Wednesday, October 07, 2020

How Research Drives Plot, an essay by Libby Fischer Hellman, author of the historical novel A Bend in the River

I'm very happy to have Libby Fischer Hellman here today with a guest post about the primary and secondary source research she undertook for her new novel, A Bend in the River, which is out today. She also includes many wonderful photographs from her trip to Vietnam. I enjoy novels that transport me to different places and am looking forward to reading her book.  Hope you'll enjoy the insights in her post as much as I did.


How Research Drives Plot
Libby Fischer Hellman

Novelists drive plot by developing conflicts, actions, and dialogue. But I’d add another element to the mix: research. Especially when the story has an historical angle. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve discovered an actual historical event, person, or situation that I’ve woven into my fiction. Indeed, that was the case in A Bend in the River, my new historical novel about two Vietnamese sisters struggling through the “American War” (the Vietnam War to us) in quite different ways.

I divide my research into primary and secondary sources. Primary sources include what I see, people to whom I talk, and visual materials that include film, photographs, videos, speeches, or interviews. That might be the reason my historical novels are largely based on Twentieth Century events, a time during which visual materials proliferated. I am, or was, a filmmaker and video producer. Secondary sources are, of course, books, including fiction written about the time period, documents, interview transcripts, articles, and historiography about the period. In both types of research, I found some fascinating nuggets that I included in Bend.

Primary Research

I was lucky enough to go to Vietnam for three weeks. Our trip included five days in Hanoi, another five in Saigon, and a river cruise up the Mekong River to Cambodia and beyond. Along the way I talked with as many Vietnamese people as I could.

The Colonel and the Translator

One of my most curious interviews was in Hanoi where I had the opportunity to speak to a former Colonel in the North Vietnamese army. I wanted to get his perspective on the war and his most vivid memories. Our tour guide served as translator, and we wove through the maze of narrow back alleys of Hanoi on his motor scooter to a ramshackle shack sandwiched between others.

The first thing I noticed was a photo of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin on the wall of his tiny parlor. The second was the fact that he was wearing his army jacket, adorned with patches and medals. Even after fifty years, in a country that embraces rapid growth and (dare I say it) capitalism, the colonel was still a committed Communist. I found that fascinating! I recorded the interview on my iPhone and asked all sorts of questions, to which the colonel made long responses in Vietnamese. However, my translator synthesized his comments into short ten second summaries. I was surprised he could do that so succinctly but didn’t say anything. 

When I got home, I had the recording translated by a bilingual Vietnamese student. She emailed me with her concern: Apparently my translator was not relaying to me what the colonel had said. The Colonel’s answers to my questions were being filtered and adulterated through our guide who worked, of course, for the Communist government, and he had “interpreted” questions in a way that was acceptable either to the government, or western tourists, or both.

That told me, after the fact, that anything and everything said by Vietnamese citizens was monitored carefully and that true freedom of expression is an illusion. It was a cautionary lesson and one that I remembered when I interviewed other people back in the US.

Refugee Silence

In fact, it was probably that very circumstance that made it difficult to find Vietnamese-Americans who would talk to me back when I came home. I was looking specifically for “Boat People” who had escaped Vietnam—legally or not—by ship, boat, barge, or another vessel. But one after another declined to talk. I understood. Even after forty years, many refugees still fear that what they say might cause harm from either the US or the Vietnamese government. Or maybe they just want to forget. Happily, I eventually found one woman who agreed to talk and even allowed me to use her name in the acknowledgements.

The Mekong River 

Our journey up the river was the heart of my trip. We stopped at villages where the wealthiest people in the village were the sampan maker, or the woman making non-las, the conical hats. 

A family business where everyone helped out making rice candy, from cooking the rice, to adding the ingredients, to boxing and preparing it for distribution. Other villages boasted a wet market, or a Catholic church and school (the result of missionary work from prior decades), or small farms. 

These were fascinating “slices of life,” and all the photos I took helped me create a sense of place. Of course, the people we saw were pre-selected by our tour operators, and undoubtedly had been cleared by the government. Still, the explosion of sights, sounds, and particularly smells, for example at the Binh Tay market in Saigon, were unforgettable. So were unplanned events like cockfights and school children flocking around us. 

