Research for Historical Fiction: Conducting Interviews

 Writing historical fiction is full of challenges, and among the most formidable of those challenges is the research involved.  It’s a huge task. But it’s an interesting one, and if the research leads you to interviewing other people, as my research has done, then one of the most personally fulfilling aspects of the task is the relationships you form through it.  Through interviewing  you discover some of the living souls attached to the information you’re working with.  In this post I’ll share what I’ve learned about deepening research by interviewing people.

The Market in Kecskemet

If you’re writing fiction set during or after the middle of the twentieth century, there are still people around who lived through the events that form your story.   They are a valuable source of richly personal information.  Much can be said about how to find these people through Internet connections.  But many older people don’t use the Internet, at least not extensively, and it’s best to be open to finding interviewees through word of mouth, perhaps in unconventional ways.

My first interview contact was the author of a juvenile novel about the 1956 Hungarian revolution, The Fall of the Red Star.  I read the book and online I looked up the author, Helen Szablya ( As it turned out, she lives within an hour of me and is the local representative of the Hungarian consulate.  I also found out through her website that there is an active Hungarian-American association in the area.  I went to one of the association’s events and met Helen there.  She had lived in Budapest during the siege I was writing about, and in spite of the painfulness of the topic she was happy to meet with me and share her memories. 

View Across the Danube from Castle Hill, Budapest

Helen also put me in touch with some of her friends, and through the Hungarian association (which I have joined, though my ancestry is Irish) I met others as well.   I began interviewing these people.  I heard incredible stories not only about the war but also about the horrific years afterward.  These Hungarians were willing enough to tell me their memories of the war, but so often their comments ended up shifting toward the early 1950s when Hungary was under Stalinist communism.  Clearly the pain of these years had etched very deeply into their hearts.  Some of the stories they told me were so poignant and so strange and so ridiculous yet true that there was no way not to see fertile fiction material in them.  And the more I tossed these stories around in my mind, the more compelling the possibilities became.  This was how the ideas for my second novel began to germinate.  

My Hungarian acquaintances here have been my main contacts, but I’ve interviewed others much farther off as well.  Though it’s a little uncomfortable, I’ve learned to swallow my self-consciousness and just ask people if they’d mind talking with me for a while.  Sometimes these opportunities have come about in circuitous ways:

1.  While I was having a massage for pain in my back, I found out the father-in-law of my masseuse’s sister was Hungarian.  My masseuse put me in touch with him through email.  This man gave me valuable information about farm life in Hungary.

2.  When I was about to travel to Hungary and was buying a skirt for the trip, the clerk at the store gave me the name and phone number of his mother in Budapest.  His mother spoke English, and while I was in Hungary I met with her and with one of her friends.

3.  From looking at a church bulletin board, I got the name of a missionary in Budapest, and he set me up for a very fruitful conversation with a Hungarian pastor and his wife.  The missionary and his wife also came along to translate.

4.  I noticed a man’s Hungarian name, asked about it, and ended up having a very good phone conversation with his father from western Hungary, who now lives in Oregon.

5.  My sister read a draft of my first novel, told her friend about it, who told her Hungarian father about it, who asked to read the book . . .

And so on.  Not every interview conversation has yielded as much as I’d hoped.  Some interviews have been frustrating, disappointing, confusing.  I have heard contradictory statements on the same topic, which I suppose is not surprising; these people were speaking from their own experiences, and their experiences were not the same.  Sometimes the memories people related were hazy or inaccurate, perhaps because fifty years had elapsed, perhaps because emotion had interfered with a clear understanding of what happened.  Still, I usually have been able to draw at least one useful story or detail from each conversation—and sometimes, many, many more than that.

Hungarian Mangalica Pigs

I’ve learned to go into interviews with prepared questions, both specific and open-ended.  Some people need a lot of prompting.  Others wander and have to be brought back to the topic at hand.  Some interviewees, however, are surprisingly adept at explaining situations, recalling details and telling stories.  One of the best things about sitting down to talk with someone, as opposed to reading a book, is that you can ask focused questions.  Based on the needs of my stories, I have asked about plumbing, social interactions, expressions, music, the layout of apartments, and endless other aspects of life.  I have heard about how to distill Hungarian brandy at home; I have been coached in how to pronounce and spell Hungarian words; I have been served delicious Hungarian meals.  And since I am still writing, I am still asking questions.  Some of my contacts have become my friends, and (God bless them) they welcome my endless inquisitiveness. 

