Sunday, June 03, 2012

SAVING GERDA


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.

22 comments:

Barbara Hannay said...

Liz and Lilian, I loved Saving Gerda too. I agree it's brilliantly written. And the research paid off -- I was totally taken back into that pre-war German world.
I hope it finds the readership it deserves, Lilian!!!

Anne said...

Liz and Lilian, thanks for this - I really enjoyed it. Lilian, this has to be one of the best, most thoughtful blogs on research that I've ever read — i think you've nailed it beautifully.

Can't wait to read Saving Gerda.

Lilian Darcy said...

Thanks, Barb and Anne.

Sometimes, my disorganised process is incredibly frustrating, but with something like this I really did feel it was an asset. Sort of a writer's life-gives-you-lemons-make-lemonade philosophy!

Trish Morey said...

Thank you Liz and Lilian, I really enjoyed this blog - it really makes sense of the tangle of research!

I loved Saving Gerda, Lilian, as you already know. it sucked me so far in I was even casting actors for the various parts, it was so real I could picture it.

I would love to see it on the big screen one day! Here's hoping.

Trishx

Lilian Darcy said...

Ooh, who did you want to see in the movie, Trish? I would love to know!

Or Liz, any ideas?

Have to say, I think Johnny Depp would be great as Johannes, but there may be some wishful thinking involved, there.

Jane Porter said...

Fantastic blog! I loved reading about Lilian's research and I'm so glad you featured her here, Liz! This book just won me over....such a powerful story...I want to see it in print in stores, too!!!

Liz Fielding said...

So agree, Jane. And Trish, I could see this book like a film as I read it. Who did you cast? :)

Trish morey said...

It's a while since I read it (will read it again soon now it's newly on Kindle) but I distinctly remember casting Nicole Kidman as Kitty - someone who could do the whole pale, frail look to a T but classily too.

Not sure of the others - but I did have big plans:-))

Trish morey said...

Johnny Depp, Lilian? Ooh, you could be right!

(Are these captcha's getting harder or are my eyes getting worse? Indecipherable, some of them.)

Lilian Darcy said...

I had thought Nicole Kidman, Trish, but have been finding her a bit brittle lately.

I think Mia Wasikowska looks just right (and went to the same school as my children!) but a bit young. OTOH, since the movie is not being made TOMORROW... Oh, wait, though, that might make Johnny too old, well though that man is ageing.

re captcha, there is some wild guessing going on.

Kelly Hunter said...

Lilian, Gerda is mine but I haven't read her yet. I'm a wimp of the "uh oh, this one's gonna hurt," kind, and I know how easily you can rope me in.

I love the way you describe research by osmosis.

Lilian Darcy said...

Oh dear, you are making it sound as if the book is MEDICINAL! (grin)

It has lots of positive moments, really it does.

Kelly Hunter said...

Absolutely not my intent! Bad Kelly .

But Liz cried. I'm gonna need M&M's.

Lilian Darcy said...

Or wine. I'd go with wine. And an open fire. And maybe some sharp European cheese with good crackers. THEN chocolate.

Liz Fielding said...

Sounds like my kind of reading snack, Lilian. And positive, yes! I love the way Gerda grows so subtly through the book.

PrincessFiona01 said...

A great blog post and I'm looking forward to reading the book.

Joan Kilby said...

Lilian, your book sounds fascinating. I will be looking out for this one. And I love what you say about research. I would never write historical because I would find it too daunting but your method sounds like fun.

Lilian Darcy said...

It was fun, Joan. Very time-consuming, but I got to read a lot! And since I love to read...

Liz Fielding said...

I'm not very up to date with the lovely young men in movies these days, but couldn't we squeeze Robert Pattinson in there somewhere?

Lilian Darcy said...

Ooh, I'm sure we could, Liz! I could almost see him as Christian.

Liz Fielding said...

That's exactly what I was thinking!

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