Today, I’m delighted to welcome Malve von Hassell to the blog with a post about her new book The Amber Crane.
I appreciate M J Porter’s question about the process that I use when researching and writing my historical fiction works.
At risk of being laughed out of court, I admit that my process is a jumble – almost a scattershot approach with frequent journeys down endless tunnels in search of an answer for a particular detail and not by any means a cohesive, thorough, or systematic process. In all my books to date, my initial inspiration involved a particular image or a character that excited my interest, and I ended up building a story around that.
For instance, in The Falconer’s Apprentice, my original hook for further research was De Arte Venandi cum Avibus, a remarkable compendium about falconry penned by Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, Holy Roman Emperor, in the 13thcentury. Alina: A Song for the Telling began to take shape in my mind thanks to an accidental discovery of a historical character, Stephen de Sancerre, whose life trajectory intrigued me. The Amber Crane had its origins in my recollection of legends about amber that I had heard in my childhood.
I am not a historian. However, my background and work experiences have provided me with some tools that come in handy when writing historical fiction. I have worked as a translator for many years, and I have also worked as an anthropologist.
As a translator one learns to dissect words and to be appreciative of the cultural context of expressions and phrases where a mere literal translation utterly fails to convey the meaning. As a writer of historical fiction one needs to be wary of using terms that are not appropriate to the time one is writing about and has to take care not to inject too much of one’s own language usage and thought processes into a context where such would have been unlikely. Meanwhile, don’t get me wrong—it is one thing to know and understand this challenge and another entirely to work accordingly. I have failed repeatedly at sticking to this goal.
I have also studied anthropology and completed research projects in that field. The best anthropologists are by definition historians, willing to keep digging, to consider innumerable details, and to look at the entirety of a situation from as many angles as possible before writing up a description or study of a particular society or community. Anthropologists when doing fieldwork try to cover as much ground as possible and to talk to as many people as possible in order to get all sides of a story.
The processes of writing an anthropological study, a historical study, or a work of fiction involve a similar element. All three attempt to arrive at the portrayal of a truth as much as that is possible while telling a compelling story. In order to convey that truth as the author sees it, the author must select and perhaps also discard elements in order to assemble the work. That process of selection is, of course, subjective, and the final product is by definition only a partial truth. Therein lies the dilemma of authors and at the same time a tremendous wealth of opportunity in that there is always yet another story to be told or another way to tell a story and to get at a truth.
In writing historical fiction, I try to apply some of the same principles of research as I used as an anthropologist. That means paying attention to the context as a multilayered set of dynamics, reading as much as possible, ideally in the language of the place and the era, and drawing on original sources.
When I began to work on The Amber Crane, I had some of this covered in that German is my native language and my original sources included personal accounts by various relatives.
Meanwhile, I have two main “go to” resources.
One resource in my opinion classifies as a national treasure, that is, the spectacular public library system in the US. The research library in New York City is publically available, and one can find everything, and if one can’t find it, one can order it from another library somewhere in the United States. You can draw on this resource anywhere. I can go to my local library and obtain materials from thousands of miles away from home. This is a luxury I cannot emphasize enough, and it is all available without any sort of special admission or qualification or association with a university.
I am somewhat old-fashioned and averse to many advances in technology. Thus, it pains me to admit this, but I would not want to miss the Internet for any present or future writing project. Not only does it offer starting points when researching any given subject and excellent opportunities for armchair traveling and exploration, but more importantly it is a vehicle for connecting with other writers and researchers all over the world. Such contacts, interactions, feedback, and support are critical for writers.
Thank you so much for sharing such a fascinating post with me. Good luck with your new book.
Here’s the blurb:
Chafing at the rules of the amber guild, Peter, an apprentice during the waning years of the Thirty Years’ War, finds and keeps a forbidden piece of amber, despite the risk of severe penalties should his secret be discovered.
Little does he know that this amber has hidden powers, transporting him into a future far beyond anything he could imagine. In dreamlike encounters, Peter witnesses the ravages of the final months of World War II in and around his home. He becomes embroiled in the troubles faced by Lioba, a girl he meets who seeks to escape from the oncoming Russian army.
Peter struggles with the consequences of his actions, endangering his family, his amber master’s reputation, and his own future. How much is Peter prepared to sacrifice to right his wrongs?
References to rape, Holocaust, World War II, violence
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Meet the Author
Malve von Hassell is a freelance writer, researcher, and translator. She holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from the New School for Social Research. Working as an independent scholar, she published The Struggle for Eden: Community Gardens in New York City (Bergin & Garvey 2002) and Homesteading in New York City 1978-1993: The Divided Heart of Loisaida (Bergin & Garvey 1996). She has also edited her grandfather Ulrich von Hassell’s memoirs written in prison in 1944, Der Kreis schließt sich – Aufzeichnungen aus der Haft 1944 (Propylaen Verlag 1994). She has taught at Queens College, Baruch College, Pace University, and Suffolk County Community College, while continuing her work as a translator and writer. She has self-published two children’s picture books, Letters from the Tooth Fairy (2012/2020) and Turtle Crossing (2021), and her translation and annotation of a German children’s classic by Tamara Ramsay, Rennefarre: Dott’s Wonderful Travels and Adventures (Two Harbors Press, 2012). The Falconer’s Apprentice (namelos, 2015) was her first historical fiction novel for young adults. She has published Alina: A Song for the Telling (BHC Press, 2020), set in Jerusalem in the time of the crusades, and The Amber Crane (Odyssey Books, 2021), set in Germany in 1645 and 1945. She has completed a biographical work about a woman coming of age in Nazi Germany and is working on a historical fiction trilogy featuring Adela of Normandy.
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