), but it’s so cool when you find pictures of an old Kirk (not captain Kirk, an old church) that could be a part of your story.

It’s a reward. And we do love rewards. Even us writers.

Hence my new strategy has a twist, a way of not bogging down – I underline something and leave it for later.

So what if I write ‘bridge’? I can look up the details later. If it’s even needed. Hey, sometimes it’s ok to just write ‘bridge’. With that in mind, I can underline cigarettes and look up what the Dutch smoked in the 1930s. I don’t have to know right now. I can plunder pinterest at a later date to find pictures of Dutch prostitutes.

It can all wait.

Really, it can.

It’s all about discipline and focus. I need to get a well-written story done. All I need to do that is to understand and know the basic details of the time. The rest I will have to stuff in a sack, throw that sack in the canal and come to get it at a later date.

Otherwise this novel will never get written.

And I so want to tell this story.

****************

A few questions

Does anyone have a recommendation for a translation program?

How do you decide when to keep researching and when to write?

Best show last week – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. OMG it’s worth seeing for the special effects!

Book that I’m reading at the moment – In The Shadow of the Cathedral, by Titia Bozuwa. A good book for researching the Netherlands.

Outlines done 0

Pages written on new book  15 (ok, nothing to jump up and down at, but better than 0).

# of new friends made on Twitter  5. Despite the fact I didn’t post anything. I did write 5 posts, so it’s kind of one for one.

Health Mental health took a hit while I dealt with a very painful anniversary.

Best thing last week  Honestly, it was that I got started writing again.

Worst thing – translations of larger Dutch documents is eluding me at the moment. All the programs I’ve tried so far crash my system and make me sad.

And hey, if you like this post, please share it on facebook or twitter or linkedin or just tell a friend.

Research – what inspires you to write?

Joe’s Post #122

History is People

soylant greenThe idea that history is people came as a shock to my oldest boy. Sort of like Soylent Green is people came as a shock to Charlton Heston. He (my boy, not CH) thought history was terrible. He hated it.

In part, this is because in school history is about facts. When did the beaver traders first invent beaver pelts? What year did the Romulans build Rome? Where did the Egyptians build the pyramids?

Interesting stuff if you like learning about facts. Certainly valuable in trivial pursuit-type games. But history can be inspiring, and inspiring because of the people in it.

Which leads me to my post this week.

I usually research people by reading about them. I have dozens and dozens of books in my library about historical figures, interesting comedians and odd whackadoodles. But this last week, I spent some time with real people who have actually LIVED history.

It was a transformative moment for me.

Why?

I’ll get to that in a minute.

rotterdamSo, yeah, here I am, writing a historical novel set in the Netherlands, circa 1940, and I’ve been gleeful to find old photos, gather up books written about the time (mostly during the German occupation), and find the odd link that reveals some amazing fact I didn’t know.

But the real fun has been talking (or emailing) people who’ve experienced it. Not being a journalist, I’m a little rusty at interviewing. It probably takes me a bit longer to get to the stories and details than someone more skilled or socially awesome.

And, I’ve been surprised that there are people who would rather not talk about what happened. Intellectually, I can understand, like I can understand why some people like cats more than dogs. But deep down, I don’t get it. Good or bad, it’s history. It’s part of their story. If you asked me to talk about my childhood, I would bore you to tears for hours. However, I didn’t see people beaten to death before my eyes or have my house bombed.

So I’m sensitive when someone says they’d rather not talk about something.

anne frankBut what people have talked to me about has made me think about this story in a whole different way. It’s one thing to read Anne Frank. It’s another to talk to someone who’s actually hidden people from the Nazis.

Think about this for a moment. You risked everything. If you were caught, you could be shot, maybe tortured, and your entire family would be sent to a concentration camp (even your children) where they would probably die a very bad death. All it would take would be one wrong sound at the wrong time, a light left on when everyone should be asleep, a traitor speaking to the Germans.

How many of us would risk ourselves today?

For me, it’s that simple bravery that moves me. Not that any of the people I’ve spoken to would think of themselves as brave. In fact, they’d be embarrassed to be called that. But they are.

They risked everything to do something good. Everything.

