The Fun and Challenge of On-site Research
by Donna Del Oro, author of A BODYGUARD OF LIES, a Jake Bernstein spy-mystery
Is there a correlation between a novel’s verisimilitude and the on-site research that the author does to make the story come alive? You bet there is. Having boots on the ground, so to speak, affords a writer the opportunity to soak in the atmosphere of a place: The sights, sounds, smells, micro-weather changes, and the flow of traffic and people. In essence, the local color and vagaries.
Not to mention, being on-site inspires a lot of ideas for plot and characterization. In June of 2009, my sister and I took a 12-day Globus motorcoach tour that began in London and took in southwest England, Wales, Cornwall, the Republic of Ireland and eventually parts of Scotland. As the motorcoach, full of passengers from all over the English-speaking world, toured from country to country, our escort guide regaled us with the history, economics, politics and local lore of the area. In addition to learning a lot, we tasted the various fares, tipped a few pints of the local ales and beers, and realized the unique qualities of each region. From the beauty of Cornish farms to the Welsh red-dragon flag, each area bespoke its own quaint history.
This trip was strictly a vacation but before long, ideas for a spy mystery-thriller began spouting like a fountain of muses. Imagine, I thought to myself, an FBI agent recruited by MI-5 to go undercover and investigate an elderly, naturalized American grandmother suspected of war crimes during World War II. I knew my World War II history, knew that the Republic of Ireland was neutral during the war and that German U-boats sometimes surfaced in the Irish Sea, occasionally dropped off Nazi spies, and even stopped to share some pints of ale with the local Irish. I also knew that the Allied countries of the war had never stopped hunting for Nazi war criminals, and that some of those very Nazis had immigrated to the U.S. under false identities.
Imagine that an elderly woman and her granddaughter could be passengers on a similar motorcoach tour, visiting the grandmother’s home country of Ireland one last time. What if the grandmother, due to coincidences of name and origin, is suspected of being a ruthless Nazi spy, never caught by the Allies, and who allegedly has spent the past sixty-five years of her life in a cocoon of lies?
What if the handsome, single FBI agent, Jake Bernstein—a Jewish-American whose German-born grandfather had narrowly escaped the death camps—finds himself attracted to the suspect’s beautiful granddaughter, Meg? To what extent is Jake tempted to compromise his investigation because of his budding relationship with Meg? Yet, by-the-book Bernstein considers himself fair-minded, and wouldn’t let anything or anyone interfere with an objective investigation. What if the clever, cagey grandmother stays one step ahead of Jake’s investigation? How does she manage that?
Thus was born my first spy thriller, A BODYGUARD OF LIES.
The sights and smells I experienced made their way, of course, into the story. In fact, the very personal experiences I had during that tour evoked so many plot points and scenes that my notebook was smoking at the end of each day. First-hand experiences, nearly not as exciting as the story I envisioned, were sometimes not enough. In certain chapters, for example, such as Cardiff, Killarney and the Irish Stud Farm, I supplemented first-hand experiences with city maps and tourist brochures.
In capturing the dialect of the local people, however, on-site experience was vital. I doubt the local jaunty cart driver realized that I was capturing nearly word-for-word his little, humorous spiel. Yep, his schtick showed up in my novel and still makes me laugh when I read it. Had I not walked the streets of Killarney, I would never have known that two Saint Mary churches were located near each other. One was a Catholic cathedral and the other was a small, Episcopalian church. That distinction played an important role in my story and helped to convince Jake Bernstein that Mary McCoy Snider wasn’t who she claimed to be. I kept filling my notebooks as the plot and characters crystallized in my mind, each little detail of local life inspiring another plot point or character quirk.
Our later visit to Hannover, Germany to visit our good German friends, the Sandrocks and their daughter, Steffi, resulted in the chapters set in Berlin and Hannover. Learning that Hannover, in northern Germany, was 90% destroyed by Allied bombs during WW II helped me to add nuances of sympathy and depth to otherwise stock neo-Nazi characters. The Engesohde cemetery in Hannover became the site of the story’s shattering climax. I could not have written those scenes without walking the very steps taken by Meg and her grandmother.
Researching the history online or in books, for me, is never enough. For me, the story and characters come alive more believable—and more enjoyably as a writer—when I can travel in my characters’ footsteps. See what they see, hear what they hear, and so on. I know that my stories benefit greatly from going the extra mile.