Sunday, October 24, 2010

Researching the Historical Novel by Consuelo Saah Baehr

I am very pleased today to welcome Consuelo Saah Baehr, author of the historical sage, Daughters, speaking on researching the historical novel. Given my own years of research into medieval Scotland, I have really enjoyed hearing another author's experiences not only researching, but working the research smoothly into the story. Welcome, Consuelo!


When I began my historical saga, Daughters, I could just as easily been about to perform brain surgery. That is how inexperienced I was at research, never mind integrating world events and data into a smooth flowing narrative. My major qualification was that my paternal grandparents had grown up in a small village near Jerusalem (where my novel is set) and many relatives were still around to remember how things were done in the old days. I began with an oral history from both men and women. If there are people who still remember their own stories or stories they heard growing up, an oral history helps you get the minutiae of daily life down in an unselfconscious way. Oral history told me the terrain of the village, the crops the farmers grew, the growing season, when the harvests took place and how the villagers participated. I found out the kind of food they ate, the rhythm of the seasons and the way they spent their days and how they courted and married.

Jerusalem has always been a cosmopolitan city because of the pilgrims who flock to the Holy Places for all religions, and inevitably there were many travel books and memoirs written about it. Two of the most helpful books were Jerusalem Walks and the diaries of the Society of Friends. Jerusalem Walks pinpoints the Street and house number of stores, banks, publications, monasteries, churches etc. When you can name a Street or a specific spot, the reader feels comfortable.

In this passage, the father in Book One inherits a plot of land and grows some vegetables that he brings on a cart to sell in Jerusalem:

“By May he was able to bring his early crop to the Jaffa Gate and sell it alongside those of the other village farmers. The plaza outside Jaffa Gate was the busiest spot in all Jerusalem for here ended the well-traveled road from the ancient port city of Jaffa. Here, diligences, carriages bringing imported necessities and luxuries, discharged their passengers and goods. Mustafa fashioned a two-tiered cart with long handles to hold his produce and he and Miriam pushed it the ten miles from Tamleh every Wednesday. The spot they chose was at the foot of Suleiman Street in front of the French Hospital of St. Louis.

It was the thriving hub of the city. Jaffa Road, though still unpaved, had sidewalks. In just one small stretch, across from the Russian Compound, there was a branch of Barclay’s Bank, the Hughes Hotel, a specialty cobbler and several elegant shops and cafes. The Greek Consulate occupied spacious offices stop one building that housed a branch of the Russian Post Office below.”

Also invaluable were the diaries of the Society of Friends who began building schools in my fictional village in the 1850’s. With the help of the diaries, I knew precisely what day the British Protectorate ended and the area was left without a government, because the teachers heard the armies marching out at midnight and I could say that with certainty to my readers.

Toward the end of the First World War, when my fictional family has to leave the village to escape a famine and cholera, they walk across the Jordan to a monastery in En Salt. I was completely comfortable describing the terrain because I had read descriptions in several memoirs.

“It was so hot. The dust on the road attacked their throats and gagged them and they stopped speaking to conserve their saliva. Only Esa had energy and he skipped ahead sometimes running back to apprise them of some horny-headed lizard or chameleon he spotted on a rock. Toward afternoon of the next day, after stopping to rest at dawn, they reached the great depression of the Ghor that provided a bed for the Jordan. They passed many gorges into which the debris from the hillsides had tumbled creating a desolate wasteland. Most frightening of all were the narrow defiles with perpendicular sheets of striated cliffs on each side allowing no place to turn should they be attacked. Nadia crooned softly to herself and stuck her thumb in her mouth, lethargic from the heat and dehydration. The older boys and Nadeem took turns leading the donkey. Miriam kept her eye on Esa but her mind wandered and from time to time she became disoriented.

On first view, the Jordan appeared as a meandering ribbon of grass. There were muleteers who warned them of the muddy bottom but when their donkey began to slip and flounder and was in danger of drowning, the men made no move to help. Nadeem cut the animal loose from the packages and Miriam saw all of their belongings sink to the bottom. He saved only the food and although he submerged himself several times searching for the water skin, the men called out that it was useless. The strong current had already taken their cargo several miles. Nadeem led the donkey back and forth with each of them atop the animal. When they were all safely on the other side, he sat by himself, his wet clothes plastered around his thin body and wept into his hands.”

