Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Guest Author: William S. Shepard

First, I need to apologize to William for messing up his blog date. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. No excuses--especially since he sent me the blog ages in advance and I was really looking forward to it. But enough wringing of hands. Here he is!

Research and Mystery Writing
William S. Shepard

The advice given writers is to write about what they know, and it is sound advice. For myself, as a former career diplomat, it meant creating a new mystery genre, the diplomatic mystery. My series of four Robbie Cutler novels is set largely in American Embassies overseas, where I have served and lived for years.

That doesn’t mean, I quickly found out, that an overseas location is easy to write about or to recall. For one thing, one’s memory begins to play tricks. Was that restaurant really on the hilly Buda side of the Danube, or in downtown Pest? For another thing, history is a moving target. It doesn’t stay still at all, particularly in areas where the politics are volatile.

My novel “Murder On The Danube,” for example, is set in Budapest.

It is set in the present time, with flashbacks to the Hungarian Revolution against Russian occupation. Someone is killing people now, to stop the past from being found out.

This made for interesting research. When I was assigned to the American Embassy in Budapest it was during the communist years, when the Hungarian Revolution was officially a nonevent, so it was impossible to do solid research. After the Berlin Wall came down, and with the assistance of both the Hungarian Embassy in Washington and the American Embassy in Budapest, I returned, did research for the book, and even lectured at the official 1956 Historical Institute.
Now that would be impossible, for the Institute no longer exists. The 1956 Historical Institute was defunded, some say because its files may have contained embarrassing information about presently powerful people! History tends to wobble around still, like that Budapest park filled with old statues of the Stalinist era!
In creating a back story for the Hungarian Revolution itself I was faced with difficult choices. Put in too much, and the back story intrudes. Too little, and it would seem shallow. I even put the problem to a creative writing class that I was teaching at the time! Finally the solution came. The thirteen days of turmoil are well known, and so I wrote thirteen chapters, each with a back story that contained some highlights of that day in the fighting, with clues as to the present murderer. This format succeeded, and a high compliment came from a friend who was himself a Freedom Fighter in those days. He said that his teenage son read the book, and then said “I read ‘Murder On The Danube,’ and now I understand what you and Mother went through!”

Let me mention also my latest ebook, “ Maryland in the Civil War.” 

It arose out of my lectures on that subject at Chesapeake College and Washington College, Maryland. This is the 150th anniversary of those events, and some of the background, for example how Maryland stayed in the Union, is little known today. But I soon discovered the truth of Faulkner’s axiom, from Requiem For A Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” I found for example that fifty years ago, the centennial of the Civil War was marked by state observances. There arose an issue of whether to tell the story of John Brown’s 1859 raid at Harper’s Ferry. Some feared that the entire centennial observance might unravel if publicity were given to Brown’s exploits!

I have found unexpected richness in this topic. The courage of Governor Thomas Hicks, for example, is virtually unknown today. Sort of a Maryland Harry Truman, he was a Dorchester County farmer, who was elected by the Know-Nothing anti-immigrant party. Then Maryland was overwhelmed by the grand issue of whether to secede. Faced with a largely pro-secessionist state legislature, Hicks stalled and played a major role in ensuring that the state stayed in the Union. Had she not done so, of course, Washington would have been totally surrounded by the Confederacy, and the outcome might have been very different. It is a gripping story, one that I was thrilled to discover and write about. And of course the story was not one sided. At Gettysburg on the third day of the battle, Maryland units faced each other, and at Culp’s Hill, the opposing color sergeants were two cousins from Trappe, Talbot County, Maryland!

The richness and confusion of history is worth exploring. I hope you will share the excitement of that research, in “Murder On The Danube,” and “Maryland In Thed Civil War.”

One of the reasons I was so fascinated by this is that I grew up in Maryland and have visited Gettysburg, Harper's Ferry, and have had several wonderful trips to Russia, so it really resonated with me. I hope you'll enjoy these mysteries as much as I do!

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