And that’s transformed my thinking about this book.

dutchThose stories need to be heard. They need to be told.

Because history is not just about the famous people. Hitler. Churchill. Matt Damon. It’s about the lives of regular people as well.

 

*****

Best show last week – Walking Dead wins again. Spoiler alert. Something bad happens. Wait, that happens every week.

Book that I’m reading at the moment – In The Shadow of the Cathedral, by Titia Bozuwa. A good book for researching the Netherlands.

Outlines done – 0

Pages written on new book  0

# of new friends made on Twitter – 3 (but did manage to create a lively discussion on Linkedin about if research was even necessary – based on my blog of the same title.)

# books ordered for research – They’ve all come in. But I found a great site for finding more information. World History at KMLA

Health – Still hanging in there. Cold gone. Happy to breath again.

Best thing last week – Meet with the 5/5/5 Thursday. Set some serious goals. I’ll write more about that next week.

Worst thing – WordPress.org remains largely untouched and this site needs a bit of work. One more thing to do on a very long list of things to do.

Researching research – part 2

Joe’s Post #118

By the way, please check out this site by William Cronon -   http://www.williamcronon.net/researching/

By the way, please check out this site by William Cronon – http://www.williamcronon.net/researching/

kerrSo it’s begun. The researching. Or more accurately, the research has begun to pay off. My first books began to arrive, including a history on Amsterdam. I dug out my old books on WW2 like Anne Frank, The Iron Heel (Jack London), and the Bernie Gunther novels by Philip Kerr (about a German detective before and during the war.)

People have begun to email me back. One amazing gentleman gave me links to the Dutch police during the war. Later in the week, a person at the Dutch Resistance museum led me to a half dozen sites about the resistance.

But the biggest haul was from my friends. They sent me links to look up. They hooked me up with parents or grandparents who had been in Holland during the war. They phoned people on my behalf, brainstormed people or organizations I could contact (like the Dutch consulate!).

Wow. I mean, wow.

I have to say that two weeks ago, I was lost as to how to get the research done. Then I did something us introverted writers hate to do. I talked to people and I asked for help. With the exception of one person, so many people have been keen to help out.

And how cool is that?

So what have I learned?

Without a doubt, an amazingly beautiful woman.

Without a doubt, an amazingly beautiful woman.

Audrey Hepburn was in Holland during the war and that’s super odd since, in my mind, she was the face of the love interest in the book. The policing in Holland was a mess of organizations. That plays well into the story. When the Germans occupied the country, being Germans, they cleaned up who did what, making it all efficient, but before that, it was like the FBI, DEA, state police, local police and the park rangers all trying to figure out who had jurisdiction.

There’s still a lot more to learn. Like I said in my last post, the most important being those details that bring a world to life. Food. Social structure. History, myths and legends. And Helga may be right, the best way to get those is to visit a place. If only I had the money.

If only I had a time machine.

Wait, is there one on Amazon? If not, maybe one of the world traveling 5/5/5 could go in my place!

In the meantime, I have juggle two competing interests. I do love history. Love-Love-LOVE it, but I could spend the next two years looking stuff up, talking to people, following links and get exactly 0 pages written.

So I took another stab at the first 10 pages.

They sucked. AGAIN!!! But at least I’m trying, right? That’s important, right?

In my mind, these first 10 pages were awesome and amazing and something Hemingway would have said, “Dang, yo, you nailed it.” But somehow, when I actually put pen to paper, it came out all crumply and awkward.

Does that ever happen to anyone?

Check out Chuck Wendig’s funny-ass blog on the subject.

So that was the week. Nothing earth shattering in the way or writing or research, but a good start. With all that’s going on in my busy, amazing new life, a ‘start’ is good.

Anyone who may have links, suggestions, questions, or people I can talk to, please reply, write me an email, give me a call or contact me telepathically.

******

Best Show Last Week – Big Hero 6. We loved it more than the kids. It made me laugh, it made me cry. It made me want to have a balloon-shaped robot.

Book That I’m Reading At the Moment – Gone Girl. Holy sh*t good!

Outlines Done – 0

Pages written on New Book minus 10. I consider what I wrote so bad that it actually sucked the life OUT of the book.

