Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The joys of research

I’m at sixes and sevens over what to write today for my weekly posting.

When I wrote that first sentence, I realized that this was a phrase I've heard numerous times over the years and yet I had no clear meaning about what it actually means (“the dictionary definition”, as it were) nor from where it came. Time for the Internet to come to my rescue.

I'll leave it to you to look up if you wish (start with Chaucer), but the process is called research, and for me, it one of the joys of doing anything of an intellectual nature.

It's also an absolutely perfect day here in southern Ontario, coolish, bit of a breeze, nice blue sky, the picture postcard of a lovely summer day.

Put together, I thought of some of my past research trips for the novels I’ve written. Being in a storytelling mood, maybe a good post would be to describe one of the more memorable ones.

This took place in March 1996 in Vienna. My wife, assistant, travel companion and translator Vicki and I were visiting the Schönbrunn Palace which was the Habsburg’s quaint, little “summer residence” – all 1441 rooms of it.

Yeah, we were there partly to do a bit of sightseeing, because its rococo splendour is really something to behold. But it was also part of my research for Cemetery of the Nameless a title that was “given” to me by a Viennese gendarme (but that’s another story for another post). What I was looking for was a location for the novel's climatic scene. Before traveling to Vienna, I had been thinking of using the Vienna Phil’s concert hall in the Musikverein. A quick visit there showed me it wasn’t suitable.

What to do?

Time to pull out our Baedeker Guide and find something more suitable. (Never travel without Baedeker, I always say.) I remember being immediately intrigued by the fact the emperor of Austria's cottage boasted 1441 rooms.

The palace — let's call it what it is, okay? — is truly spectacular. As we traveled through it, our jaws on the floor, I noticed a security guard coming out of a door hidden in a wall. What’s back there? I thought.

So I asked a guard (with Vicki’s help since her German is pretty decent) and he told us, “The servant’s hallways and rooms.” Of course the Emperor, his family and guests wouldn't want to see such mundane things as linen closets, kitchens and storage rooms, so they built these things out of sight in the centre of the building or between the “official rooms”.

“How do we get back there?”

“It is closed to the public.”

“Who could I speak to about it?”

“Herr Direktor, I suppose,” the guard answered, “but he will not allow you entry.”

With directions how to find the Direktor's offices in the basement, off we headed. You see, traveling through the Empress Elisabeth’s private bedroom, I’d spotted something intriguing, something where you might hide a great treasure and where you could be assured no one would look. And this was just what the ending of my novel revolved around. It was just (possibly) too perfect.

If I could only get back into the servant’s area. The way I had it figured, the worst I could be told was to get out. It wouldn't hurt to at least try.

We got to the Direktor’s office and I gave his secretary my calling card — something quite distinct from the usual business card, and something I'd been told to carry, so I'd made up a couple of dozen before leaving home. I explained to her what I would like permission to do. She disappeared into the Direktor’s office with my card, and came out a few moments later. “Sit here. Herr Direktor will see you in a few minutes.”

Maybe I was in? Ten minutes later, we were seated in his office again explaining that I was writing a crime novel set in Vienna and the climax of it might well be behind the walls of the Schönbrunn. I was flipping my calling card in his fingers while I spoke. Finally, he jumped to his feet, retrieved a huge ring of keys from a closet, and said, “Off we go!”

For the next hour we got a personal, literally behind-the-scenes look at this huge building. He was a delightful tour guide with an encyclopedic knowledge of the building and its history.

And miraculously, that is how I got exactly what I needed to build a really amazing climactic scene for Cemetery.

I can’t tell you what it was. You’ll just have to read the novel.


Sybil Johnson said...

I've been to the palace. Quite beautiful. How wonderful that you got a tour of areas most people don't get to see! Now I'm going to have to read that book!

Rick Blechta said...

Cemetery of the Nameless was my “favourite child” for a long time, and for reasons such as the one I outlined in my post. How the novel got its name is also really interesting. In a nutshell, a policeman I was speaking to for an entirely different research reason told me about a place on the outskirts of Vienna where bodies that wind up in the Danube River (for various reasons) tended to turn up. There’s a small cemetery there where bodies that could not be identified were laid to rest. It’s called Friedhof der Namenlosen. Click Here for more info.

If I hadn’t mentioned something to this cop, I never would have heard about this place, allowing me to have a great opening scene in the book, and probably the best title of any of my novels.

As I said, there’s nothing like research!

Anonymous said...

Wow! That is a great story.

Rick Blechta said...

Thanks, Cynthia. I'm very pleased you enjoyed the post.

I was very, very lucky that day -- and several other days on that trip.

I also made one of the worst decisions of my life.

I needed information on the then-current state of the old Austrian nobility. Someone introduced me to a lawyer, one of whose clients was the last Habsburg princess. He gave me all the information I needed after speaking with her. She told him to invite us to dinner at her apartment. Unfortunately, it was the day we were leaving.

I was teaching at the time, so knowing that being back late from a holiday (it was March Break) is frowned upon with great frowning, we regretfully declined the invitation and got on the plane the next morning. As the plane started moving, I looked at my wife and said, "What the hell was I thinking? We're never going to get another dinner invitation like this!!! It was worth just lying to the school board (our flight got cancelled, we lost our tickets, we were kidnapped by gypsies, whatever), paying for changing our airline tickets, renting a tux and a gown, and then enjoying an evening to remember.

Worst part was, the school I taught at that first morning back cancelled all my classes because of an assembly I hadn't been told about!

Talk about bone-headed decisions. What a great opportunity I threw away for what would have been an unforgettable finish to a really amazing research trip.