Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Historical Novel Location Research in the Age of Google

Jasper Kent has a piece up at Writing Historical Novels about the location research he did for his novels, which are set in set in 19th Century Russia. As you can imagine, this is a topic which I can identify with at the moment, so I was fascinated to read about his process.

Some of the most satisfying compliments I’ve received regarding The Danilov Quintet are along the lines of ‘The city becomes a character in its own right’, – the city in question being either Moscow or Saint Petersburg, depending on which of the five novels is being reviewed.

I’ll let you in on a secret: for the first novel, Twelve, my geographical knowledge was almost entirely derived from the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Moscow. Looking at my copy now, a decade on, there are still folded-down corners marking locations that appear in the novel. It was only when I was putting together the final draft, ready for publication, that I actually visited the city and checked that what I had written stood up to reality. For the most part, it did.

Looking back, the approach has its advantages and its drawbacks. The main benefit is in saving time. It would be fruitless to wander randomly through a city the size of Moscow and expect to find the best locations for a novel. As with any tourism, it helps to have an itinerary and to know what has to be seen and what does not. Moreover, when writing historical fiction, the present-day location can be deceptive – the buildings of a modern city would make it unrecognizable to an inhabitant of centuries ago, even though the street plan may remain the same. Guidebooks can provide detail on the history of a building which only an archaeologist could determine by looking at the structure itself.

[Read the rest]

It was a month or two ago, as a co-worker was talking about going to Europe with her husband later this year, that it suddenly dawned on me: If I saved up a bit, I could go back to Europe and see some of these places that I'm writing about. The one time I was in Europe was back in 1999 as a college student, but it's conceivable that some time next year the kids would be old enough we could leave them with family for most of a week and go see Verdun, the Marne, and the village that I've modeled Chateau Ducloux on. However, in the meantime, my research has been heavily reliant on books. Lots of books. Here's the "active" shelf of books I've consulted within the last chapter or so. There's another larger one in the other room devoted to books that I've already read (or am planning to read) to research past or future chapters.

Since The Great War is a big story with five sets of characters in different parts of Europe, I've relied heavily on the primary and secondary sources that I've read for ideas on incidents, as well as for all the actual history and geography that underlies that story. However, when it comes to sense of place, one of my biggest helps has been Google. Indeed, so much so that it's almost hard for me to imagine writing this project in the pre-Google age.

Sometimes it's the sort of historical details that you almost wouldn't know to look for if you were having to get all your information by picking out specific books. For instance, while researching the first Natalie chapter I was looking for the train stations which had existed in Warsaw in 1900-1914, and trying to find out which one you would likely arrive in if you were coming from Paris. What I discovered is that you basically had to go through Vienna, and with that I found some fascinating detail about how the rail lines were different in Russia, making Warsaw (that part of Poland being in the Russian Empire at that time) the gateway to Russia.

It was just after noon that the train pulled slowly into the Warsaw/Vienna Railway terminus. Passengers surged across the platform. Porters wheeled carts. Paper boys and food sellers called their wares in a babble of Russian, Polish, and German. The Warsaw/Vienna line was still the only standard gauge rail line in Russia, and the massive railway station on the Aleje Jerozolimskie was thus the gateway between Europe and the Russian east.

For reasons that were of interest only to railroad engineers, the railroad tracks that criss-crossed Europe were spaced four feet, eight and a half inches apart, while those of the Russian Empire were an even five feet, like those in far away America. This difference of three and a half inches meant that trains which traveled the rest of Europe could penetrate no further into Russia than Warsaw. Those intent on going beyond must abandon their European train here and take a tram or taxi to the Wileńska Station, whence they could board a broad gauge railway line for St. Petersburg, Kiev, or Moscow.

Thus it was that the railway platform confronting Natalie was one of the busiest in Russia, with the whole commerce between West and East surging across it. Men in tailored suits and women in silk dresses that could have looked equally at home in Paris brushed past peasants traveling in their best clothes, tunics and dresses made colorful with painstaking embroidery. A uniformed Cossack officer strode down the platform, a more plainly uniformed servant followed him with a cart of luggage. Their progress scattered a group of Jewish men with beards and side curls who had paused in the middle of the platform to talk.

And although the Dworzec Wiedeński Station was destroyed during World War II, I was quickly able to find pictures of it online.

In the next chapter, when I needed a Viennese coffee house for Josef to meet his friend Friedrich in, I consulted a period map of Vienna, considered which theater Friedrich's mistress would have been singing in, and then I used Google Maps to search the area for coffee houses until I found the Cafe Sperl which was the right age and style.

When it came to Walter participating in the opening action of the Battle of the Marne, around the French town of Penchard, I used Google Maps and satellite imagery and cross referenced them with the detailed maps I had in my books about the battle. Then I used Google Street View to see what it looked like to approach the town across the fields, and what the church where the artillery set up looked like now.

