Writing Historical Mystery: Research, Setting, Plot, and Character Development with Author Luke McCallin

Posted by September 26th, 2013

The_Man_From_Berlin_cover Luke McCallin’s debut mystery novel, THE MAN FROM BERLIN, is a deep dive into the shadowy world of the Nazi occupational police forces in Sarajevo in World War II. The story, the first in a series, introduces us to Captain Gregor Reinhardt, a classic lone wolf investigator up against incredible institutional odds: No one–from the higher echelons of the Nazi war machine to the local police force–wants the truth about the grisly murder of a top Nazi officer and a politically active local journalist to come out. I chatted with the author about writing historical mystery: his research process, plotting strategies, and the ways he made his complicated setting easily accessible to the reader.

LS: What was it about Sarajevo that made it such a compelling area to write about? Did you have a formal research process as you wrote?

LM: My interest in Bosnia began at university, and when I had the chance to go and work there, I jumped at it. I lived in Sarajevo with my family for four of the six years I spent in Bosnia, and you can’t live in Bosnia or Sarajevo for long without it seeping into you. Bosnia really is a historical and cultural crossroads, and it’s so contested. It defies any simple explanation, just like the finest puzzle or book or question. A place and time like that gives you so many options as an author, for drama, action, reflection, for asking big questions and trying out the answers to them.

For much of my time there, I was a political advisor to the United Nations mission, which was mandated to reform the country’s police forces and judiciary. I spent a lot of time with people from all walks of Bosnian life. Not just policemen and judges and lawyers, but mayors and town councilors, with priests and imams, with refugees and people still living in ruins, with war criminals and those who survived them, with those who lived the war and those who fled from it, with women holding families together, and men who had fallen adrift of life. I began to build up a collage in my mind. I kept wondering, asking myself, what would I have done in their place, and I began weaving that fantastic human and historical tapestry, which is one of the most complex and fascinating you can imagine, into the book.

So, I suppose, no, I didn’t have a formal research process as I wrote. I knew a lot already, what I didn’t know I found easily enough. I used to think the novel could have been written in any number of places. It was originally to be in Berlin, a city about which I know nothing and to which I have never been when I thought of moving it to Sarajevo, it just seemed to fit so well. It made the research not only effortless, but so enjoyable, especially when the research began to validate so much of what I thought and felt about what I had seen and heard during my time there.

LS: I noticed that you included a historical note and cast of characters at the end of the book, as well as a table explaining Nazi Wehrmacht and SS rank and pronunciation guide to Serbo-Croat words at the beginning. Tell us, why this type of explanatory detail is imperative for some books and not for others?

LM: A novel like this, in a place and time many people know very little about, some guidance can’t be wrong, and as a reader of these kinds of books myself, I always appreciated an author helping me along the way, if only to pronounce a name properly. I loved that feeling of being transported, but guided as well. You trust an author to guide you to a certain place, but after that, how you read the book, the impressions you take away, are wholly yours. You want the novel to be an interesting story, you want that connection with the characters and their times, but you also want that authenticity. You want to know the author has thought about where and when he’s writing about.

LS: THE MAN FROM BERLIN is a historical whodunit. Did you know from the start who the killer would be? Or did you figure this out as you were drafting the prose?

LM: I dreamt the story one night, and woke in the early morning with these vivid images in my mind. I couldn’t let this fade, and I scrabbled around for pen and paper to get the main points down. I had the murder scene, and I had a motive, and I had a character. I had Reinhardt. He just appeared to me, almost fully formed, like he had always been there, just over my shoulder. I think I can honestly say I was driven to write the story, even more so when I moved it to Sarajevo.

The exact culprit changed a few times, but he was always the man in the shadow, just behind the character I set the reader up to think was the killer. I knew that was important, and I think that was a conscious reaction to what I’d seen in Bosnia and elsewhere. That very often, the people at the top, or those you think are most responsible, are very often themselves manipulated, cocooned, cut off from the world by those around them, and very often there’s a curious symbiosis that develops as a result.

LS: Did you have an outline for writing THE MAN FROM BERLIN? How much revising did you have to do to make all the pieces of the mystery fit together?

THE MAN FROM BERLIN was nearly eleven years in the writing, but there were a lot of fallow periods, a lot of dark periods, and a lot of those periods coincided with angst about whether I should write this story, not whether I could. I spent a lot of time looking for a white knight, until I realized this was why my time in Bosnia was so important, and why moving the story there made such sense–white knights hardly ever exist. Instead, you have people, with all that makes them good and bad. I spent a lot of time going up blind alleys trying to research Berlin. And I almost packed it all in when I came across Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy, thinking they couldn’t be bettered.

On the mechanics of bringing it all together, I have to be honest, I just wrote as it seemed appropriate to me, and I was surprised as anyone that at the end of it all I had produced a novel, and I had managed to hit most of the points a novel’s supposed to hit. It never got more complicated than me carrying around a notebook and writing in it whenever anything came up, and keeping a detailed narrative outline going on the computer.

The hardest part was coping with the growing size and complexity of the novel. Moving it to Sarajevo opened the proverbial floodgates and I found I had so much to say. The characters and themes and issues just poured out, and keeping all that under control was difficult.

LS: THE MAN FROM BERLIN is the first in a series about Reinhardt. What are some strategies to create characters with a long shelf life?

LM: The watchwords to Reinhardt’s character and story are probably “change” and “consequence.” Reinhardt’s story is a thread woven into a tapestry of a continent in upheaval. He goes through those times initially just trying to keep his head above water and survive, but he changes. It’s impossible not to. I think you have to make people interested in those changes, interested in the consequences of those changes, and you have to make people believe Reinhardt has something to bring to the table, so to say. You need to make people care about him, and to survive is not enough.

What I wanted to do in creating and writing Reinhardt was to make people think that he could be you. An ordinary man in extraordinary times, still trying to behave and believe in what makes sense, but so painfully aware of his own fears and limitations, and still knowing what is right and what is wrong. If you give someone like that an opportunity to do something, be someone, what would he do? What would you do?

McCallin portraitLuke McCallin was born in 1972 in Oxford, grew up around the world, and has worked with the United Nations as a humanitarian relief worker and peacekeeper in the Caucasus, the Sahel, and the Balkans. His experiences have driven his writing, in which he explores what happens to normal people–those stricken by conflict, by disaster–when they are put under abnormal pressures. Visit him on his website or on Facebook at facebook.com/lukemccallinauthor.

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