Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

The Past in the Present

I’m an author of fiction. Political thrillers. Historical fiction. It sometimes strikes me as odd to write a scene set in the 1960s in which one of my characters opens a metal can of Hunt’s Snack Pack Pudding or spoons Sanka Coffee into a percolator coffee pot, only to finish writing my scene and then pop a K-Cup into my Keurig, or warm a pastry in my microwave. This odd juxtaposition of the past and the present may fill my days, but it cannot fill—or even momentarily appear in—my stories.

It’s crucial for a writer of historical fiction to perform due diligence in research. Given that the World Wide Web is a click away, and Internet search engines put facts at our fingertips, there really is no excuse for sloppy errors of misinformation in our work. (Always verify information found on the internet with at least two sources, as inaccuracies abound on the Web). Your local library is a fantastic source for reference books, and most librarians make wonderful research liaisons.

Accurate portrayal of pop culture icons can anchor a scene in a specific year or era, as can the popular slang and the music of a particular decade. You may also want to include references to the social climate of the year in which your story is set. For example, the novel I’m currently writing is set in early 1960s America, and racism was a hot-button issue of the day. I may include in my story references to Martin Luther King, Jr’s powerful speech, or to the racially motivated murder of Medgar Evers. These events are vivid memories in the minds of many readers who lived through them, and it’s crucial that I depict and refer to them accurately.

Take care when adding historical facts to your story that you do not slip into a history lesson. If a reader wants that, she’ll pick up a textbook, not a novel. Allow your characters to make a brief, natural comment in dialogue about a current event during their time, but don’t force it. Reference the history, but don’t slip into it, because doing that removes the reader from the action at hand.

Your story must move forward. Action is crucial. Active voice is critical. However, with attention to detail, accurate portrayal of historical facts, and authentic references to social, economic and cultural happenings, your readers can move forward while traveling through the past.

Do you have any tips on researching historical details for your fiction? Share with us here, and let’s compare notes.

That Ghostly Image in the Rearview Mirror May Be Real

In honor of Halloween, I thought I would tell you about a real ghost. Several years ago, when I set out to research my assignment regarding the heritage of some gold, it led me into a fascinating world of very real characters. The gold I sought was once in located in the Philippines. Naturally, my research led immediately to Ferdinand Marcos; however, there was another shadowy character who continually jumped out at me. His name was Santa Romana, and he also lived in the Philippines. At first, my research on Santa Romana turned up little information, almost as if the man didn’t exist.

Determined, I continued to pursue this mysterious man. I discovered that he was a deep CIA operative, working with individuals at the highest level of our government. But another fact jumped out, even more shocking. He had been a Roman Catholic priest and went by the alias Father Antonio Diaz. Before World War II, I have been told Father Diaz had been given the responsibility, by Pope Piux XII, to protect and move gold from Europe to the Philippines, because everyone feared Hitler would take the gold. Father Diaz, a.k.a Santa Romana, I believe supervised this move. This massive quantity of gold not only belonged to the Church, but some of it belonged to many of the wealthy families of Europe. I have even heard that, if successful in protecting the gold, Father Diaz was promised he’d be elevated to the rank of a Bishop. At the beginning of World War II in the Pacific, the Japanese took the islands of the Philippines and thus the gold. So instead of Germany getting the gold, it fell to the Japanese.

Throughout the remainder of Santa Romana’s life, he worked with first with the Army OSS (Office of Strategic Services), then later its successor, the CIA.  He led many lives under many alias. He worked behind the scenes with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos; however, he  always maintained his religious convictions or his priestly persona. Over the next several decades following World War II, Santa Romana’s primary black ops was to recover gold both for his own benefit and for that of those for whom he worked.

It was this research, plus the encouragement of my supporters, that led me to write the historical/political thriller The President’s Gold around living characters, such as Santa Romana. There were things about their lives that you could not make up—things so out there that they felt impossible to believe, though they were very real. Santa Romana was practically a ghost; there is very little official record of his existence or his work.

As an author of fiction, I found it quite a task to figure out how to keep my real characters interacting with my fictional characters, all the while maintaining accuracy with the historical research I’d completed on those real-life characters. Sometimes, such as in the case of Santa Romana, this becomes a difficult task, especially when there is little information available on that historical person. Therefore, I worked to compose a profile similar to how the police or FBI profiles an individual when a crime is committed with miniscule evidence. I sought (and fortunately, found) individuals who knew Santa Romana, which allowed my profile to expand.

