Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Researching a Historical Novel, a guest post by Holly Lynn Payne

Researching a Historical Novel
Holly Lynn Payne

To create three dimensional, almost holographic characters and story worlds, I believe you have to inhabit your story as if you are living it yourself. That's the only way I know how to draw authentic characters. I have to travel deep into the story world on the page and in real life. I'm a trained journalist so research is a natural part of my work, and often what I love most about it.

I usually spend time in the location of my story world first, regardless of the time period. My books are set in fairly exotic destinations, which is just a great excuse for me to explore new cultures. I spent a winter and summer in Dubrovnik, Croatia for The Sound of Blue, my second novel set during the Balkan War in the early 90s. I needed to see the landscape, architecture, the light, the foliage, all the colors, smells and sounds. I absorbed so much more than I could have ever learned in a book or online. I made some friends and was able to ask questions about the war that I would have never been able to learn otherwise. That level of human interaction is the most valuable resource for any book I write. I need to immerse myself in the place and get to know the people first and foremost, even if I have to leap back in time while I write.

When I was writing my first novel, The Virgin's Knot, I spent many months traveling through Turkey over the course of a few years. I needed to know about the rug producing regions and meet the weavers, because my protagonist was a famous weaver in the 1950s. This brought me to Konya, Turkey—home of the Whirling Dervishes. I ended up at Rumi's tomb in Konya.

At the time, I had no idea who Rumi was, what he had written or what he stood for. Everything changed after that day. I literally felt a charge in the air at the tomb of the tekke, the dervish monastery that's been converted into a museum, where millions of people visit each year to pay homage to the great poet and mystic. I couldn't believe I had no idea who Rumi was and I was eager to learn as much as I could when I returned to the United States. Fifteen years later, I ended up writing Damascena: The tale of roses and Rumi.

It was during my travels in Turkey when also had learned about rose oil production. I had a friend and colleague who was traveling with a group of aromatherapists on a mission to buy rose oil—a powerful healing agent. I saw an article in the Turkish magazine, Cornucopia. The pictures blew me away. I had never seen so many rose petals. It was gorgeous. The writer said something about being able to smell roses as far as one mile from the distilleries. I couldn't believe that it took nearly four tons of rose petals to distill one kilogram of rose oil. I also couldn't believe that rose oil was the binding agent for all perfumes and could not be synthetically reproduced. No wonder it cost nearly $1000 for a kilogram of rose oil. I was immediately hooked and compelled to travel to the world's most famous rose production region, Bulgaria's Valley of The Roses to learn as much as I could for Damascena.

One of the most magical travel experiences of my life happened during that trip. I hired a translator, a young woman my age, who had never set foot in any of her country's villages. She kept kidding me, calling me "Crazy American lady," when after befriending some of the rose pickers in a field, I accepted their invitation to pick with them at 4 a.m. the next day. They were actually joking with me but that's why I had come. I wanted to know what it was like to pick the rosa damascena, the kind of roses that yield the most power rose 'attar' oil in the world.

Picking rose petals required my translator to accompany me, and we ended up in one of the rose picker's houses, sleeping shoebox style in a single bed, head to feet and feet to head. In the middle of the night, we left with the other workers to pick roses on a full moon. We climbed into a truck bed, covered with canvas, sitting knees to chest with only the cherry embers of cigarettes flashing in the darkness. When we arrived at the field, the workers continued to smoke, which only slightly masked the intoxicating scent of roses all around us. I would have never had this experience if I hadn't prioritized traveling for research, and I'm so grateful I did.

This is where you can find Holly:

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 Book blurb:

Holly Payne's spellbinding tale brings the unparalleled poet, Mevlana Rumi, to life, and transports readers to the enchanting world of 13th century Persia. Simply but elegantly told, the story unravels the mystery surrounding a legendary orphaned girl, who discovers her gift of turning roses into oil. Named after the flowering rosa damascena, the girl reluctantly assumes the role of a living saint for the miracles she performs-longing for the only one that matters: finding her mother. Deeply wounded by the separation since birth, Damascena undergoes a riveting transformation when she meets Rumi and finally discovers the secret of the rose. Imbued with rich historical research and inspired by the devastating disappearance of Rumi's most lauded spiritual companion, Shams of Tabriz, Holly Payne has courageously opened herself to receive Rumi's teachings and offer a timeless love story. 
An excerpt of Damascena is available to read here:
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