Spelunking from my Desk—Or, Why I Love Writing Historical Fiction
I took several creative writing classes in college and all my teachers said the same thing: Write about what you know. And I did, though I felt repressed creatively by the fact that I didn’t know a lot. But somewhere along the line, I discovered that I prefer to write about things I don’t know. To date, I’ve written a memoir, a handful of contemporary novels and two and a quarter (so far) historical novels. And while I love to write anything and have managed to make a living writing for clients of all stripes, I’ve come to realize that nothing makes me happier than when I am writing historical fiction, especially when the stories are set in periods in time about which I know—at the onset—virtually nothing.
Writing historical fiction is like spelunking. You have your lights, your harnesses, your ropes, etc., in hand when you reach the mouth of your cave—which is to say you have the tools you need for the story you want to explore. And then, the fun part, you enter the cave and begin to search for those exquisite details that will really bring your story to historical life. The great thing here is that most caves are not simply linear chambers that lead you from an entrance to an exit. There are sub-chambers, and sub-sub chambers and so on. You never know where you’re going to wind up or what you’re going to find. You can get lost! And most fun of all, in many cases the chambers you discover will not only enrich your story but they will actually impact the plot in ways you didn’t imagine.
Here’s an example: I’m working now on a story that includes a young man (J) from Brazil who travels to New York in 1928 to study art. He has only recently learned that the long-deceased American he had always believed to be his father never even met his mother. His real father was a German businessman who had come to Brazil to scope out a construction project and had spent one night with J’s mother before returning to his homeland. In one of the early chapters the plot requires J to suggest a meeting place for himself and his friend, E, who traveled with him from Brazil but has since gone off on her own. Since J is entirely devoted to art, it makes sense that he will suggest that E meet him at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I was already well into the cave of historical research (about the period before and during the Great Depression) when I reached this point. But I entered a sub-chamber to do some research on the Met, in the hope of finding information on one or two exhibits that might have been on display in November of 1928. If my characters are going to stop to have a chat (or, more likely, an argument) in front of a painting, I would prefer it to be a painting that might have an impact on what they say to each other. Since J is a painter of portraits, I thought to start there.
But over the course of what I thought would be a more or less cursory investigation I learned that the Met hosted many works by German painters in this period of time, between the two world wars. And so I chose to enter a sub-sub-chamber. Since J has only just learned his nameless father is German, and since J’s vehicle for making sense of the world is through art, might he not believe that a visit to a German exhibit would conceivably offer him some insight into the mystery shrouding his father?
I ran into a choke at this point, which, in spelunker terminology, is an obstacle, perhaps a boulder, blocking forward motion. I spent hours on the Internet trying to find out the names of the German artists who would have been at the Met in 1928. But after a full day of research, I found no way forward in this sub-sub chamber. I called the Metropolitan Museum of Art help desk. The woman who answered gave me the number for the Metropolitan Museum of Art Library. Since I live 2000 miles away, I had to turn down the librarian’s invitation to a visit. But she promised to email some links to reference sources. The links, she warned me, would not provide direct access to the names of artists whose works were on exhibit in 1928; they only provided the names of the catalogs—hundreds and hundreds of them, in fact—that contain the names of paintings given to the museum by individuals or organizations. Some of these scanned-in catalogues would be almost unreadable. And once I found a German painter’s name, I would have to switch to a different area of an already user-unfriendly (my assessment, not the librarian’s) website to find out whether or not the painting was part of the Met’s permanent collection in 1928.
My mission took forever, but I did truly enjoy it. I met many German painters I had not known along the way. Though I could not use the information, I learned about the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement that consumed German portrait painters in the 1920s. And then, like turning a corner and coming up on a wall of pure crystal in an otherwise unremarkable cave, I found it—the perfect painting! By Hans Holbein the Younger, the subject is a 16th century merchant, his right arm resting on a table which also contains a leather-bound book. The placeholder in the book, which extends a few inches out from it, is a piece of paper on which the words “Truth Breeds Hatred” have been written in Latin.
It is not J but E, the young woman he will meet in the German exhibit area of the Met, who is actually narrating the story. She knows about J’s discovery regarding his real father and she is not likely to miss the signals his decision to meet in the German exhibit offer. Nor will E, who is multilingual, miss the message extending from the book in the painting.
When I learned about the inscription on that piece of paper, everything changed for me. I had begun the story thinking that the German father would have little to no part in it. Making him a German businessman had been an arbitrary decision, a means of getting him in and out of J’s mother’s bed quickly. If anything, I was interested in the American man J had been thinking was his father all along. But as I began researching German artists, the German father insinuated himself into the plot. And then, when I found the Holbein painting, he crashed it.
A moral dilemma followed. While there were multiple portraits painted by Hans Holbein the Younger hanging in the Marquand Gallery in the Met in November of 1928, the merchant with the book was not among them. That one didn’t find its way to the Met for another few years. I have two choices before me. I can either focus my attention on another Hans Holbein painting, though there is no other that would have the impact of the one with the evocative inscription, or I can step outside my own rigorous regulations about how historical fiction should work and add the painting of choice to the Met’s permanent collection a few years early. What I decide is beside the point. Either way I have already conceded that the German father needs to be in the story.
There is a back and forth, a push and pull, that happens when I’m researching for historical fiction. It happens, if I’m lucky, when I writing general fiction too, but with historical fiction, where the research is always deeper and ongoing, it seems to happen more frequently. It almost feels as if I am co-writing the book, as if my writing partner is the research process itself. I have come to trust it, this process, to suggest plot points I never would have thought of on my own.
Spelunking is not for everyone. Certainly it takes up a lot of time. But for me it provides a more exciting writing experience. As Robert Henri says in his book The Art Spirit (which I am also researching because J’s mentor was a student of Henri’s at the Student Art League in those days),“The object of all art is intense living, fulfillment and great happiness in creation.”