Cu Chi Tunnels

Perhaps the most consequential site I visited were the Cu Chi Tunnels outside Saigon. Two hundred kilometers of tunnels originally built by the French but upgraded and expanded by the North, the tunnels, not far from the southern tip of the Hồ Chí Minh Trail, became the major transit route between North Vietnam and the Saigon area. 

North Vietnamese fighters often lived in the tunnels for weeks. I spent hours at the tunnels, exploring them carefully, as they became an indispensable element of my plot. 

Secondary Sources

In Stanley Karnow’s exceptional Vietnam: A History is a discussion about a female Vietnamese pediatrician who was in the inner circle of the Diem administration in the early Sixties. She was also a committed Communist and spied for the North. After the war, she renounced Communism, but she was not penalized by either the South or the North. I found her to be such a mysterious, absorbing person, that I fictionalized her as Dr. Đường Châu Hằng, a major character who recruited for the Viet Cong and also was a double agent in my book.

Part of A Bend in The River references the Cao Dai religion. Knowing nothing about it, I researched it online and read several articles about its history. The center of Cao Daism is in a city in which one of my characters spends quite a bit of time, so I gave that character a job in the kitchen of the temple campus where she spies on specific Cao Dai clergymen who might be aiding the South surreptitiously.

In the middle of writing Bend, a book called Fire Road was published. Its author, Kim Phuc Phan Thi, was the little girl who appeared in many photos at the time. She had been burned by a napalm attack and was naked, running down the road while screaming. Now in her fifties, the author came to Chicago; I met her and bought her book. While she is not directly part of my novel, her story gave me information about Vietnamese responses to American attacks and how profound those consequences could become.

Finally, I found a series of interviews with girls who worked in Saigon GI bars during the Sixties (Maclean’s, 1968). Since one of my characters does exactly that, the articles were the pot of gold I’d been hoping to find. Again, my preconceptions were wrong. Most of the girls loved their jobs and felt liberated for the first time in their lives. They found American GIs courteous and respectful, as well as great tippers. They did not want to settle down with Vietnamese men.

This is not the first time that my research opened up possibilities for plot development, but it is the first time I found so many opportunities to weave history into the story. Each time I find a nugget that works, it’s immensely satisfying. For me it’s a way to keep history alive and fresh; for readers, I hope it whets their appetite for more. 

More about A Bend in the River by Libby Fischer Hellmann
(The Red Herrings Press, on-sale October 7, 2020)

In 1968 two young Vietnamese sisters flee to Saigon after their village on the Mekong River is attacked by American forces and burned to the ground. The only survivors of the brutal massacre that killed their family, the sisters struggle to survive but become estranged, separated by sharply different choices and ideologies. Mai ekes out a living as a GI bar girl, but Tâm’s anger festers, and she heads into jungle terrain to fight with the Viet Cong. For nearly ten years, neither sister knows if the other is alive. Do they both survive the war? And if they do, can they mend their fractured relationship? Or are the wounds from the paths they took too deep to heal? In a stunning departure from her crime thrillers, Libby Fischer Hellmann delves into a universal story about survival, family, and the consequences of war.

About the Author

Libby Fischer Hellmann left a career in broadcast news in Washington, DC and moved to Chicago over 35 years ago, where she, naturally, began to write gritty crime fiction. Many novels and short stories later, she claims they'll take her out of the Windy City feet first.

She has been nominated for many awards in the mystery and crime writing community and has even won a few. She has been a finalist twice for the Anthony and three times for Foreword Magazine's Book of the Year. She has also been nominated for the Agatha, the Shamus, the Daphne, and has won the IPPY and the Readers' Choice Award multiple times. Libby hosts both a TV interview show and conducts writing workshops at libraries and other venues. She was the national president of Sisters In Crime, a 3500-member organization dedicated to the advancement of female crime fiction authors. Her books have been translated into Spanish, German, Italian, and Chinese. All her books are available in print, e-book, and audiobook formats. More information can be found online at


  1. That's what I thought too - an amazing trip.

  2. I really enjoyed this essay. Having never read a book taking place in Vietnam, I will need to read this one. I love finding new places for historical fiction.

  3. Same here. I'm not sure I've read a novel set there from a woman's viewpoint - will have to think about it. Either way, I enjoy reading about less familiar settings.