Mystery Scene continues its ongoing series in which authors give a behind-the-scenes look at their novels and writing process.
Today, Libby Fischer Hellmann, left, talks about the challenges of writing historical fiction as she does in her latest novel, A Bend in the River.
Hellmann left a career in broadcast news in Washington, D.C., and moved to Chicago more than 35 years ago, where she began to write gritty crime fiction.
She has been a finalist twice for the Anthony and three times for Foreword Magazine's Book of the Year. She has also been nominated for the Agatha, the Shamus, the Daphne, and has won the IPPY and the Readers' Choice Award multiple times. Hellman hosts a TV interview show and conducts writing workshops at libraries and other venues, and has served as the national president of Sisters In Crime. Her books have been translated into Spanish, German, Italian, and Chinese.
Hellmann’s latest novel is A Bend in the River.
A Bend in the River is about two young Vietnamese sisters who flee to Saigon after their village on the Mekong River is burned to the ground in 1968. The only survivors of the massacre that killed their family, the sisters struggle to survive but become estranged, separated by sharply different choices and ideologies. Mai ekes out a living as a GI bar girl, but Tam’s anger festers, and she heads into jungle terrain to fight with the Viet Cong. For nearly 10 years, neither sister knows if the other is alive.
Writing Tips for Historical Novels
How I Learned About Guerilla Booby Traps Without Losing a Limb
“What’s with all these crime authors writing historicals?” I’ve heard this more than once over the past year. Apparently, writing about the past is the latest trend. I never noticed it, but I’ve been alternating between historical and contemporary thrillers for 15 years. So, I took a look around, and, by gosh, it seems to be true.
In May 2019, the New York Times Magazine explored the subject with an article. “Why Are We Living in a Golden Age of Historical Fiction?”
The answer isn’t difficult. The article says, “In tumultuous times, novels tend to look forward to a dystopian future, but authors are increasingly writing about the past.” Certainly, the events of the past four years, upending precedents and norms, have been tumultuous. Some believe we’re already living in a dystopian-ish world. Margaret Atwood aside, why duplicate the misery and oppression such a world presents?
Going backward rather than forward can feel more relevant. There’s a certainty about the past.
While events and facts are often interpreted differently—via historiography—there’s little dispute about the events themselves.
“Alternative facts” don’t carry much weight.
In addition, the genre of historical fiction, crime or not, has widened its reach, allowing writers to focus on historical characters once considered marginal. Many of those characters, sometimes fictional themselves, are unique. As long as the history surrounding them is accurate and credible, it makes for fascinating reading. Still others use history and characters to elicit parallels to the present, both the strengths and the failings. And thriller authors have used historical settings for decades to describe heroic deeds.
I’ve now written five historical novels and about half a dozen historical short stories, but when asked to write about the craft of historical fiction, I come up blank. For me, writing a historical novel demands the same mastery of craft as any other novel. In some cases, writing a historical novel can even be easier. I’ll explain below. So, I’d rather call these “Tips.” Or How I Learned About Guerilla Booby Traps Without Losing a Limb.”
Choose Your Conflict Carefully
Conflict is the root of every story, even if it’s just a character who wants a glass of water and can’t get it. That applies to historical novels, too.
When I’m conceptualizing a historical novel, I look for the underlying conflict as my premise. In fact, I look for intense, multi-layered conflict. That’s why I focus on revolutions, wars, and other societal conflicts. Not so much because of the existential conflict, but because its effects on a country, a city, a neighborhood, a family, an individual, or all of the above.
The intense conflicts of the Cuban Revolution, the Islamic Revolution, World War Two, the late Sixties, and now the Vietnam War (A Bend in the River) turns some characters into heroes, others into cowards. Intense conflict can lead to violent change and devastating consequences, or in some cases, freedom and justice. I love to imagine the repercussions of such conflict, the people who are affected by them, and how they do or don’t cope with them.
Not all of us are Ken Follett, who seamlessly writes about any historical period he wants. Choosing the period of history, you want to focus on affects the story in a multitude of ways. The language, tone, lifestyle, characters’ behavior, and plot development must be accurate and relevant to the time. I’m drawn to recent history, basically the past hundred years.
As a former video producer and filmmaker, I revel in and study visual materials in my research: photographs, videos, films, audio interviews, all of which proliferated during the past century.
What’s more, periods of intense conflict lend themselves to visual representations. My college thesis (surprise --I majored in history) was about visual propaganda during World War One. Posters about marauding Huns and proud young British soldiers filled my paper. More recently, for A Bitter Veil, I watched the speech Ayatollah Khomeini gave when he returned from Paris after the Shah was deposed. I didn’t understand a word, but his rising pitch and angry expressions coupled with the audience’s reaction was enough. (I read the transcript as well, of course.)
Let Research Drive Plot
Many authors believe that research is the most satisfying part of the writing process.
We can get lost in research.
