Writing materials

What is the key to writing realistic historical fiction? ‹ CrimeReads

I’m not a historian, just a novelist who happens to be a history buff. So when I’m writing a spy novel set during World War II, false history is unacceptable. While my protagonist Alexsi and the situations he finds himself in may be fictional, the story must be set in the context of real locations, accurately portrayed real historical figures, and an actual historical timeline.

As a history buff, I feel compelled to offer my readers a story they may not necessarily know. My previous novel A single spy, unfolded between the exiled German colonies of Azerbaijan, Stalin’s Russia, Nazi Germany, Iran and a German plot to assassinate Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin at the Tehran Conference in 1943.

Readers clearly enjoyed it, so obviously for The double agent I couldn’t choose the easy way out. Alexsi, who is only interested in personal survival, not ideology, had to leave Iran after betraying both the Germans and the Russians, and being disappointed in his offer of service to the British.

Of course, his journey could not be carefree. Alexsi should be dragged to London, thought he was safe, and then targeted by the Russians and their traitorous British Intelligence. He had to leave London to survive, but the only way to do that was to offer to spy again. We are in 1944. Where?

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D-Day and France are famous, but the Italian campaign is much darker. On the verge of invading France that summer, the allies were holed up at Anzio, thwarted in the mountains at Cassino, and desperately vying for the prestige of conquering Rome. The Germans were fighting a bitter defensive battle against the British and American armies, and a vicious campaign against partisans and spies in Rome itself.

Here is my setting. But a novelist who wants to be true to history must not only adapt his character and his story to the historical timeline, but also give the reader a sense of location and details. It is easy to say that such and such a thing happens on this date and at this time. Much more difficult is knowing exactly how to fly from Tehran to London in 1944. What did the inside of MI6 headquarters at 55 Broadway in London actually look like? What was it like walking the dark streets of London while the Germans were still bombing occasionally?

If a novelist wants to be specific, and I do, then you have to familiarize yourself with the overall history of the time. Then you have to dive into obscure personal accounts to provide the details you need. Solzhenitsyn can offer you an account of what it was like to be arrested by the NKVD and taken to prison in Lubyanka. The obscure tale of a Russian spy who defected to Sweden will tell you exactly how the NKVD trained an agent during World War II. A rare survivor or a war criminal’s debriefing can describe what the torture cellars of the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin were like.

I readily admit that you must be some sort of rare bird who love wade through pages of material that may offer nothing, or perhaps only a paragraph in a novel. But for me, the joy of this is taking the dry details of the story and making them alive, interesting, and exciting for the modern reader. Especially since so many events today are often only echoes of our past.

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Rome was my setting for The double agent. Now you can visit Rome, and I highly recommend it as one of the great cities in the world. Visiting Rome will give you the feel of Rome, the geography of Rome, but it won’t tell you much about the Rome of 1944. The Rome of 1944 was looking forward to liberation, but the allies were slow to come. The Rome of 1944 was starved, as the railways were bombed and the Germans transported ammunition to the front in trucks marked with the Red Cross, so that the British and American air forces machine-gunned all that moved on the roads.

Reading the stories of the human beings who lived in Rome at the time brings you to your characters. Herbert Kappler, the SS colonel who was the chief of police in occupied Rome. The son of a driver from Stuttgart. The evil genius of Hitler and Stalin was that they knew that if they took the son of a Stuttgart stoker and made him the absolute ruler of Rome, he would literally do any dark thing that was asked of him, no questions asked.

You have read about the papal nobility and their relationship to both the Catholic Church and traditional political power in Italy. This gives you an idea for an important character. The story becomes clearer.

You have heard of a German SS police battalion garrisoned in Rome, made up of Italian speakers from the Tyrolean Alps whose area had been offered by Mussolini to Hitler, and who decided it was best to volunteer for the SS police to persecute the Italians than to be drafted by the German army to fight the Russians on the Eastern Front. Ironic, interesting. Then you dig a little deeper to find that one day as they were walking through Rome singing their martial songs, they were hit by a bomb in a dung cart (you didn’t think IEDs were new, n ‘is this not ?). You start taking notes. A drunken German general must be prevented from blowing up an entire neighborhood. A hysterical Hitler demanding retaliation. The almost jet-black comedy of SS Colonel Kappler frantically trying to find enough victims among the Jews who had not yet been deported to the death camps and the partisans who had not yet been shot in time to meet the Hitler’s arbitrary delay. A massacre at the Ardeatine Caves, near the catacombs of the first Christian martyrs.

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The author finds himself nodding, because he has found his story. His character must be in the heart of the matter. Forced into moral and deadly choices. Survive or sacrifice.

You start writing.