What about you? Have you researched a living (or once living) character for your fictional writing? If so, I’d love to hear from you. Share your experience here, so that I, and other fellow writers, can learn more.

How Much Romance is Too Much Romance?

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 Photo by Graur Codrin

Walking the Tightrope in a Political Thriller

 

When I first started writing my novel The President’s Gold, I had a strong idea of what I wanted to cover in the story: the theft of Chinese war loot by the Japanese (referred to as Yamashita’s gold), and how Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos acquired it and kept it hidden—with US President Truman’s help. I wanted to aid in exposing the role the American government played in the scandal and the fraudulent dealings on which our world banking system is built.

What I didn’t want to do is write a romance novel. And yet, in many ways, I did just that.

Some of the best feedback I have received about my novel comes not only about the exposé of what is arguably the greatest state secret of our lifetime, but about the romantic relationship between my protagonist Franklin Young and his adversary-turned-lover Rosalita Laurel. Women, in particular, love this thread in the story, though I’ve had more than one man confess to having the hots for spicy Rosalita and her sometimes-wicked ways.

But how much romance is too much romance between fictional characters in a story that thrives not on only on action, but also on historic political events? The line is a fine one, indeed.

The Romance Writers of America (RWA) state that two basic elements are involved in a romance: a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending. The President’s Gold did not have a love story as its central element, nor did it have an optimistic ending for the couple, though Frank and Rosalita’s story certainly does not end with this novel. However, the subplot of the story, which deals with how a man can find love and maintain his ethical beliefs and personal morals while spying on and being manipulated by his government, certainly underscores the risks one will take for true, romantic—perhaps unconditional—love.

Major motion picture movies, from the classic Casablanca starring Humphrey Bogart to the more recent Mr. and Mrs. Smith starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, have proven the marketability of romance in politics. But is a romantic thread necessary, or even feasible, in a modern-day political thriller? Only if you want to capture a larger share of the market. In 2012, the romance genre raked in nearly $1.5 billion dollars in sales, according to Business of Consumer Book Publishing 2013. What’s not to love about that?

What do you think, readers? Do lovers of historical fiction and political fiction enjoy a scoop of romance atop their thriller? If you’re a romance reader, do you appreciate the suspense and thrill of action—even actual history—that buoys a romantic thread and keeps it moving at a fast pace? Share your opinions here, and let’s examine the tightrope that carries us from the ledge of a thriller to one of romance.

Bruce Willis, 3000 Pairs of Boogie Shoes and Presidential Discotheques

I have to admit . . . I was a more than a little surprised to learn that David Byrne (former front man for the Talking Heads) has a new musical about Imelda Marcos and her disco dancing days. The musical is called “Here Lies Love” (reviewed here) and features actress Ruthie Ann Miles portraying the First Lady of the Philippines shaking her groove thang.

Of course, surprise is one of those emotions that comes often to me as I’m researching scenes for historically accurate writing, which is what led to Imelda’s disco scene in my fictional novel The President’s Gold. For example, I was surprised to learn, while researching the layout of the Marcoses’ Malacanang Presidential Palace, that Imelda had a discotheque built atop the palace.

Sure, I knew about her shoe fetish—who hasn’t heard that she owned over 3,000 pairs of designer shoes? But a custom-built disco hall in which to wear your boogie shoes? I mean, can you imagine what we’d say if Michelle Obama spent taxpayer dollars on a mirrored disco ball and private performances by top rock bands, as Imelda did during her tenure as First Lady of the Philippines?

Too bad Imelda no longer hosts private disco parties, because maybe, just maybe, she could invite Bruce Willis and his friends to entertain her with a Boy Dance Party, as seen this past weekend on NBC’s Saturday Night Live.

Research—and the surprising results to which it often leads writers—is one of the best parts of writing historically accurate scenes. What have you discovered recently when researching facts for your own stories? And while we’re at it, what do you think about a Presidential Palace with a private discotheque? Isn’t it amazing what stolen war gold can buy! 

 

–Don Kesterson