My first step, once I’ve decided what era I’m writing about, is to read as much fiction and non-fiction That’s set in the era. I do so more to reassure myself that the era I’ve chosen is “doable”—that I can add something to the body of literature that’s already there. For example, I hesitated writing about World War Two. Yes, it was a period of intense conflict, perhaps the last time we had clarity on who were heroes and who were enemies.
But what could I possibly add to the body of literature that already exists? It wasn’t until I discovered there were German POW camps in most of the states that I realized I could use one to fashion a novella for War, Spies and Bobby Sox. Similarly, I was in Vietnam touring the Cu Chi Tunnels, which connect to the Ho Chi Minh trail, a major North Vietnamese supply route during the Vietnam war, when I realized how the tunnels could be a major part of my story.
Which is why I believe that research drives plot. It’s hugely satisfying to weave actual bits of history into the plot, and I look for opportunities to do that with through my research. In many cases, this makes plotting a historical novel easier. Making the high points of my research “personal” can reveal character as well as drive plot.
Look for Surprises
Finally, I often find unexpected historical surprises that capture my imagination in ways I never expected. For example, in the excellent reference book, Vietnam, A History, author Stanley Karnow interviews a female doctor, who, during the war was an insider with the Diem administration. At the same time, she was a committed Communist, and spied for the North. The idea of a female double agent fascinated me, so I created a similar character who has a huge influence on one of my protagonists.
Another surprise was the fact that the Americans used German shepherds to sniff out Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers in the Cu Chi Tunnels. It worked for a while but then didn’t. Why? The GIs smelled like American soap. The Vietnamese, not so much. When the Vietnamese realized this, they started using American soap to trick the dogs. It worked. The dogs, scenting familiar American odors, no longer raised an alarm.
Finally, I learned, again through research, how the Viet Cong, despite being vastly under supplied compared to American forces, devised booby traps that could kill or seriously maim anyone who stepped or bumped into them. Many of the weapons used in these traps were sharpened bamboo spears smeared with feces to spur infection, spikes, wires, and grenades. The Viet Cong recognized the signs of a nearby trap; Americans didn’t, and they paid a price. That, too, made its way into my book, and as the title of this article indicates, I now know the signs.
I hope these tips help you frame an accurate historical crime novel that’s unique—not only for the period—but also for readers. Historical thrillers and historical crime, like its present-day sibling, offers us plenty of lessons.
Mystery Scene continues its ongoing series in which authors give a behind-the-scenes look at their novels and writing process.
Alice Henderson’s first mystery, A Solitude of Wolverines, is the first in a knockout nature and adventure series featuring wildlife biologist Alex Carter.
When the protagonist of A Solitude of Wolverines, Alex Carter, is forced to flee a shooting, she ends up in a remote area of Montana studying the elusive and rare wolverine.
Author Alice Henderson is already an established horror and fantasy writer with an apocalyptic series, Skyfire Saga, and novelizations of popular shows like Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural, but A Solitude if Wolverines marks the first in her new wilderness mystery series. Just like Alex, her heroine, Henderson studies wildlife in their habitats.
Her author site states, "She undertakes wildlife surveys to determine what species are present on lands that have been set aside for conservation. There she ensures there are no signs of poaching and devises of ways to improve habitat."
Mystery Scene columnist and reviewer Robin Agnew caught up with Henderson to discuss her gripping new book. All things being equal, A Solitude of Wolverines kicks off what promises to be a long-running and enjoyable new series.
Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: I know this isn't your first novel, but it's your first mystery. What made you want to switch over to the mystery side of things?
Alice Henderson: I've long been a huge fan of mystery and thrillers. I've been devouring the works of Nevada Barr, Sara Paretsky, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, James Rollins, and others for years.
The readers of mystery are devoted and passionate, and I loved the thought of writing something for readers as voracious as I am. Plus, I really enjoy the analytical process of devising a mystery, planting seeds, and building suspense.
What is your background? Are you experienced or trained in tracking animals? I thought the tracking details in the book was one of its strongest elements.
Thank you! I do indeed do a lot of work with wildlife and I've even been lucky enough to see rare wolverines twice in my life.
I survey for the presence of species in a variety of locations. Sometimes I do this by walking transects and looking for tracks or scat. I've surveyed for the presence of jaguars in New Mexico, wolves and wolverines in Montana, endangered bats in Arkansas, spotted owls in California, and more.
I also employ bioacoustic methods. I place recorders out in the field to capture the sounds of both audible creatures such as birds and amphibians, and mammals like wolves, as well as the ultrasonic calls of bats. Then I can examine the recordings and determine what species are present. I also do a lot of geographic information systems (GIS) work for wildlife. I map preserves, design wildlife corridors, and undertake things like species distribution modeling.
Several times when your main character, Alex, is out in the wild, she thinks about how it's where she feels most comfortable and at home. Is the outdoors where you feel most at home?
