Like most first-time novelists, I sat eagerly in front of my computer when the day arrived to begin writing. I set upon the desk next to me a cup of tea and the trusty thesaurus I’ve used since high school, and then… I froze. The story opens in Hamburg, Germany in the early 20th century with my protagonist as a boy sitting on the floor playing with a toy. But what toy? I could guess, of course—let my imagination paint in the details of the outline I had drawn in my head. But for my novel to be effective as a work of historical fiction, it had to be authentic.
I couldn’t write the first sentence, let alone the first paragraph or chapter without knowing how the apartment of a wealthy merchant family would be furnished. My characters couldn’t amble the city streets unless somehow I walked with them, listening to the peddlers bellowing from their carts or the trolleys careening down the cobblestone. It also would be helpful, I realized, to know where they were headed.
A time machine would have come in handy. Short of that, I had to build my own. An antique map of the city soon became my computer desktop’s background. Photo archives and historic videos on YouTube provided a vertical and three-dimensional picture. I mined for more details in books and documents—some long forgotten—borrowed from faraway libraries. Another treasure trove was online auction and ephemera sites. Where else could you easily find a dinner menu from a cruise ship that sailed in 1935? Or a German toy from 1910?
There remained some information that couldn’t be gleaned from paper or an electronic archive. One day I decided to take a stroll with one of my characters or, more specifically, as one of my characters. I noticed he holds his head quite high, and as a result observes things that are well above most people’s usual sight line. I learn so much from my jaunts with him and the others. They always seem to know where they’re going, and I’m always surprised where they lead.
Denise DiFulco is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Ladies’ Home Journal and numerous other online and print publications. She is currently working on her first novel based on her family’s experiences in Germany, Colombia and Cuba during the early 1900s. For more information go to http://www.denisedifulco.com/.