Friday, May 3, 2013

Writing a Historical Thriller: A Journey

 by David Khara, @LeFrenchBook (publisher Twitter account)
David Khara is the author of The Bleiberg Project, which is an adrenaline-pumping conspiracy thriller based on World War II and the first in the Consortium Thriller series. The book was an instant success in France, catapulting the author to the ranks of the country’s top thriller writers.
I have always had a passion for history. I firmly believe the past enlightens the path to the future. It is all about what mistakes have been made and how to avoid making them again. This way of thinking applies to our lives as individuals, as well as to mankind in general. That’s what learning is about: trying to be a better person living in a better world. Unfortunately, history—and its mistakes—tends to repeat itself, as if we were unable, as a species, to learn. And that is why in my thrillers history always crosses our present lives to expose our inability to improve ourselves.
Before starting my work on the Consortium Thriller series, I thought I had fairly good knowledge of World War II. I really did. It turned out I was wrong. Three books later, here are some key things I have learned about writing historical thrillers.
Research, research, research
When you write a story based on true facts, it seems obvious to check the facts. What is less obvious is the amount and density of information you might have to dig into. In this respect, World War II turns out to be an endless well. Due to the length and scale of the conflict, and the countless interactions within it, it proves quite complicated to embrace this whole period without spending your whole life working on it. 
Luckily, I knew exactly what I wanted to talk about: human experimentation, flaws of science, lack of ethics and disregard for human life. This narrowed the field and I thought would save me some time. Wrong again!
Since my story was fictional, I had to set aside any suppositions, allegations and theories commonly found about the period. The fiction was mine, and mine alone, but I needed to mix it with true events, as unbelievable as they seemed. Sticking to the truth is what makes a story powerful. It is what will lead readers to think, “Hey, all this takes place in the real world.” In the end, it is what makes them care about the story and the characters.
The journey
So, I started digging into the Nazi experiments, focusing on what I thought I knew: Mengele’s experiments, and the Nazi √úbermensch (Superman) dream. I bought a couple of books, a few DVD documentaries and I thought that would be it. Two days later, I was ordering dozens of books, tons of DVDs and I started making phone calls to WWII specialists. Why? Because what I knew wasn’t even the tip of the iceberg. A short example should explain the process: as I was reading about the interactions between Nazis and science, I ran into the Werner von Braun story. He was the man who created the V1 and V2 rockets. I knew he was somehow involved in the American space program. I had no idea the American army ran “Operation Paperclip” to get to Von Braun before the Russians caught him. And I had no idea this operation led to the transfer of 500 others scientists and engineers working with Von Braun. The man worked for the Army, and eventually joined the NASA. And this incredible fact led to countless others.
I realized then that not only would my novels be a journey for my readers, but they were also going to be a journey for me as a writer and as a citizen.
Now that the first three books of the series are finished in French (the first one just came out in English), I can say my research represented one of the two years it took me to write all three books. One half of my time, and I used ten to twenty percent of what I found in my novels. Were the other eighty to ninety percent lost? Certainly not.
Capturing the atmosphere
Historical novels, no matter the genre, are all about understanding the mood of the times you write about. This means that you must not only be accurate about the clothing or the architecture, but you need to capture the atmosphere your characters have to deal with. Ask yourself a few questions like: “What were newspaper headlines?” or “ What was fashionable?”
This aspect was without a doubt the longest and largest part of my research. I read biographies of survivors and war criminals; I watched testimonials of ordinary people overwhelmed by an extraordinary wave of madness and cruelty. I spent countless hours trying to get in their mind, trying to understand pain of the victims, and the evilness of murderers. I didn’t want to just tell what happened. I wanted to be there, with them and, in the end, testify.
Here are two examples. Chapter one of The Bleiberg Project is written from the perspective of a genuine SS guard. I built his state of mind from actual testimonials. The same was true in chapter thirty-seven, which tells the story of the main character. I built the chapter out of three different testimonials. 
During my research, I must admit I cried a lot, laughed at unexpected times, and learned more about mankind every second.
A tribute
This represented eighty to ninety percent of my work, as I mentioned above. Hidden behind the fast-paced, action-packed, entertaining thriller lies a tribute to those who lived these days, suffered from it. Be it seen or not, it is there. And that was the most important part of my job as a writer, and that aspect becomes more and more obvious throughout the trilogy.
I wanted to share my own personal journey, always keeping in mind lots of people who suffered from WWII were still alive. Should one of them read the book, I didn’t want to betray them, or worst, insult them.
For me, writing historical books, and especially about history close to us, is not about making a career, craving for success, or I don’t know what other nonsense. It is all about remembering and learning, because the future lies on our capacity to improve and avoid what our nature makes us capable of doing. If we don’t, we’ll fall into Einstein’s definition for Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”…

The Bleiberg Project is now available in English, published by Le French Book, a digital-first publisher specializing in best-selling mysteries and thrillers from France. It can be found on all major ebook platforms.