Yes, the outdoors is definitely where I feel most at home. To be hiking in a remote location, hearing the wind sighing in the trees, smelling pine carrying in on the breeze, and delighting to the roar of a whitewater river is when I'm most at peace. If I'm out gazing at a grizzly bear digging for roots in a wildflower-strewn meadow, or watching a family of wolves cavorting with their playful cubs, I am in heaven.
I loved one of the settings in the novel of an abandoned hotel—very Stephen King. It's wilderness gothic. Is it based on a real place?
Thank you! That place was indeed inspired by a real location. I was doing a wildlife survey on a preserve that had at one time been home to a thriving conference center with a number of outbuildings. The conference center had closed down and later on a land trust had acquired the land and protected it for wildlife. The buildings had all been left in place. At the time I did my study, the conference center had fallen into disrepair and become home to bats. There were empty stairwells and long, lonely hallways where the wind whistled through spaces around windows. Moss and other plants grew inside the building, water seeping down walls and through the floors. Nature was retaking that place, and I was inspired.
For a long-running series, the author often has a character arc she is thinking about. I know this is your first mystery and I'm making a leap, but this feels like the beginning of a long series. So, what might be your plans for Alex?
Alex feels torn between her longing to be out in nature and where she fits in with society. Though she has two close friends (her dad and her college friend, Zoe), she often feels a disconnect with most other people. She's a bit adrift when it comes to many aspects of society. She works alone in remote places. Her last serious relationship fell apart because her partner did not understand her need to be out in nature. In future books, I'd like to explore her journey with striking a balance between finding solace in nature and exploring her place in society.
Where did you start when you began to put together the story—character, setting, or plot—or all three? Is there a most important element to you?
I was inspired to write A Solitude of Wolverines while I was on a cross-country trek doing wildlife presence surveys on a number of sanctuaries. The work is fascinating, and I wanted to give voice to the many species that are vanishing. I thought the remote setting of such surveys would be conducive to a suspense series.
My character, Alex Carter, and my plot came into being simultaneously. I wanted to create a strong protagonist who cared deeply about wildlife, had a wide range of skills, and could think and fight her way out of dangerous situations. So then I just needed to choose which species to feature for the first book. I decided upon wolverines because few people are aware of them, and their population is down to only 300 in the contiguous United States. So wolverines then determined the setting, as they only live in isolated areas of the Rockies and Cascades.
In general, I view character, setting, and plot as interwoven, so I wouldn't say one is more important to me than another. I tend to come up with the plot first, then figure out what kind of character would be most challenged by that plot, and what kind of setting would provide the most suspenseful and adventurous twists.
Who are your influences and what mysteries do you like to read or find inspirational?
I absolutely love the work of Nevada Barr, as I very much enjoy mysteries set in outdoor locations, like the work of William Kent Krueger. I also love thrillers that tie into science or history, like James Rollins' The Demon Crown and Douglas Preston's and Lincoln Child's White Fire.
I revel in historical mysteries, too. The Matthew Corbett series by Robert McCammon, set in colonial America, is among my favorites, as are the Molly Murphy mysteries by Rhys Bowen, set in early 1900s New York. Tough, three-dimensional female characters really appeal to me, like Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski, Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon, and Robert McCammon's Berry Grigsby.
Did you learn anything new about your writing craft putting this novel, ,your first mystery, together?
While I've spent a lot of time in the wilds of Montana where I set the book, all my research about wolverines allowed me to picture that setting from their point of view. What would be considered extremely technical mountain climbs for us are treated by wolverines as almost flat terrain. They can move up and down near vertical surfaces quickly and with ease.
In terms of pacing, two of my favorite things to write are action and fight scenes, so I had to make certain to put in some carefully thought out downtime between climaxes to give Alex some time to steep in her surroundings and deal with her relationships both with her ex-boyfriend and the townspeople she encounters.
Was their a book that was transformational for you as a reader or a writer?
I read Watership Down as a kid, and that was the first time I felt truly transported by a book to another time, another place, another world of mythology and language. I was enchanted.
Later, as a writer, I discovered the works of Robert McCammon, like his novel Boy's Life. He manages to bring whole worlds and characters to vivid life. When I read his fiction, I feel like I could call those characters on the phone, and that I've lived in those places he describes. It inspired me to bring my own worlds to such vivid life.
And finally, what's are the best and worst parts of writing a book? What really makes your heart sing? What fills you with dread?
My favorite stage in writing a novel is the very start, when I'm devising the plot and characters. At that point, anything is possible. My imagination can roam and I can try out different ideas and see how they mesh with each other. When things start to take form and fit together, it's an exciting feeling.
I think the hardest part for me are those days when I'm well into writing the actual narrative, and I worry over the execution of the novel itself—is this interesting? Will this draw readers in? Is my pacing okay? Then as I near the end, I find myself happily excited again, flowing along with the story to its completion.
Alice Henderson is a writer of fiction, comics, and video game material, as well as a wildlife researcher. Her love of wild places inspired her new thriller series, which begins with A Solitude of Wolverines, as well as her novel Voracious, which takes place in Glacier National Park.
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