If you can use the name of the boat, the name of the street, the name of anything, it becomes much more authentic and valuable.

“Samir sailed from the port of Jaffa with twelve other passengers on a coal-burning cargo ship of the Khedevieh Line that was under British control. He left on September 11, allowing himself three weeks to make the trip and arrive in time for the fall term at the London School of Economics, which had become recognized as part of London University for the BSc degree in Economics. The ship dropped cargo at Naples and Lisbon and that was the last comfortable climate he was to know. The school was located in Aldwych just off The Strand and about a mile from Bloomsbury, the central University site. He was assigned a cold and drafty room on Fitzroy Street but it might as well have been off the face of the earth as he knew it.”

I felt very comfortable depicting the first meeting of an arranged marriage because I had heard it straight from my aunt’s mouth. In this scene the rebellious daughter is alone with the boy her parents have decided would be a good match. He has just asked a fatal question.

“Why do you want to go to such a rigorous school? My sister goes to Mar Yusef. It’s a good enough place.”

She looked at the boy as if he had spoken an obscenity. What made him an authority on what was good enough for her? It’s the best school in Palestine, “ she said firmly. “The American Consul says so and the British Consul agrees. Every visiting scholar makes it his business to stop by and lecture to us. Anyone who graduates can pass the London University Exam or the National Matriculation Exam. How can you ask such a question? If you had a choice between having something that was just so-so and having the best, which would you choose?”

The boy was frowning. He wasn’t expecting such aggression and it confused him. She could see he was deciding whether to be aggressive in return or to be polite. He sighed and shifted so that instead of sitting squarely on the couch, he was angled toward her. “How do you like to pass your time? Or perhaps you don’t have any free time in this fancy school.” He said “fancy” in a sarcastic way so she knew his feelings were hurt.

From out of nowhere she had this sense of freedom to say anything she pleased. It was wonderful not to care how someone reacted. “I pass my free time playing tennis. I’m mad for tennis.” She was trying for an off-hand brittleness precisely because it would annoy him.

“Tennis? Where you hit the ball back and forth?”

“Well . . . that’s not all of it.” To explain the finer points of the game would be useless. He would scoff. “How do you pass your free time?”

“I don’t have much of it,” he said proudly. “My father and I have the franchise for the Singer machines. Do you own a Singer? Do you sew?”

For any major event, I always researched at least two sources, especially for the passages of Bedouin life in the desert. I had to know it well enough to put one of my characters in the thick of it for an entire chapter. One of the main characters in Book Two is sent to become “a man” in the desert. By making Samir naive, the reader and I can ask a lot of questions:

“Why do you choose to live like this? Samir asked. It had occurred to him that Marwan’s father was wealthier than many of the villagers, yet this life held relentless hardship. They slept on the stony ground, chilled to the bone by night and suffocated during the day. Water was precious and rare for these were the driest days of the year and it would be two months before the rains began to replenish the water holes. Food was monotonous. The frothy salty camel milk fresh from the udder was repulsive but there was nothing else and he reluctantly began to tolerate it. The occasional meat was cooked so rare he couldn’t touch it yet the young men fought for the raw heart of any animal that was slaughtered. They guzzled the blood believing it gave them strength and virility. “Don’t you yearn for a different life?”

“Where else would I live? I was born here as was my father and his father before him.”

“But it’s so difficult. There’s a much easier way.” As he said this, anxiety rose in him. Would his father come back to claim him? And when?

Marwan laughed. “Easier for whom? We welcome the hardships of the desert. We love them.”

“But why?”

He answered with an innocence that made Samir ashamed for questioning. “We love the desert life because it is ours.”

But it is not mine, thought Samir with sadness.

One early morning, after the moon had set but while it was still dark, Marwan shook him. “We must ride into the wilderness,” he said and handed Samir a waterskin and some dried dates. Each rode a dromedary while two riderless mares cantered at their side and held by lines to the camel girths. A few miles out of the camp, Marwan, rifle in hand, flung himself from the camel onto the back of his mare, unslipped the line and raced off in a cloud yelling wildly. Samir made three attempts to do the same but fell twice. He couldn’t ride bareback and found himself gripping with his thighs for dear life. He reached Marwan who was casually pitching stones at a pile of bleached animal bones.

