Writing historical fiction requires a lot of research, but it’s not just historical authors that need to think about research, it’s all of us. This is an area that Chris Lloyd knows a great deal about, as and “The Unwanted Dead” releases today, he’s here with his advice on research.
I write novels set in Paris under the Nazi Occupation. Inevitably, this calls for large amounts of time and planning spent on research, which can be immensely frustrating – for example, when you’re trying to find what colour ration tickets for wine were in June 1941 – but it can also be extremely rewarding. This is especially the case when the research turns up a whole story or character – or simply vignettes and small details of everyday life – that I would otherwise never have dreamt of. It can provide the central theme of the novel, or simply background that adds colour and authenticity to the story. And that’s when all the frustrations reduce to nothing and the hours spent tracking an isolated fact down becomes instantly forgotten. Along the way, I’ve come to a few conclusions about research that have helped me and that I hope might be useful to others.
1 Research, Research, Research
You can never do too much research.
I begin with a sort of immersive research. History books, films, documentaries, novels, anything that gives me a sense of the time and the place. This starts with the ‘big’ history – what was going on with the war elsewhere, major events in France, political machinations and so on – and then moves on to the fine detail. How my characters would have dressed, what they would have seen as they walked through the streets of Paris. Were the cafes and restaurants open? How many cars were there? How frequently would ordinary people have seen German soldiers or been stopped by them? How afraid were they? And how much did they simply try to get by despite the soldiers’ presence?
The next stop is to narrow the research down. My stories are set over a specific time period – The Unwanted Dead covers the first ten days of the Occupation, the second book (which I’m currently writing) takes place between September and November 1940. That’s actually extremely helpful and quite a relief. Whereas the immersive research can leave your head reeling with an information overload, the focused research not only pins the story down, it offers all sorts of opportunities for extra threads and characters thanks to the odd snippet of detail here and there that it throws up. This is where the research really helps the story start to gel.
2 Then stop researching
You can do too much research.
I know I’ve contradicted myself, but that’s research for you. Once the story starts to gel, that’s the time to stop researching. And for me, it’s important to know the exact moment. That’s partly because it’s much too easy to send yourself down a rabbit-hole, finding out all sorts of things you don’t need and confusing the issue. It’s all very well knowing what colour ration tickets for wine were in June 1941, but it’s a massive distraction if your story’s set in autumn 1940. There’s nothing like it for taking you off the boil. The main reason, though, is because it’s time to start exploring, time to start getting the story down on screen while it’s still fresh and exciting in your own mind. That’s when you can allow your characters to react to the research you’ve learned and do something with it.
3 Then do a bit more research
This is where it gets frustrating. You’ve got your story, the characters are lined up and waiting in the wings, they’ve already made their first moves, the streets are populated with your extras, and foul and bloody murder has already been committed. And that’s when you find you want Eddie, your protagonist, to go to a café for a glass of pastis with another cop to calm their nerves after the foul and bloody murder. But for them to do that, I have to know if that would have been possible under the Occupation. And it’s that moment of trying to find a very specific and very small piece of research that determines whether a scene can happen or not, or if it has to be adapted. And there’s nothing like it for slowing your writing down, as it can take hours and even days to find out that one minor piece of information. The sad news is you have no choice. If you want your story to be as authentic and accurate as possible, you just have to roll your sleeves up and dive into the deep research. That’s when you learn patience.
And in case you’re wondering – no, they couldn’t have a glass of pastis. The Vichy government had banned all drinks over sixteen per cent proof, so they had to drink wine instead, and use up a ration ticket each. Ration tickets, by the way, whose colour was changed from one month to the next to prevent forgeries being made and sold on the black market.
4 Forget the research
There’s a famous photo of Adolf Hitler taken the one time he visited Paris, in June 1940. In it, he’s standing in the Trocadéro with the Eiffel Tower behind him, on the opposite bank of the Seine. He’s flanked by architect Albert Speer and sculptor Arno Breker. Albert Speer claims the photograph was taken on 28th June, Arno Breker says it was 23rd June. They can’t both be right. My dilemma is which date do I choose.
I’ve got a similar problem with the second book. For the purposes of the story, I need Eddie to go to a specific opera on a specific day. I know the opera was staged in Paris – Fidelio, a story of political prisoners and freedom, a strange choice for the Nazis to have made – and I know it was in the autumn. The problem is I can only find one source for the actual date… and it contradicts itself. It first says Fidelio was staged at the end of October, and a few chapters later, it says it was in December. Again, I have to make my choice.
In both cases, I’ve driven myself up the wall trying to find a definitive date, but it’s impossible. And that’s when you have to forget the research and remember what it is you’re doing. You’re writing fiction. My own research in both cases has led me to a specific date for each of the two events, and I’ve made every effort possible to be accurate, but I also have to realise that this is when another element becomes important – the story. As I said, I write fiction. The history has to be accurate, the research has to be true, but it also has to contribute to the story I’m telling. Faced with contradictions in the research, and there are many, your choice has to come down to one fact. You’re a story-teller. You have to be authentic, you have to respect the past, but your story has to come first.
Chris Lloyd grew up in Cardiff and, after graduating in Spanish and French, spent twenty-four years in Catalonia, where he taught English and worked in educational publishing and as a travel writer and translator. Besides this, he also lived in Grenoble for six months, researching the French Resistance movement, and in the Basque Country and Madrid. He now lives in his native Wales where he works as a writer and translator.
He writes the Eddie Giral crime thriller series, the result of his lifelong interest in resistance and collaboration in Occupied France. Living under the shadow cast by his experiences in World War One, Eddie Giral is a Paris police detective forced to come to terms with the Nazi Occupation of the city. Seeking to negotiate a path between the occupier and the occupied, Eddie struggles to retain some semblance of humanity while walking a fine line between resistance and collaboration. However, his greatest challenge possibly lies in overcoming his own inner struggle in asking what justice is when the notion of justice itself becomes as dangerous, blurred and confused as the times. The first book in the series, The Unwanted Dead, is published by Orion and comes out in paperback on 18 March 2021.
Chris is also the author of the Elisenda Domènech crime series, published by Canelo, featuring a police officer with the devolved Catalan police force.