Researching history with Marshall Browne, Robert Wilson and Glen David Gold

I first came across Marshall Browne a few years ago when I read The Wooden Leg of Inspector Anders, about a one-legged detective investigating the Mafia in the south of Italy. Having once lived in a southern Italian town I was impressed by Browne's ability to portray that society, and I liked his investigator, Anders - an eccentric, introspective elderly cop with a false leg. A few years later Browne created Franz Schmidt, a German investigator with some similarities to Anders - he's a very correct, scrupulous man, with an unexpected capacity for bravery, but instead of a false leg he has a glass eye. Schmidt is a bank auditor - an unlikely hero, seemingly - whose innate decency sees him involving himself in dangerous activities as Nazism takes hold in the years preceding the Second World War (The Eye of the Abyss). Clearly, one of Browne's themes is the capacity of the individual to take action in the midst of a hostile and deadly environment.

Browne was a member of a panel at Melbourne Writers Festival (on Sunday 30 August) that included Robert Wilson and Glen David Gold. Like Browne, Wilson has written several novels that draw on modern history, among them The Blind Man of Seville, featuring detective Javier Falcon, which is set partly in the present and partly, through a series of diary entries by Falcon's father, during the Second World War. Glen David Gold's latest novel is Sunnyside, about Charlie Chaplin and the rise of Hollywood. Interviewed by Alan Attwood at MWF, the three discussed the process of creating fiction set in the past.

The topic interests me because a few years ago I attempted to write a novel set in 1920s Paris, and failed quite spectacularly - partly because the research took over, swamping both characters and narrative. But I am still interested in finding ways to construct narratives in which the past is in dialogue with the present. So I was interested to hear about the ways these guys approached their research.

Browne said that research is a two-stage process for him - first he reads very broadly, to get an in-depth knowledge of the period, then his reading becomes more specific as he seeks to learn specific pieces of information. It's in that early stage that "you can go up blind alleys". With the Schmidt novels, Browne began from a position of knowledge - having been a banker for many years he had a good grasp of how the industry worked, and had even visited some of the old private German banks that had been around since the 1930s. He was fascinated by their history, and saw their potential for fiction.

Research, for Browne, is largely but not entirely a matter of reading - I particularly liked his idea of using old editions of Hansard to help him get the language right for his trilogy of historical Melbourne novels (The Gilded Cage, The Burnt City, and The Trumpeting Angel). Wilson also reads very extensively before writing a new novel - never on the internet, always in books (he's lucky enough to have access to The Bodleian Library). But he also makes use of interviews, and in order to get the character of Javier Falcon right, Wilson dropped in on a working chief inspector of the Seville police, whom he found surprisingly keen to answer the English writer's questions. Gold, in talking about how he got Chaplin's language right, referred to the many magazines that carried verbatim interviews with the man, whose fame coincided with the rise of the cult of the celebrity.

Having said all this about the importance of research, it was good to hear the panellists assert that in a novel, the most important things are the characters and the narrative. "The biggest technical problem is being faithful to history, while maintaining narrative drive," Wilson said. At the end of the day, what makes a novel successful are its characters and its narrative, not the accuracy or otherwise of the historical background. So, while these writers are all careful to get their facts right, they are quite clear that their books belong in the fiction section, not history. As Gold put it, the object of research is "to help the writer capture the spirit of the times - not dry archaeological pedantry."

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