Love & Treasure is an historical novel, set in two different time periods (and in the present), and in two different cities. The first section of the novel takes place in Salzburg in 1945 and 1946, in and around the Displaced Persons camps. When I made the decision to set part of the novel there, I had never been to Salzburg. I had no idea what the city looks like in the present, let alone what it looked like in the wake of World War 2. I had to build up a base of knowledge from absolute zero, which was actually not really that uncomfortable. I almost prefer to start a project knowing nothing, because then I can skip what is otherwise a necessary part of research: correcting my misapprehensions.
The final section of the novel takes place in Budapest, in the year before World War I. I’d been to Budapest, and was full of ideas of what the city must have been like back in 1913, so my work was a little harder when it came to that part of my research. I had a lot of mistakes to sweep away before I could get busy figuring out the truth of my story.
Though I did plenty of traditional research - reading articles and books, sifting through photo archives, interviewing witnesses (in the case of World War 2) - what I found most miraculously helpful in understanding the time periods and creating a believable world were ancient copies - on microfilm, in hard copy and (all too rarely) on the web - of magazines and newspapers. And while it’s true that the articles in those journals were often interesting, what I found most helpful, most fascinating, and frankly most astonishing, were the ads.
The women’s newspapers of Budapest were full of ads for clothing of the period, furnishings, and hats (so many hats!). All the typical kinds of ads we still find nowadays (on the rare occasions when we pick up a paper magazine). But what blew my mind was that in a socially restricted society where it was frowned upon for a young girl of good family to appear in public unchaperoned, the magazines were full of ads for abortifacients (“a ladies safe remedy” for the cure of “women’s special problems”) and even condoms! There were personal ads and pleas to attend meetings of societies devoted to eradicating sexual slavery and trafficking. (Either 1913 Budapest was truly an international hub of sex trafficking or the population had some intense, collective, erotic imaginations).
In Salzburg, I made similar use of the newspapers published by the Displaced Persons in the camps. Those ads were heartbreaking. In addition to pleas for information about lost relatives, they included notifications of, for example, the distribution of children’s shoes at a given hour at a given place. The bits and pieces for sale told a story of deprivation and tragedy. But there were also ads for movies and lectures, notifications of youth group meetings, and offers of employment.
I drove my research assistants crazy insisting that they translate all those advertisements word for word, but it was well worth the effort. So many of the details that make that make Love & Treasure (I hope) feel real and true come not from articles or photographs, or from other research, but from those ancient advertisements.
There is a give-away associated with this post. Yay!! It is U.S. only, but if you comment on this post you will be entered in a give-away to win a copy of Love and Treasure. The give-away ends July 23rd.