The Next Big Thing: An Interview About a New Novel

The historical fiction writer Mary Biddinger created an on-line interview called The Next Big Thing.  I was tagged for this by Claire Gebben, whose historical novel about a German blacksmith will come out early next year. (It sounds very interesting!)  Meanwhile, here are my “Next Big Thing” answers regarding my own book, which is in the revision stage.

What is the working title for your book?      Voice.CIMG0549

Where did the idea come from for your book?     For a previous writing project I had interviewed some Hungarians about their memories of the siege of Budapest during World War II.  They were willing to talk about the war, but they kept digressing to the Stalinist period that followed.  Their strange, harrowing stories stayed with me, prompting more research.  The novel that emerged from that is Voice, a story about two singers in communist Hungary in 1951.

What genre does your book fall under?     Historical fiction.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?     This is two sentences, but here goes:  Set in Stalinist Hungary in 1951, Voice tells the story of 22-year-old Peter Benedek, a shy peasant forced by political pressures to go to work in the city, and Katalin Varga, an unmarried 20-year-old with a baby whose father has disappeared, most likely at the hands of the secret police.  Drawn together by singing, Peter and Katalin form a bond that helps them each to face their worst fears.

What actors would you choose to play the parts of the characters in your book?     Interesting question.  For my story, how they sound is at least as important as how they look.  So maybe dub in some good singing voices.  Here’s the cast.  For Katalin VargaAlicia Vikander, the actress who recently played Kitty in Anna Karenina.  For Peter Benedek:  I can’t think of an actor who would be perfect for Peter.  But maybe Elijah Wood.  (When he played Frodo he did a great job of looking stressed out.)  For Fredrik Zentai, the father of Katalin’s baby:  Ralph Fiennes, when he was younger and had more hair.  For Jansci Benedek, Peter’s father:  Jeremy Irons, at a little younger stage of his life.  And for Andras Varga, Katalin’s brother:  If there’s a young version of Colin Firth who can play violin really well, that would be Andras.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?     About four years, but that included a lot of research and some significant changes in my vision for the story and the characters.  I’m now revising the book heavily and expect to finish within the next few months.

What inspired you to write the book?     The idea of people doing something beautiful(singing) in the midst of fear and loss, thereby giving expression–voice–to hope.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?     I think anyone interested in music or eastern Europe would enjoy this story, and so would people with an historical interest in the Cold War.    But this isn’t really a political story; it’s a deeply human one.  People who have read the manuscript have told me they really came to care about the characters.

Will your book be self-published or are you being represented by an agency?  I will soon begin looking for an agent.

And now I want to tag my friend Ruth Tiger for a “Next Big Thing” interview!  She is writing an historical novel about the bubonic plague in Norway.

Writing Historical Fiction: The Challenge of Vivid Details

When I decided to undertake writing historical fiction, I thought that the hardest part would be finding all the facts I needed and getting them right.  That actually turned out to be doable, though very time-consuming.  More difficult has been finding the small details that make a setting or a scene ring true.

Garden outside a house in the Hungarian folk park of Nyiregyhaza

In some ways writing a scene is like painting.  When you paint, you work with the subtleties of light; you see something, and you show it to the viewer.  When you write a scene, you work with the subtleties of sensory detail, inviting the reader not only to see but to hear, touch and smell.  Doing this well is challenging enough, even when you’re working with a setting as utterly familiar as dinner in your own home.  In writing historical fiction, the difficulty of this amps up like crazy.  Say you’re writing a dinner scene set in Puerto Rico a hundred years ago.  What are your characters eating?  How did they cook it?  What room are they in, and how does it look?  What are they sitting on?  Etc.  Many, many details like this will not occur to you while you are reading the history books that are a large part of your research (and even if they do, you probably won’t find them there).  The need for these details will only surface as you write.  You find out to your dismay that the research you thought was finished . . . isn’t. 

The fiction I am writing takes place in Hungary between 1944 and 1951.  So I am writing about a place I have never lived in and a time period before I was born.  I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Hungary in 2006 and 2007, and this was essential:  you just can’t get a feel for a place without going there.  But during these all-too-short visits I couldn’t see the whole country, let alone absorb it all.  I took as many notes and photos as I could, but the time came when I just had to go home and try to create scenes with what information I had.  This was not easy.  I found that the more I wrote, the more I discovered I didn’t know.  So often when I opened a new scene, I wasn’t sure what to picture.  Even if I had been living in Budapest for twenty years and the city were seeping into my pores every day, I would still have difficulty knowing what to picture on each of its corners during the time period of my novel, World War II and its aftermath. 

Village church with separate steeple in the Hungarian folk park of Nyiregyhaza

But when I realized that my writing was deficient in sensory details, I became determined to make up for this in whatever ways I could.  I looked at all the photographs I could find from that era, if not from Hungary then perhaps from Poland or Germany, and I scrutinized details in them:  wagon wheels, window frames, clothing, anything.  I read and reread memoirs and novels.  These helped to fill in details not mentioned in history books—things like food availability, common expressions, weather.  I took copious notes on things that would bombard my senses if I were in Hungary during and after the war.  Even if I didn’t know exactly which buildings were burning, could I still describe a smoky sky?  How did it smell?  What would I hear?  After the war, what would it be like to wait at one of the few functioning stretches of railroad track, try to squeeze onto an impossibly crowded train car, and then climb onto the only place there was room—the roof?  What would the view be like from up there?  What would I see growing (in spite of all the destruction) in the fields between towns?  

Image of King St. Stephen on the Basilica of St. Stephen in Budapest

Even aside from the changing setting created by a war, I found that by really watching for details in Hungarian novels and memoirs and (less easily available) appropriately set movies, I could create scenes of European rooms, markets, farms, shops.  It has taken an enormous amount of attention, however.  I have to remind myself constantly to create a vivid setting—because the milieu of a place I don’t live in will not arise in my work unless I intentionally call it forth. 

But that sense of exploring a different world is part of what makes historical fiction so satisfying—to readers, yes, but especially to the writer.

 P.S.—–BTW to readers:  if any of you can give me information on WWII damage to specific buildings and areas in Budapest, I would love to hear from you.  Thanks!