# Turkeys eaten – 1 but somehow I forgot the stuffing!!!!!!!!!!!

# of new friends made on Twitter – 21

# books ordered for research – 0 (Books arrived – 2)

Health – so so. Can’t shake this damn cold!

Best Thing Last Week – The information about policing in Holland, but I also got my library mostly done!

Worst Thing – Damn cold

 

 

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.

Researching research

Joe’s Post #117

So how do you do all this research stuff? I’d love to hear from other writers, especially ones who have worked on a historical novel.

holland 1940For me, this one has become a bit of a challenge. It’s set in WW2. In Holland. I need to know the details if I’m going to bring my book to life. It’s what I got from Don Maass. What’s their favourite hot drink? What do they mix in it? What was the weather like and how did they dress? Were air raid sirens sounding before the war? Did the canals stink at times? What was their form of bread (everyone seems to have a favourite form). How were the Jews treated before the war? Blah, blah, blah.

And there doesn’t seem to be much on the subject.

So let’s look at the options.

First, in this day and age, it’s the internet. Simple searches can reveal links to books, sites and forums that have good information. Find a good one and they’ll lead you to other sources. You can even post on a good board asking for help.

To date, I’ve found a PhD dissertation on Holland from 1850-1950, and that was kinda cool, but lacked the details I need. I guess when you’re writing a PhD paper, you don’t mention how the coffee tasted.

I even wrote 3 emails to experts in Holland, but so far have received one, “I can’t help you,” and 2 no replies.

Sigh.

anne frankNext are books. I had great success with this when I wrote my last book. I found all sorts of great books on serial killers, on brainwashing, on profiling and even on route 66. I have a whole shelf now.

However, here, again, I ran into problems. I ordered a half dozen books online in an effort to get an idea of what life was like. Anne Frank-like books. A pair of histories of life under the German occupation. One on tanks, cuz, you know, I like tanks. And one on the politics between the UK and Holland from 1940-1945 (a text book!)

I know I’ll get some more details, but I’m still thinking it’s not quite enough.

Next step – visit a library. Them librarian-folks gots some big brains on dem so I’m going to tap into their experience and data base and see if they can find any books. Thanks to a suggestion from my amazing brother, I’m also going to go to UBC and bug them there. Who knows if someone else wrote a paper on the toiletries of 1940s Holland.

Lastly, and by far the toughest step, is to actually go and talk to people or walk the location.

I did that in the last book and it made a HUGE difference for me being able to bring the California setting to life. I could see all the little details that my writer’s eye gobbled up (wait, did I mix a metaphor there? Can eyes gobble?) From clothes to salt shakers to ruined gas stations, I was able to mine a ton of great details.

I also talked to people to get a feel for them. Each place has a character and the people in the California desert are no exception. San Francisco is to the desert towns what Rome is to a village in the Cotswolds.

But both those options for this book are limited. However, I’ve reached out to my friends to see if they know people who have lived in that time or who are Dutch or who are just plain interested in helping me. So far, I have recommendations to go and talk to 3 people.

Then I remembered talking to my great-great uncle about WW1. He didn’t much want to talk about some of the details, but I was 10 and loved war in the way that only a 10-year-old can and bothered him until he was able to tell me some of his stories. Most were horrific and fascinating, and form the basis of my character’s experience in WW1.

Huh. People. Talking to them. Yeah. I need to do that. There’s nothing like talking to someone first hand, and talking to several someones may actually give me an idea of what life was like.

heinekenBut it’s all going to take time. More time than I thought it would. I know I can make stuff up if I have to, but depth in setting, real depth, comes from being able to build a world that my readers will want to live in.

So today my books arrive. Today I’ll contact the 3 people to see if I can meet with them.

Any suggestions on what more I could do?

*****

Best Show Last Week. Walking Dead, again. Very few people on the planet could make a lollipop a symbol of oppression.

Outlines Done – 0

Pages written on New Book – 10 (yup took a stab at the opening scene. It sucked.

# turkeys eaten – 0!!! Not a one. Nada. So sad.

# of new friends made on Twitter – 73

#books ordered for research – 7

# of people spoken to – 0

# of days I doubted I can actually write this book – 7