Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Plotting the Novel, Murder on the Danube

William S. Shepard

            “Murder On The Danube” was a story that I wanted to tell. The heroic days of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 had thrilled the world, and I wanted that story to be known by a new generation. When I was assigned to the American Embassy in Budapest as Political Officer in the early 1970s, however, the country was still under a Communist regime, and research into the period was impossible. It was even dangerous for Hungarian citizens to be seen talking with Western diplomats, let alone telling their story of this famous uprising.

            Years later I left the Foreign Service and became a writer. I began to plan the novel, which would incorporate the Hungarian Revolution as a backdrop for a present day murder. I must confess that the film, “The English Patient,” had made quite an impression on me. I wanted also to have a memorable love affair in the back story of this novel set in Budapest.

            The initial problem was how to portray the Revolution itself. Those who knew it knew those thirteen days from October 23 to November 4, 1956, intimately, every detail remaining etched in their memories. Would I have flashbacks from time to time? That struck me as confusing for the modern reader. At the same time, I had to give enough detail so that the reader who didn’t have knowledge of those days would acquire it. The problem bothered me for several months. Finally, an inspired comment from a high school student in a seminar on creative writing that I was giving provided the answer. He suggested that at the end of each chapter, I set forth what happened in one day of the Revolution itself. With this insight, the structure of the novel began to take shape.

            Those chapter end segments would, of course, have to be tied together to the main plot line. Why not have their development parallel what was going on in the main story? Then it occurred to me – the best way for both the current story and the background to fit together would be for the same characters to fit in both. If I told the story of a small group of Freedom Fighters, for example, one traitor on the group could also be the murderer in the present day story – he or she would kill to avoid the truth coming out.

            This is where the plotting came in, and it lasted for months. I did charts and time lines for each character, when he or she was with other members of the resistance group, and when alone. And then, with a good time line in the form of a memoir by the group’s leader, I couldn’t resist having him mistaken on several key details! Unlocking those unplanned errors would be the job for my diplomatic sleuth, Robbie Cutler.

            Of course, clearly I would have the final manuscript vetted by a veteran of that heroic street fighting. But I had to master the details, and so with the assistance of the Hungarian Embassy in Washington I visited Budapest and went to the 1956 Historical Institute, where I held a seminar on the period, and in turn received a thorough, day by day briefing on the street fighting.

            And so the novel began to take shape, the back story developing nicely, and the contemporary story gave me an opportunity to have the reader discover today’s Hungary – with even a peep over the Romanian border for a scene or two in Transylvania! For fun, I also introduced a ranking Australian diplomat who escaped Hungary in 1957, became a distinguished Australian citizen, and has now returned to Budapest – to find who murdered his brother during the 1956 uprising!

            All was now ready for the conclusion, when the entire process ground to an unexpected stop. How was I going to have Cutler find out who was the traitor in 1956, when all of the records from the period have been officially sealed? I checked this out with the Hungarian Embassy, and found that this policy had been rigidly followed. They did not want the murders and cries for vengeance that had followed when other former communist nations had opened their records from the period.

            For a month or so I was stuck. Then the solution occurred to me out of the blue – I remembered Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.” Sometimes the solution to the most difficult of problems is really right in front of you, in plain sight!
William S. Shepard

            Now residents of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the Shepards enjoy visits from their daughters and granddaughters, fine and moderate weather, ocean swims at Assateague, Chesapeake Bay crabs, and the company of Rajah and Rani, their two rescued cats.

            Prize winning mystery writer William S. Shepard is the creator of a new genre, the diplomatic mystery, whose plots are set in American Embassies overseas. That mirrors Shepard’s own career in the Foreign Service of the United States, during which he served in Singapore, Saigon, Budapest, Athens and Bordeaux, in addition to five Washington tours of duty.

            His books explore this rich, insider background into the world of high stakes diplomacy and government. He evokes his last Foreign Service post, Consul General in Bordeaux, in Vintage Murder, the first of the series of four “diplomatic mysteries.” The second, Murder On The Danube, now also available on Kindle, mines his knowledge of Hungary and the 1956 Revolution. In Murder In Dordogne Robbie Cutler, his main character, is just married, but their honeymoon in the scenic southwest of France is interrupted by murders. The most recent of the series, The Saladin Affair, has Cutler transferred to work for the Secretary of State. Like the author, Cutler arranges trips on Air Force Two – now enlivened by serial Al Qaeda attempts to assassinate the Secretary of State.

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1 comment:

William S. Shepard said...

Many thanks for the blogpost - looks very good inded, and I'd be glad to comment on any questions received.