Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Welcome Allan Russell!

Hello, fine friends! Today I have a guest who probably looks familiar to many of you—he is a fellow blogger from Australia, who shares fabulous photos (often of amazing birds—love his bird photos) and gives us some history and geography about his home (and his mother’s *wink*). I’m a bit of an AussieWannabe, so I really enjoy these, but gadabouts aside, Allan also has a recently released BOOK. His book is set across the world and decades away from his life, so he’s going to share with us a bit about that process (I don’t think there was a time machine involved, but I may be mistaken). So without any further ado, welcome Allan!

The Dangers of Research.

They say ‘write what you know’. But if you are writing about places on the other side of the world, or times in decades or even centuries past how do you ‘know’?

If you want to set a romance in the ‘Old South’ and you live in New England how do you get the hot sweaty feel just right? If a mystery set in the ‘Roaring Twenties’ is your game how do you possibly know what a flapper might do with a string of beads?

In my case I write thrillers set in Europe around the time of WWII. My recently released novel Veiled in Shadows is set against a range of backdrops including London, Berlin, the Alps and the Black Forest, and all as the war raged. Yet I am an Aussie living very much in the twenty first century and very much on the other side of the world.

Well the answer dear reader is research. But careful! It can be perilous!

Once for example, I spent hours hopelessly lost in Germany’s Black Forest all for the sake of authenticity. More of that in a moment…

Research can take many forms. In the case of Veiled in Shadows I needed information about Europe during the war. I could loosely be called a ‘history nut’ so I came to writing the novel with a better than average knowledge of the subject matter. However, it was nothing like detailed enough. So where do you start?

Well as a writer, my first point of call is usually books. History and biography are obvious starting points. I also used newspapers and magazines from the period to help set the scene. Fiction written in a period can give ideas. Drama may be caricature but if you view it analytically it can give you an idea of values of a period. And of course Google…

For extra authenticity nothing beats talking to people from the time. If I get the chance to talk to someone from my period I grab it with both hands. Over the years I have spoken with people who lived so many varied experiences. People who were soldiers, sailors, airmen, civilians, refugees. Others who were in the SS, holocaust survivors. People of so many nationalities, English, Americans, Germans, French, Russians, Poles and Hungarians to name a few.

I have been lucky in one sense in that many people who lived those times are still alive, or were until recently. But there are risks in using such material, people’s memories change over time. In any case I am a novelist, not a historian. People’s memories are just that, theirs. In my view no one who told me anything should ever be able to recognise their own story in my work. That would be a betrayal.

However, I have never been shot and wounded and had to walk for days afterwards to survive. If I want to convey something like that in a realistic way it helps if I can draw on someone else’s experience to give a feel of what such a thing might be like.

Finally, there is field work. But here there can be risks. Not necessarily danger as such. For example, if I walk through London today I would be foolish to think that the skyline is as it was in 1940 or 1850. Yet if I have done my homework, I will know that if I describe much of Oxford as it is today it will ring true for 1940 or 1850. Which brings me back to the Black Forest…

A few years ago I had reason to be in Eastern France, just across the Rhine from the Black Forest region of Germany. With part of the action in Veiled in Shadows (which I was then redrafting) involving a chase through the Swartz Wald to the Rhine the opportunity was too good to pass up. Google Earth is great for remote research, but the real thing just can’t be beat.

I crossed into Germany with no problems (after all both are in the EU). When it came to returning I ran into a problem. I had to get back to France, but I was lost. For hours this poor Aussie drove around in circles looking for a way back across the Rhine. Signs to Bavaria, signs to Freiberg and even signs to Switzerland were all in evidence. Yet a sign to France their EU partner? Not one could I find.

Finally, in sheer frustration I guessed at a road that appeared to be heading in the right direction. To my relief I had guessed right and I was finally on my way to Mulhouse.

The reason for the lack of signs? I can only guess. In my imagination I see a very proper German official: “We have tried going to France a couple of times in the past. It didn’t work out as we planned. So why would anyone want to go there again?”

Veiled in Shadows - Blurb
1937, Ebi Gausel is riding high as a member of Germany’s elite guard, Hitler’s SS.  An unexpected romance arrives in Ebi’s life in the form of the fiery Katharina. Even with Europe teetering on the brink of war their happiness seems assured.  But Ebi’s certainty comes crashing down as Katharina disappears, leaving hints of a dark secret.

In a war fought in the shadows, those who live may do so at the cost of their humanity.  Two lovers united by passion and divided by hate.

As they fight for survival, their most ruthless foe might be one another.


Allan Russell has Bachelors Degrees in Anthropology and Education, but he has also studied Archaeology and History. For over decade he has worked for charities, most recently for one that supports the homeless.

