GUEST POST: RESEARCHING THE HISTORICAL NOVEL

Lorraine Campbell is a licensed shorthand writer and worked for seventeen years as a court reporter with the Victoria Government Reporting Service. She holds an Arts degree from Monash, majoring in Philosophy and English Literature, and studied French and German for a number of years. Her previous novels are Resisting the Enemy and In Mortal Danger. Her third book, The Butterfly Effect, is released today.  

Lorraine Campbell headshot

The advice many experts give to aspiring authors is ‘write what you know.’  How much easier it would have been to write contemporary fiction. Just step out my front door and it’s all there.

When I embarked on my first book, Resisting the Enemy, I had no idea what I was getting into. The amount of work involved! An historical novel requires research at every turn. There’s no way of anticipating what you’ll need for a particular scene. If you want to write authentic historical fiction, you need to research the period you’re writing about so well that each day, when you sit in front of the computer, you enter a time machine that transports you back to the past and the location of your story.

You need to be familiar with every aspect of daily life. What your characters ate, what they had for breakfast, what clothes they wore. Resisting the Enemy was set in France during World War II. I needed to know if women wore pantyhose in 1943 (had nylon even been invented then?) Did they have oscillating fans (did they have electric fans at all?) What time was curfew? With no fuel for cars, how did they get around?  I learned about vèlo-taxis – a sort of sedan chair on wheels, pulled by a perspiring cyclist. That women painted their legs and drew a seam up the back to simulate silk stockings.

But having done all this painstaking research, the art is not to cram it all into your book. You may be fascinated by all this myriad of detail, but the reader isn’t. You’re writing a novel, not a PhD thesis. The art is to know which little gems to incorporate into the narrative and – more importantly – what to ditch. Or, if you simply can’t bear to actually press delete, consign them to a file labelled Outtakes.

One of the most enjoyable parts of research is travelling to the places you’re writing about.  With some of the smaller locales, one might be tempted to fudge it. Just use the internet and google maps. It’s all so easy these days. But I want every place I write about to have an authentic feel for the reader. In Mortal Danger involved a lot of travelling around the French countryside. Often I would find myself on the outskirts of some French village, waiting for a local bus to turn up. Nothing in sight for miles. Feeling like Cary Grant in that crop-dusting scene in North by Northwest.

Taking a long train journey to Annemasse. A small town, high up in the Jura Mountains. Trudging down a long road leading to the Swiss border. Like all border crossings, it would have been heavily guarded by German police – military as well as Gestapo. Standing there at the border post, gazing at the blue-grey mountains rising up beyond, I could imagine the feelings of my characters. Freedom was just a few steps away. But how to get there?

BOOK COVER Butterfly Enigma high res.

One of my trips for The Butterfly Enigma was to a little fishing village, Camaret-sur-Mer on the west coast of France. Far off the beaten tourist track and difficult to get to. I was looking for a small inlet where a rowboat coming in off the Atlantic could land. I had already written the scene, but I needed to see for myself that it was feasible.  After days of tramping over the hilly promontory overlooking the Atlantic, I eventually found the perfect place. But if I hadn’t actually gone there, I would have made numerous mistakes. The sand wasn’t gravely, it was perfectly smooth. The beach was surrounded by huge rocks. The village was a good thirty minute walk away, down a steep incline. It’s these little details that make your description of a location authentic.

Which brings me to another important, yet little acknowledged, ingredient in researching a novel. The time spent looking vacantly out of windows. Or lying on a couch, staring for ages into space. A time when you allow your thoughts to run free. Immersed in the fictional world of your imagination. Writers are always writing even when they’re not actually writing.

I’d love you to check out The Butterfly Enigma. Here’s the blurb:

What happens when a young woman decides to go after justice on her own? In German-occupied Paris, a Jewish child is found wandering the streets. She speaks German, a little French and some Latvian words, but mostly she is a silent child. Adopted by a French couple, she leaves her childhood behind and comes to regard herself as French: Mademoiselle Lena Marceau. But buried in the hidden recesses of her memory, there always remains that other Lena. A child whose origins and past are forever lost and unknowable. The war is over and Lena, along with the world’s migrating masses, has ended up in Australia. It’s the ‘Swinging Sixties.’ A time of social revolution and daring new freedoms. Lena is working as a shorthand writer in the Law Courts. One day in court she hears a voice that changes absolutely everything. A voice that sounds frighteningly familiar. A voice that chills her to the very bone.

When finally the war is over Lena joins the worlds migrating masses and ends up in Australia where she joins the social revolution of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ and enjoys all of its daring new freedoms. But it is while working as a court stenographer in the Law Courts one day that Lena hears a voice that changes absolutely everything. The frighteningly familiar voice chills her to her very core. Could this man now working as a judge in Melbourne, be the same man who took part in mass killings in Latvia and Russia during the War? Slowly, layer by layer, Lena peels away the secrets of the past to reveal a picture that involves thousands of lives, the most terrifying evil and finally her own personal tragedy. Her quest for justice and retribution stretches across decades and continents from the submarine-patrolled sea lanes of the Baltic, to the island of Crete, from Paris to Tel Aviv and the inner workings of the Mossad, to the staid and stifled courtrooms of Australia in the 1960’s and finally to Rio de Janeiro.

The Butterfly Enigma is a gripping romantic thriller. Based on strong, intelligent characters and extensive historical research, The Butterfly Enigma raises moral questions about the resettlement of Nazi war criminals post-World War II and explores the long shadow cast by World War II mass killings.

It’s available from Dennis Jones and online at Booktopia (RRP $29.99AUD).

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