How Archival Research Added Texture to My Novel

Mystery Thriller Week 2017 logoThe week of 12–18 February, I’m participating with dozens of crime fiction authors in Mystery Thriller Week (MTW). Click on the logo to the left to check out a full schedule of author interviews, guest posts, and Facebook events during this week. Here’s how the week looks for me:

Monday 13 Feb: I host author Linda Kane for Relevant History.
Tuesday 14 Feb: Catherine Dilts interviews me on her blog.
Tuesday 14 Feb: MTW hosts my guest post about child soldiers.
Thursday 16 Feb: I host a great chat on Facebook with Relevant History veterans Jeri Westerson and I.J. Parker, “Women Historical Mystery Authors Who Write Men Detectives.”
Friday 17 Feb: I host author Jennifer S. Alderson for Relevant History (below).
Saturday 18 Feb: Stephen Bentley interviews me on his blog.

Jennifer Alderson author photoRelevant History welcomes Jennifer S. Alderson, who was born in San Francisco, raised in Seattle, and currently lives in Amsterdam. Her love of travel, art and culture inspired her ongoing series of novels following the adventures of Zelda Richardson around the globe. In Down and Out in Kathmandu, Zelda volunteers in Kathmandu, where she gets entangled with a gang of diamond smugglers. The Lover’s Portrait follows Zelda to Amsterdam, where she discovers a cache of masterpieces missing since World War Two. Her third novel—a mystery centered around Papua New Guinean ‘bis poles’, missionaries and anthropologists—will be released in the summer of 2017. To learn more about her and her books, visit her web site and blog, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Pinterest, and LinkedIn.

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Let me make this clear from the start: I love the smell and feel of archival documents, those yellowing bits of paper and crumbling photographs that rustle ever so slightly when extracted from their manila envelopes. There’s something magical about scouring through meters of racks, drawers and file folders until you find an interesting or odd snippet of information recorded long ago which helps a character or story truly come to life.

While working out the storyline for my second novel, The Lover’s Portrait, I realized early on that the restitution of looted artwork and the treatment of Jewish citizens in the 1930s and 1940s, were going to be central to the plot.

To ensure that any potentially controversial aspects of my art mystery were honestly and accurately described, extensive archival research would be essential. What I didn’t expect is that this same research would add much needed texture and depth to my story, infuse it with universal themes and—according to all the reviewers so far—be what sets it apart.

Diving into the unknown to find the unique
I knew one of the main characters was going to be an art dealer being blackmailed by a Nazi general during the Second World War. I just didn’t know exactly why he would be forced to give up his collection. Restitution of art was a topic already very familiar to me, one I’d learned much about during art history and museum studies lectures at the University of Amsterdam. However the details surrounding important events in Dutch history, and the attitudes held in Europe during that period, were not.

It was crucial for the plot that this art dealer character not be Jewish but did need to be considered a ‘dissident’ or threat to the Nazi regime for another reason. I went to the Amsterdam City Archives with an open mind and list of questions.

I’d thought up all sorts of plot twists which involved other groups targeted by Hitler’s troops—Romas, communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political dissidents and homosexuals—and decided to see what my adopted hometown’s archives could tell me about how they were affected by the war. The documents I found relating to the treatment of homosexuals were the least known, and therefore most interesting, to me.

Before visiting the archives, I’d read several non-fiction books to better understand this turbulent time in European and Dutch history, and seen no mention of how Dutch men could be arrested, castrated and sent off to work camps in Germany based on the mere suspicion that they were homosexual. Or that lesbians were classified as ‘political dissidents’ in work camps.

That’s when I realized I’d found a ‘winner’ qua topic, one which hadn’t already been exhaustively explored in mainstream literature.

The sensitive nature of the themes discussed in this novel warranted that it be historically accurate, yet it was never my intention to write a historical fiction novel, but an art-infused mystery. When my ‘final draft’ clocked in at 110,000 words, I was afraid it was too long or would only appeal to historical fiction buffs, so I slashed many of the chapters which relied heavily on the obscure details I’d worked so hard to find.

The end result was shorter and less historical, but without all those enticing tidbits of information to fill in the characters’ backgrounds or help explain plot developments, the whole story fell flat. It was as if I’d ripped the soul out of my novel.

Little details make the difference
Despite my misgivings about the length, I added everything back in and even wrote three new chapters taking place in wartime Amsterdam to provide more depth and richness to the story, choosing to edit down the present day sections of the book to compensate. Man, am I glad I did! It’s the research that grabs reviewers’ attention, enhances their enjoyment of the story and characters, and seems to be what distinguishes this novel from others in the ‘amateur sleuth’ category.