A self declared history nut, he has only just released his first novel a thriller set in WWII. As well as being mad keen on all things historical, he is passionate about wildlife and photography. Currently he lives in Melbourne Australia with his family.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

You're so right that there are some things you just have to see for yourself...but too funny that there wasn't a sign to France! Sometimes we have to suffer for our research, I guess. :) Best wishes for your new release.

M.J. Nicholls said...

Amazing. I really want to start researching my Honolulu-Paris-Tokyo epic. I'm sure I can get a grant somewhere.

Excellent post.

Al said...

Hi Hart,
Thank you so much for this great opportunity!
This is another example of the overwhelming generosity that I so often see in the blogging community.


CA Heaven said...

When you mess around in the Alsace area, it can sometimes be difficult to know if you're in France or in Germany. They even speak German, so the language of the locals are not a safe indicator neither.

I don't have time to do research (for writing, I do research in geophysics all the time). Therefore, I only write about what I know, and from the time I have a memory >:)

Cold As Heaven

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Alan. It had never dawned on me, that for historical work, one should go back and read the literature of the period. What a brilliant recommendation.

Thanks so much for sharing the stories and the advice! [I also appreciate the forewarning about the lack of a particular sign in Germany. :) ]

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I don't blame the Germans!
And that's an amazing amount of research you did for your book.

Old Kitty said...

LOL!! Glad you got back into France, Al!! Aww thanks for hosting the fabulous Allan Russell, Naked Tart!!! I think research is definitely important! Especially for getting the historical contexts right. The library too is a great place to go for research btw!! I thought I'd just add that cos we love our libraries don't we, yes we do!!!

GOOD LUCK with your novel Al!!!! The cover is STUNNING!! The blurb is epic!!!

Take care

Hart Johnson said...

Great post, Al! I think you're right, that there is no substitute for being there (and perhaps even LESS for being lost there-HA!) And I also love the immersion in literature of the time--I think you're right both on picking up the tone, but also the language use. People in the 40s and 50s spoke much more formally than we do now.

Sarah Ahiers said...

yay for Al!
I have his book on my Christmas list, so hopefully i'll get it as a gift. If not, i'll buy it myself

Carol Kilgore said...

I've added this book to my wish list. It sounds absolutely fascinating. I laughed out loud at your imaginary reason for there being no signs for France :)

Thanks for hosting, Hart.

Golden Eagle said...

Great post!

It looks like an interesting book--I love the cover and the blurb intrigues me. I'll have to check it out!

Michael Di Gesu said...

HI Hart and Alan,

Sounds like a fantastic read! You definitely did your homework. I agree that an author should do as much research on the area their novel takes place in. My current WIP is partially set in Poissey, France a smalls city thirty miles west of Paris. It' fascinating to find out the history of these places. Poissey goes back to the middle ages. Even a Saint was canonized there and this incredible Cathedral was built at that time.

This research does add a realistic flavor to the novel.

Good luck with your book.... Thanks for sharing Hart....


Al said...

Thank you Elizabeth!
Yes they say an artist has to suffer for their art :-)

Hi MJ,
If you get that grant can I carry your bags!

Hi Cold,
Switzerland is even crazier. From one village to the next the language can change and then back again.

Hi Kimberly,
Thank you! Literature of a period is a brilliant source. You get a feel for the voice of the time.

Hi Alex,
I guess there are some difficult memories in both countries!

Hi Jennifer,
I had to get back my dinner was waiting ;-)
Context is everything.
I love libraries of any and every kind.
Thank you!

Hi Hart,
Being lost certainly gives you an extra chance to find the lie of the land ;-)
Thank you again for this opportunity, it has been great fun posting over here.

Hi Sarah,
Thank you! What can I say – roll on Christmas!

Hi Carol,
I couldn’t think of a sensible reason for the absence of signs. So I had to come up with a silly one ;-)

Hi Eagle,
Thank you! If you are interested I have few chapters as extracts on my blog.

Hi Gideon,
The more research the better. But you have to give yourself some time to write between field trips to France! ;-)

TreeX said...

Oh, I LOVE the Schwarzwald! =D

I think the lack of signs might be because nobody signposts the border, or a country, just villages and towns on the other side of the border, if anything :) ("France: 1 km" just before the border being the only exception. And rather useless. Also because by that time the road usually doesn't have any way to get off any more, should you NOT want to invade XD)

Also, Tamster, could you please do something about the resource-heaviness of your blog? It's not just crashing my browser any more now, but my whole computer... And the culprit is still the blog roll. What's wrong with good old-fashioned hyperlinks instead of some sort of Java applet that loads ALL of the damn things instead of just the one I want to read? :)

TreeX said...

Mind you, it DID load smoothly after I posted a comment just now... Maybe it's trying to tell me something... XD

Al said...

I didn't see any signs to places across the French Border (eg Mulhouse) I did see signs to places like Schaffhausen in Switzerland. Maybe I was just on the wrong roads :-)