“I thought you were in danger,”’ shouted Samir.

“You were supposed to ride as if danger were near,” said Marwan coolly.

“I almost broke my back. Who ever heard of riding a blasted horse without a saddle! And jumping on him at that!”

“It’s the way it is done.”

“It’s a good way to kill yourself.”

“It’s the way we ride for the gazu, the raid,” he said stubbornly. “It is the way we move our camps. It is the way we protect our grazing areas and our flocks. In order to survive in the desert you must be ready to move swiftly from the camel to the war mare. It is the only way to be a man. We must try it again until it is as easy as walking.”

Samir rubbed his back. He thought: I’m never going to be in a raid. I’m not going to move a camp. One day I will return to my home. Yet Marwan was already retying his line to try again. They worked all day on the maneuver and Samir was enticed by the spectacular look of the transfer when it was accomplished properly. Using the left wrist to launch himself, Marwan lifted both legs up and to the right then swung gracefully between the two animals and landed squarely on the back of the mare, unhitching the line at the same instant he spurred the horse. Then came the wild yell of freedom. The thrill of speed atop the most splendid horses in the world, the “drinkers of the wind.”

In the end, after two years of exhausting research and re-writing, I was proud of the book that resulted. Daughters was translated into fifteen languages and received excellent reviews.


Consuelo Saah Baehr was born in El Salvador to French/Palestinian parents. At age five she joined her father and five uncles in Washington, D.C. where they ran the prestigious boutique department store, Jean Matou, a favorite of Bess Truman and Jackie Kennedy. Convent boarding schools came next and George Washington University. After college she began writing advertising copy for the Macy Corp. Marriage and three children followed and the writing was silent until a stunning Op-Ed piece in The New York Times brought a flurry of offers from book publishers. The result was the personal memoir, Report From The Heart (Simon & Schuster). Four novels followed: Best Friends (Delacorte/Dell); Nothing To Lose (Putnam's); Daughters (Delacorte/Dell) and 100 Open Houses soon to be a Kindle original.

Daughters, a historical family saga set in pre-war Jerusalem, has been translated into 15 languages. It was published as a Kindle book in late August.


About Daughters:

“Engrossing…the story Baehr tells touches so deeply one is tempted to reread each page.” Chicago Tribune
"No fiction that I have read has illuminated the nation that was Palestine through the medium of the family saga … as does this absorbing novel. Like a landscape painter, Baehr skillfully paints the background and it becomes a palpable experience. I for one long to know what has happened to the village and its families in the last forty years."

--Washington Post Book World

"Daughters is a big book in every sense ; a long, richly textured novel filled with wonderful characters and an extraordinary sense of historical detail. Consuelo Saah Baehr has written a blockbuster with a heart.”

--Susan Isaacs, author of Almost Paradise and Shining Through.

“A tapestry of complex fully-developed characters whose lives are filled with challenges and struggles.”

--Chicago Sun Times

“Sweeping, uncommonly stirring!”

--Publishers Weekly

From the one room dwellings of a tiny village near Jerusalem to the elegant town houses of Georgetown; from a world steeped in ancient traditions to a world of independent women comes this multi-layered novel of the lives, loves, secrets and strivings of three generations of Palestinian Christian women.

Miriam Mishwe is born into a world that hasn’t changed for centuries – rural Palestine in the last years of the 19th century. She marries a man chosen by her family but the world she sees as unchangeable is on the verge of upheaval.

Nadia is Miriam’s daughter. Sent to a local British school, she adopts many modern ideas but is not ready to renounce her heritage. It is Nadia’s child, Nijmeh, who looks to the west and calls herself by her English name, Star, when she goes to live in America. There she faces problems unknown in her childhood world of brooding hills and desert and brilliant skies.

Daughters is an unforgettable novel about courage, love and hope; and about two worlds – one ancient, one modern – and the extraordinary women who bridge them.

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