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.


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


Bending the truth – just a little

Helga’s Post #26 — A fresh wind blew across our blog yesterday, just in time for the first day of spring.

A story! Not advice to up-and-coming scribes (guilty as charged), not a ‘Dear diary’ post or navel-gazing exercise, but a real blue-blood story. What a novel idea, writing an actual story on a writers’ blog! Thanks, Joe, for doing this. I will follow in your footsteps.

Now I am not saying that our previous posts deserve the dung heap. To the contrary. Collectively, our 130 or so posts make a pretty good read. And we did have a sprinkle of real-life stories buried between a plethora of musings and morsels of wisdom. Really, why not post the occasional story (as different from ‘story’). After all, storytelling is what we do, if not for a living, then at least for the sheer love of it.

I for one welcome the opportunity to write the odd ‘short-short’ story. A little reprieve from writing a novel where every detail has to be right, where inaccuracies are not permitted.

So here’s a little anecdote I want to share. (It’s brief, because today is a busy and important one for our group: We are meeting for the first time in the five months since we embarked on our online writing challenge.)

The Dunk

Most of us are known to go to great lengths to avoid embarrassment. Even if it means tilting the truth to help preserve our respectability. And as a result, often the best-laid plans backfire.

That happened to me a few months ago while reading Fifty Shades Darker.

Fifty-Shades-DarkerI ended a busy day with a late night bubble bath, my favorite place for reading. An appropriate venue for the title, and a treat to reward myself for whatever I thought were my achievements of the day. It had been a challenging day, so I also needed a glass of Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc, a great combo with the book and bubbles.

So far so good. Only two minor problems. First, I dropped Fifty Shades in the tub when I fell asleep for just a second. Yes, it sounds unlikely given the topic, but I did. Secondly, the book wasn’t mine, but property of none other than the West Vancouver Memorial Library. I woke the moment I dropped the book and fished it out of the water immediately, but anyone who has ever dunked one, knows the results.

Four hundred sodden pages. I put it overnight on a heating register. Next day, I ironed them, to no avail. The book quadrupled in thickness, pages damp and swollen. What to do?

When desperate, think outside of the box. Put on your thinking hat. Brilliant, whoever coined those phrases. A few years back, I had to do some tests to determine if I had what it takes for a senior level management job. One of the questions, to determine creativity, was “How many uses can you think of for a brick?”

Forty. Yes, there are forty. I only got to about thirty, still a good score. Admittedly, some were pretty exotic, like throwing it through a window if you forgot your house key. Or for drowning a cat (sorry, Silk).

But I digress. So how to apply this to drying a damp library book?

A microwave oven has many functions. Not quite forty, like the brick example, but more uses than for cooking or heating food. Like drying books.

So what’s wrong with that picture?

Nothing. Except if you are drying a library book. Because of the tiny metal security tag attached on the inside of the back cover. Metals and microwaves are not friends. Especially magnetic metals. They spark and do all sorts of nasty things to each other when some stupid human brings them into contact.

Fifty Shades Darker did not look pretty after I rescued it. There was this dark brown burn mark the size of a toonie, that not only had burnt through the back cover, but through half of the book – two hundreds pages or so. Like someone had put a burning cigar to each page.

Mortified, I returned the book to the library, trying to think of a story that allowed me to escape with a modicum of dignity. I reasoned, like the famous song by Patrick Sky, ‘Reality is bad enough, why must I tell the truth?’

The clerk looked at the book, shaking her head.

“I’ve never seen anything like that in my thirty years on the job. What happened?”

“My 14-year old granddaughter dropped it in the bath by mistake,” I ventured. “And then she put it in the microwave when I was out. Stupid girl. Can you believe it?”

The clerk said nothing for a while. She shook her head again, leafing through the pages.

“I’m sorry,” I said, opening my wallet. “I will pay for the book, of course. How much do I owe the library?”

She looked at me with an expression like smelling a rotting fish. “You allowed your granddaughter to read this?”