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.



A Holocaust Story from Nine Suitcases: Given the Chance to Escape the Python’s Throat, Would We All Take It?

Here is a story from Béla Zsolt’s holocaust memoir, Nine Suitcases. It is a striking account of some Jewish prisoners who were given a chance to escape . . . and chose not to. The story, for me, is a poignant reminder that some things can be stronger than the fear of death. One is family loyalty; another is the fear of being alone. The story, taken from Chapter 12 in Zsolt’s book, goes like this:
In the spring of 1944 a large group of Hungarian Jews, Zsolt among them, was being detained in an enclosed ghetto in Nagyvárad, Hungary. The town was five kilometers from the Romanian border (and in fact is now part of Romania). The Jews knew that very soon they would be forced onto railroad cattle cars and taken to Auschwitz. Because of the harsh treatment they had been receiving, and also because of suicides, many had died; and during this time of waiting, about fifty men were assigned to bury the dead.

As it turned out, the gentile gendarme supervising the gravediggers was a decent man. He disliked the injustices against the Jews and feared the retaliation that his family would face when the regime changed after the war—as he knew it would. So one spring day when the gravediggers finished their work at the mass grave, the gendarme said to one of them, a man named Friedländer, “’Listen . . . tell these people . . . if they want to disappear they should go . . . Nobody has counted you. There’s no register. Now you’re like hay. The cart doesn’t stop if some falls off. But only smart people should go, because if you’re caught you’ve had it.’
Freidländer told the others, and as Zsolt puts it, “They conferred in wary whispers. What if he was trying to trick them—they would start and he would shoot them. And even if he meant well . . . they would be caught after ten steps. . . . Even if they got as far as the border, which was indeed only five kilometers away, how would they steer clear of the border guards? . . . And if they weren’t polished off by the Romanians, what would happen to their families in the ghetto? They couldn’t leave their families, parents, children, wives, behind without a man. Of course they could do nothing to help at the moment, but all these dependents would be lost if they were taken away somewhere without the men. And even if it was true that families would be split up and sent to separate camps for men and women, what would the family in the ghetto say if the husband or father escaped alone?
“Only one gravedigger, the red-haired Grosz, said that he was going to escape. . . . He tore off his yellow star behind the bushes and stepped out on to the road. He walked down the road, at first rather unsteadily, then more confidently, slowly, then faster and faster until he was almost running. The gendarme turned his back to him, the Jews watched him spellbound.”
And what happened then? As Grosz hurried on toward the border, he became more and more afraid at the sight of each passer-by, even though these people did not stop him or threaten him. Indeed, one even encouraged him, told him how to reach the border. But Grosz was paralyzed by the fear that he’d be captured—and by the fear of what he would have to face alone if he weren’t.
He turned back. He ran back. With great relief he joined the gravediggers being led back to the ghetto to await the cattle cars. In Zsolt’s words, “Grosz, pushing his way to the front, slipped in almost in ecstasy, like a mesmerized rodent into the python’s throat.”
This is the kind of story I would scarcely have believed when I was twenty, but now I understand it, sympathetically recognizing the impulses. There is a reason people band together in families, in communities. Although Zsolt seems to tell this story with bitterness, as a commentary on cowardice, I think it is also a demonstration of the deeply visceral way people need each other.
Life is not meant to be faced alone. And neither is death.