A few countries in Europe restrict Google Street View for privacy reasons, but where it is available it's an amazing tool for getting a sense of what a particular area looks like. I've used it to "walk" areas of cities and towns and see the architectural style, see the terrain of a battle field, and get a sense for the types of trees that grow in an area.

Then there's Google Translate, which has allowed me to pull up electronic copies of French and German newspapers and do on-the-fly translations of stories so that I can get a sense of what headlines characters would have seen and what sorts of stories were appearing on specific days. (Most of the headlines and stories in Henri and Philomene's newspapers are drawn from real editions of those papers within a day or two of when they appear in the story.) Primary sources that would have required a research library (and a better knowledge of the languages) I can now pull up and read at my computer at one in the morning as I'm writing a chapter.

The electronic world brings an amazing set of tools to the historical novelist's hand. The age of Google has made levels of research easy and quick that would have been fiendishly hard before. All of which, I hope, adds to the sense of place and authenticity for readers.


Brandon said...

It reminds me a bit of this Tim Powers interview (Powers's novels, of course, are just historical novels with very strange twists); he talks about the handiness of Google street view. He's also a big fan of YouTube for research -- people put their vacation videos and the like on YouTube, so if you want to know what a famous location is like, chances are you can find a video of someone walking around it.

But I think on the other side one needs to have a good sense of how ordinary bookish research works to take proper advantage of these resources. One of the continual problems I face in classes is that while my students have at their fingertips research resources that would have been almost impossible to obtain twenty years ago, they don't know how to make any use of them; their research savvy extends no farther than a search engine. I imagine that having already done a lot of study, light and serious, of WWI gives you a lot of room to leverage the electronic resources.

Darwin said...

Thanks for the Tim Powers link. It's fascinating you mention him, in that I put together my approach for writing a big, heavily researched novel in great part based on a radio interview with Tim Powers that I listened to with my dad some 20+ years ago. I think that in that he was talking about how he wrote Expiration Date, and at the time his process involved notebooks and a giant calendar with all the events on it and a detailed outline.

I tried to do exactly that starting off, and some things didn't fit so well for me (for instance I don't keep nearly as many notes on paper as I expected) but reading this new interview it sounds like his process has evolved to become similar to what I independently ended up doing. So perhaps I'm not too far wrong!

I'm curious about the bookish vs. search engine research point, if you don't mind expanding on it a bit. For myself, I think the most important thing for me with books has been that they work through so many different sources and put together a narrative. It both gives me a lot of things to search (I'll comb through the bibliography and look for their sources) but I'll also evaluate the narrative and evaluate how to fit it together with the other things I've learned already. So the whole structure of what I see as going on comes from books, and then I use online research to fill in the sights, sounds, details.

And then there's the advantage of scanned books, which can get you resources you wouldn't even have thought of. For instance, I found a set of reverence books published in 1919 which was a published version of the intelligence assessments that the US Army did of all German divisions. It was great, because it included a history of every single German regiment, where it was posted, where it fought, when it rested, casualties, etc. In a normal war history you'll hear mentions of where a unit was in some critical battle, but this helped fill in all the gaps of what specific units were doing the rest of the time. Obviously, this exists in a library somewhere, but I wouldn't even have known to look for it if I hadn't stumbled on it using Google.

Brandon said...

On the bookish vs. search engine point, I think the underlying research skills required for books and online are the same, but that physical books & periodicals are more likely to force one to use such skills -- so people seem more likely to use them if they already know how to navigate physical books and periodicals. So, for instance, the fact that you do a lot of reading in WWI already, and know how to find the kind of information you need bookwise, makes it massively more likely that you'll be able to use the search engine effectively to extend your range, in much the way you suggest. You also know how to evaluate the information critically, in terms of whether it's likely to be a good source for what you want.

My students often come to college with little to no library skills; they just rely on search engines to find things. But this leads to a tendency to just take whatever source they first get to that seems to give 'the answer'. They have an immense number of periodical databases at their fingertips, but often don't have much sense of how to use any of them effectively.

Scanned books are great for serendipity. One of my happiest research finds ever was discovering a completely forgotten work by Lady Mary Shepherd, an article that she had written that had been overlooked because it was never published in book form; finding it in the actual periodical would have been virtually impossible because (1) the fact that she wrote it was not immediately obvious; and (2) one would have had to have been going through issues of that periodical to come across it. As it was, I found it because I was actually looking for people who cited one of her other works -- and, as it happens, she cited it herself at one point. But I think luck of this sort also involves skills to take advantage of what comes up, and these skills seem more likely to develop from real-world rather than online research.