 Interviewees are invaluable.  If you form good relationships with them, some will do you the favor of checking your finished manuscript for historical and cultural accuracy.  I showed my first draft of The Bomb Shelter Quintet to several of my contacts.  They were very supportive and liked the story, but sometimes in regard to a scene or a detail they would say, “A Hungarian wouldn’t really do this” or “It would have happened differently, more like this . . .”   Their comments were absolutely essential to my revisions.  Writers of historical fiction, perhaps more than any other fiction writers, have to depend on the help of others.  That has certainly been my experience. 

Next post:  The challenge of creating an historical setting


Research for Writing Historical Fiction: Getting Started

For the last several years my writing time has been absorbed by two novels. The one I’m currently writing, tentatively titled Voice, is about ¾ complete in its first draft.  The other, The Bomb Shelter Quintet, has been finished, but I will be revising it after I finish drafting out Voice.  So I expect to be working on these books for quite a while yet.  (You don’t know the meaning of endurance until you write a novel, then write another, then decide to revise the first one.  Aaargh.)

Both of the novels are set in Hungary, The Bomb Shelter Quintet in 1944-45 and Voice in 1951.  The setting of the books has meant a tremendous amount of research—historical, geographic, and cultural.   If I had known at the outset how large and sometimes overwhelming the task would be, I probably would have been completely scared off.  But I’m glad I didn’t know, because the project has been fascinating.  A writer friend recently asked me how I went about the research, and I think it’s a topic worth exploring here.  This post will look mainly at general book research, with upcoming posts dealing with interviews and with research focused on life details.  Incidentally, a helpful book on the topic is James Alexander Thom’s The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction.

Sopron, Hungary. Photo by Marta Horvath

 My novel The Bomb Shelter Quintet takes place in Budapest during and after a WWII siege.  When I began the research for the book, I actually knew little about Hungary, not much about central European history, and little about WWII warfare.  However, I did know a fair amount about music, and music forms a major thread in the story.  (So at least not everything was a total blank as I began.)  I started my research by reading some general histories of Hungary.  I paid particular attention to the 20thcentury, but it was also important to know what had happened there before then; this helped me see what the Hungarians are “made of,” what they fear, and what they assume as true.  Subtleties like this often make the essential difference in a novel’s sense of authenticity.  I also read travel books about Hungary and looked at as many photos as I could.  And since I knew that I one of the characters in my story would be a Gypsy, I read everything I could find on the Gypsies of central Europe. 

Gypsy hut, Hungary

After a while I was able to travel to Hungary and see part of the country, but when I began writing the novel I had to guess at the setting by looking at pictures and reading descriptions.  It was not easy.  And at this point I’ll jump in and say that I began drafting out the novel early in the research process.  The research guided my writing, but the writing also guided the research.  By trying to stage the scenes I found out what I still needed to know.  (And five years later, on a second historical novel, I am still finding out what I don’t know.)

 Shortly after reading the preliminary history books, I began focusing more specifically on the WWII period.  I read some memoirs by people who had lived in Budapest during and after the war.  These helped me to picture what daily life was like and what the average citizen struggled with.  Online I ordered a book called The Siege of Budapest by Krisztián Ungváry.  The book recounted day-by-day details of the fighting, almost street by street.  These chronological details turned out to be crucial in plotting my story.   And in addition to the military details, Ungváry gave eye-witness accounts of many civilians.  Their personal stories—of rape, hunger, destruction and utter confusion, but also of hope and help from unexpected sources—became the more intimate material informing me as I wrote.

 The siege of Budapest was so chaotic and so terrible that I don’t know if I could ever say that I understand it.  But as I wrote, the task before me was to show the siege to readers through the eyes of my characters, who also didn’t understand the horror around them.  They just had to live with it.  Sometimes we as writers can feel overwhelmed by trying to make sense of the politics, economics and military strategy of what we are writing about, and certainly we need to understand it as well as we can.  But the main thing to convey is the effect of the events on our characters. 

 A few posts back I referred to the book East of the West by Miroslav Penkov.  It is an outstanding example of fiction that creates the emotional atmosphere of the setting by revealing its effects on the characters.  How about some other examples?  Favorites, anybody?

 In the next post I’ll write about interviewing as a way of collecting good material and details.