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.