As I write this, my first novel, The Vaults, has not even hit the shelves yet (it will have by the time you read this). Once people learn that I have a novel being published, they are invariably curious. I think this is because the publishing process and world is so opaque to people outside of it. One of the questions that I get asked all of the time is where I get my ideas. The quick answer is that I read a lot of newspaper and magazine articles and try to remember the interesting stuff. I have a file of newspaper and magazine clippings that I kept in the nineties and early OOs, which seems pretty quaint these days when you can access just about anything via the web. I say that I get my ideas this way, but this shouldn’t be confused with the actual research that I do once I have the idea or, as is generally the case, ideas.
Let me give you an example of how this worked with The Vaults. Back in the mid-90s, about seven or eight years before I wrote The Vaults, I read an article in The New Yorker by Gerald Posner about the Berlin Document Center. The essence of the story was that the Berlin Document Center contained a large percentage of the captured Nazi files (an incredible number of documents) and, though housed in Germany, had been controlled by the U.S., which had allowed easy access for scholars and journalists. The article was written just before control of the archives was turned over to the newly reunited German government.
This caused a great deal of concern because the German laws regarding access to the archives were far more restrictive than the U.S. policies. As a hedge against the anticipated restrictions, the U.S. copied every document onto microfilm to be kept in the U.S. and made available under previous policies. What really caught my attention were the protests raised by scholars who claimed that the black and white microfilm images wouldn’t be adequate replacements for the actual files. For instance, many documents were out-of-order and only by lining up staple holes could they be accurately reconstructed. Black and white film also lost crucial bits of information, such as the color of pen in which remarks were written. (Ink from a green pen figures in The Vaults and I was surprised to find in rereading the Posner article a couple of months ago that he specifically mentions green ink – the color used by Himmler for his comments.)
The twin ideas of a huge trove of information and the “meta-data” that could be discovered in physical files inspired the creation of the Vaults of the title, an enormous repository of criminal records overseen by an archivist who is obsessed with the minutiae of the documents. This is the foundation on which The Vaults was constructed. From here, I conducted focused research on the 1920s and the 30s, the legendary gangsters of the time, and other period topics that add richness and detail to the story.
I’ve tweaked this technique as I’ve written new books. My second book, which will be published in the fall of 2011, is influenced by reading I did for a course in cults I took while pursuing my masters. I augmented this with reading books by and about anti-communists in the 1950s. I knew that my third book, which I am currently writing, needed to take place in the 1960s and this was the starting point for my reading. This effort continues to involve reading the works of radical theorists and about the exploits of people like Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary. It is one of the nice things about writing novels, feeling obligated to read about things you find interesting.
This article was written by Toby Ball whose novel The Vaults will be released by St. Martin’s Press on Tuesday, September 14, 2010.