Today, it's my enormous pleasure to welcome Lilian Darcy to my blog. A few weeks ago, Lilian asked me to read her new mainstream title, Saving Gerda. This book is completely outside my usual reading range when I'm working on a book of my own. I usually go for crime, for humour and pre-Germany was not going to be a laugh a minute.
Lilian is a fabulous writer, so I began and was immediately drawn in, captivated by the her brilliant writing, her ability to take me to a place and time completely alien to both of us. Held by a story of two families at opposite ends of the social spectrum unfolding before me. I carried my Kindle with me everywhere, reading snatches in odd moments. Read in the bath. Didn't stop. Finished it in tears. Wish I had it still to read.
Here's Lilian to tell a little about her research.
Liz, in one of your emails to me about Saving Gerda, you asked, "How on earth do you know all that stuff?" and the facetious answer to this is just the writer's R word - Research - but of course it wasn't that easy... or that dry and boring... and I'd like to pull apart the process of it a little more, because I think it's one of the most challenging and yet satisfying things about going outside your comfort zone with the setting of a novel. I'm hoping this will be interesting to readers and other writers alike.
I had no easy ticket into this book, and the old writing adage, "Write what you know," did not remotely apply. Saving Gerda is set before I was born, in a country I've never been to, amongst people with whom I don't share a cultural background. Having grown up (so to speak) as a writer through writing Medical Romance without having any kind of personal background in medicine, however, I'd come to believe that, "Write what you know," has to count as one of the worst pieces of advice ever given to writers. My counter to it when teaching or talking to other writers is always, "You know way more than you think." And the R word has many different facets, too.
People are people. Wherever and whenever we live, we live and love in much the same way on an emotional level. We're brave or reckless or angry or giddily happy about different things, but the feelings are the same. All that research of character and behaviour and heart - the emotional research - writers can do everywhere and anywhere, every day of the week.
The factual research about the time period and setting for the book was more daunting. It's so important not to end up with dry background paragraphs that aren't really a seamless part of the story, and from the powerful emotional reactions people have had to Saving Gerda I think I've avoided that trap. The facts about dates and events have to work their way into the texture of the book, and in this I think my chaotic process helped rather than hindered. I just read and read and read. I took scattered notes, but not detailed ones, and certainly didn't organise them very efficiently. I learned by repetition, and when something stuck in my head it seemed like a signal that it was going to be important. I think if I'd tried to be more organised in the way I researched the book, it wouldn't have worked as well, because writers always need those chance discoveries. Very often, you don't know what you're looking for until you find it.
There's a third kind of research which I think of as "atmospheric," and I had to do so much of this that things became internalized almost like my own memories. I looked at so many photos, on a level of detail that was totally new for me. I read book after book of personal memoirs of the period. Some of them were self-published and not of the kind of quality that would have given them success with a traditional publisher, but in this case it didn't matter. Rambling memories, incredibly precious to the writer of the book, gave so much sensory detail on things like doing laundry in a pre-War Berlin apartment building or going out at night to a high society function.
You'll laugh - EBay was great, too! Sales of antique buttons and dolls and sewing machines and pencil sets... I pored over the pictures until I developed a strong emotional response to some of these objects. Sophie's dislike of her mother's sewing machine, the elaborate patterns on the metal buttons of Christian's winter coat when he was a toddler, Gerda's entrancement with the treasures in the family attics at her grandparents' richly endowed country house, all of these things came from just feeling my way into pictures found on the internet.
With all this wealth of pictures and memories and wandering Google searches, the research became so much fun and so enriching to the characters and story that I'm looking for an excuse to do it again with another book.
SAVING GERDA is now available here.