Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Googling Your Way Into the Past, an essay by E. Thomas Behr

Today I'm welcoming E. Thomas Behr, author of three historical novels, for a post about his research process, which should interest historical fiction writers as well as readers.


Googling Your Way Into the Past
E. Thomas Behr

Author of Blood Brothers: Courage and Treachery on the Shores of Tripoli, The Most Bold and Daring Act of the Age, and the forthcoming Doppelgänger: An American Spy in Occupied France.

The challenge and pleasure of writing historical fiction is creating a vivid sense of another place and time for readers. That challenge, I believe, goes beyond simply describing an earlier world; it means to immerse one’s characters in that world so deeply that it comes alive in the characters’ speech, actions, thoughts, and feelings.

Thanks to Google, it’s not essential to have expert knowledge of the historical world that you want to bring to life in your fiction. The purpose of this article is to share some of the approaches I use in researching the background for my historical novels.

It starts with context, which for me means authoritative history. I can find the books I want on Google; in most cases they are available from Amazon, slightly used, for under $5.00. (An obvious disclaimer: always follow fair use principles and always acknowledge your sources.) Like other authors, I create complex biographies for my main characters that form the foundation for the character’s actions and thoughts in the novel itself. I do the same with physical locations − not only the details of what the settings look like, but also the politics, economy, social norms, and mostly the people – what the inhabitants feel. The result is that readers get to see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and sense what it’s like to live in that created world.

For example, my current novel nearing completion, Doppelgänger, is a World War II spy story. The following is a description of London during the Nazi Blitz drawn from on-line details.

The area around Bedford Square, a small residential close of perhaps 40 small, mostly two-story homes, had been hit with high explosive bombs. It looked as if a giant fist had smashed the entire block to rubble. Neighbors, rescue and first aid workers were clawing through the clutter to get to survivors. Stretcher bearers carried the wounded to the nearby ambulances through the chaos of shattered bricks, timbers, and broken glass. The dead bodies were stacked in open spaces along the street.

Exhausted as he was, as much from the horror he was experiencing as the exertion itself, Walter still forced himself to join a group pulling in almost furious anger at a jumble of still smoking wreckage. “There are children in here!” one of the rescuers urged. With the other rescuers, he feverishly helped clear the ruin of what had been a home: pieces of roof and shattered rafters, a long ragged strip of wall covered with ripped, blistered pink and blue chintz wallpaper, the splintered half of a carved table, beams with ragged plaster lath stuck to them, torn curtains, the broken shards of a lime-green vase, a drenched photo album.

Ten minutes later, they reached the bodies.

When a novel takes place in an historical setting like a city, I like to include period maps. These too, are easily found on Google. For Doppelgänger, I’m using copies of the 1939 Michelin Guide for France and a 1940 Map of London so that readers can walk the streets with the characters. And with the satellite view feature of Google maps, I’m often able to zoom in to street level and describe the actual buildings.

The same access to detail in Google exists with natural settings. In my most recent published novel, The Most Bold and Daring Act of the Age (2017), a Napoleonic War saga set in Algiers, I wanted to establish the setting of Kaf Ajnoun, the djinn-haunted Cave of the Devils in the forbidding mountain fortress of Idinen. Google gave me the detailed topographic features and dozens of photos of this eerie, nightmare landscape.

Kaf Ajnoun
Source of image:
Google also provides a means to create action scenes that otherwise would be hard to describe. For example, I wanted to give readers the experience of a sandstorm in the Sahara desert. I’ve never been to the Sahara, and have no interest at all in ever being caught in a sandstorm myself. But when I Googled “Sahara desert sandstorm” and clicked on “videos,” I discovered that some brave (foolhardy) soul had posted a YouTube cell phone video of a sandstorm overwhelming him in all its roaring, choking, purple-black fury. I just described what I saw in the video.

In my first novel, Blood Brothers: Courage and Treachery on the Shores of Tripoli (2011), I created a massive cavalry battle between opposing Bedouin armies, but I wanted the action to be real, and not a Hollywood version of a cavalry charge. Once again, Google to the rescue. I found an on-line copy of Napoleon’s manual of cavalry tactics, translated into English. I was able to give readers the feel of riding into the swirling dusty maelstrom of a battle that would have happened 200 years ago.

Finally, and most important, this kind of access to historical detail allows the characters themselves to experience what it means to live in the fictional world of the novel. Blood Brothers tells the story of America’s 1805 war with Tripoli and the incredible march of General William Eaton’s rag-tag army of mercenaries and a handful of US Marines across 500 miles of merciless Sahara desert. The details come from General Eaton’s letters, available on-line.

Each night they camped by large, spring-fed cisterns. One evening, after the men and animals had taken their fill and the water bags had been replenished, Kirkpatrick stood with Eaton, looking at the perfectly aligned stonework of the well’s sides disappearing below into the darkness.

“Who in the world do you think built these wells, General?”

“Marc Anthony’s Roman legionnaires,” answered Eaton. “These are the remains of Roman forts, built a day’s march apart.” He looked at the ruins around them, then ran his hand over the rough weathered stones on the well’s rim.

“This was the kingdom Anthony and Cleopatra meant to enjoy together.” Eaton looked up at the star-strewn sky above them. “Such great dreams. How does it go? ‘Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space.’ And now the grave that clips them together lies only in our imaginations. So much for dreams. But this stonework has held up for almost two thousand years. I wonder if we Americans will leave a legacy like this behind us. People we can’t imagine, in a time far distant, will say with respect and wonder, ‘Ah. The Americans were here.’”

No comments:

Post a Comment