My research has also paid off in other ways. I recently found out the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam is adding The Lover’s Portrait to their library’s permanent collection because they are thrilled with their prominent role in the book. The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam has already added it to their library based on the merits of my research into the complexities surrounding the restitution of looted artwork. And a prominent local LGBT organization, Pink Point, is helping me promote the book here in the city because they believe the storyline to be unique.

Yes, I spent many long hours browsing through often useless documents, pamphlets, flyers and photographs in far-flung physical and digital archives. I didn’t have to. But without all of the little details adding texture, depth and layers of meaning, my book wouldn’t have been the same. And frankly, I enjoyed every second of it!

Fellow authors, do you conduct archival research in order to add texture to your fiction? Readers, do you expect fiction to be well-researched, or are you just as happy to step into a completely fictitious world?

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A big thanks to Jennifer Alderson. Check out her “Name the Character” contest for the opportunity to win an electronic copy of one of her books. Offer ends 21 February 2017.

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Comments

How Archival Research Added Texture to My Novel — 18 Comments

    • You’re welcome, Jennifer. It’s a great story that shows why authors of historicals shouldn’t settle for the superficial information they find during research.

  1. I believe research rabbit holes are a necessity for any good writer. As Robert Mckee (STORY) told me once, “Write the truth.”

    We can’t write the truth unless we do research…whether for non-fiction or fiction. Thanks for the insights into your story research. Marilyn Johnston (aka “cj”)

    • Thanks for your comment, Marilyn. Going down those “rabbit holes” often gives writers a mental health break. We all know that immersing ourselves in research relieves us of the stress of actually writing. 😉

  2. I enjoy the fictional worlds of fantasy and science fiction but they are never convincing if they don’t have a framework of research in the history of our world. Great blog!

    • So glad you enjoy the blog, Terell.

      When it comes to creating a convincing intelligent life form for another world, John W. Campbell said: “Show me something that thinks as well as a man, or better, but not like a man.” I imagine it would be very difficult to create a believable alien or mythological creature without being grounded in Earth’s history.

  3. I love archives. And I love research. I’ve got a historical novel coming out next year that features an odd incident inspired by some old city council minutes. And I recently found a zoning doc approving a child care center at an aircraft plant – dated 1942. What fun.

    • Thanks for commenting, Anne.

      The “what if?” power generated by those odd little bits of history is magical. We don’t find the odd bits until we dig, though. While I was researching Michael Stoddard #3 (A Hostage to Heritage), I found out that two guys were doing the equivalent of drive-bys on horseback through Wilmington, NC — in 1781. Drive-bys! There’s truly nothing new under the sun. I turned that morsel into a big sub-plot in the book.

      You realize who most of the employees were at that 1942 aircraft plant, yes? They were women of childbearing age. Their husbands were thousands of miles away fighting Hitler. The women were doing what women have always done in wartime — very capably taking care of the homeland, in this case by being aircraft engineers. And they needed the child care center to help them better serve the country.

      • Drive-bys in 1781? What a fabulous tidbit of information. And the airplane factories, I knew younger women often worked in the factories then, but never thought about the child care issues. Fascinating. Thank you Suzanne, I really enjoy learning so much from your blog.

  4. I may OD on research. Like, is the word ‘antsy’ used in the 1970S? (Couldn’t find out, used another word.) Do they hang laundry on the line in 1813? (No, clothespins not invented yet!) So I really appreciate the insights you’ve gained from your research.

    • Fantastic! I love your examples. It is wonderful to have access to so much of this kind of information, yet also maddening. I love getting lost in archives and databases searches, yet as Suzanne remarked above, sometimes get so interested in everything I find that I neglect my writing. Good luck with your novels!

    • Hi Norma! Definitely not clothespins. The mechanism hadn’t been invented yet. There were little pegs whittled from wood that they could use, or they could drape a large item like a sheet over a strung rope. They also spread washed clothing and sheets over bushes if bushes were available.

  5. Don’t you dare worry about 110,000 word length! If a book is well written (and that also means well-researched, of course), then I find myself wanting it to go on and on and on. My latest WIP is over 188,000 words so far, and the end isn’t in sight yet.
    And what fun to learn about the drive-bye in the 1700s. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading all the comments and your responses.

    • Hi Fran, you are right, the story should determine the length. In the case of The Lover’s Portrait, it is long enough! I found after I’d added in more of the historical chapters, several of the present day chapters became redundant. For my story, it flowed better when it was shorter. However, I don’t mind reading a longer book if it holds my attention! Best of luck with your novel and thank you for reading my article.

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