Search, and Re-search

Maybe the problem is, I need to embrace my inner A. S. Byatt.  Her 2009 Booker Prize shortlisted novel Children’s Story is, in addition to being a gorgeously written book, a huge information dump of Life Among the Fabians at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.  Fairy tale publishing, politics, sexual mores, pedagogy, the chemistry of ceramic glazes, Victorian clothing, life in the trenches—the number of note-cards that went into the making of this book could fill a small park with trees.

I, however, write crime fiction.  Research is great and good, particularly since what I write is often historical crime fiction, but the hard reality of genre fiction is that publishers really, really like you keep to a schedule, ideally a book a year.  And a person can only fill so many note-cards before she has run out of time to write the actual book.

Take the novel I’m working on now (yes, take it, please.)  I decided that Morocco was just too great a place to limit its use to one small portion of Pirate King, so I sent my characters off into the country to see what mischief they could get up to.  Which, you may be pleased to hear, is plenty, but this also has involved seeing what was going on in there at the time.

Which led me to a gentleman by the name of Maréchal Hubert Lyautey (who, oddly enough, has a Facebook page), the French Resident-General of the Protectorate, as extraordinary a person as Palestine’s Edmund Allenby.  Lyautey was appointed to head the French presence in Morocco in 1912.  Under his supervision, the country went from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century, with a remarkable and unexpected degree of sensitivity.  (He later became a Fascist, but we’re talking about Morocco.)

So, as with Allenby in O Jerusalem, I would like Lyautey to pass through the novel.  And there are various biographies on him, memoirs that mention him, even videos of the man (at the 1:45 point):


However, it is typical of research in a place like Fez that actually locating the house that the Maréchal lived in becomes a tricky venture, leading down the slippery slopes from the noble heights of True Research to the Slough of Internet Despond.

There’s a lovely place in the heart of the Fez medina called Dar Mnehbi, now a restaurant and venue for musical evenings, that proudly declares itself to have been the residence of Maréchal Lyautey.  A would-be researcher’s footing becomes somewhat shaky with the gradual realization that there are two Dar Mnehbis, one of them in Marrakech, 250 miles to the south, and that most places online make no particular attempt to differentiate between the two.  But fine, there are pictures of one that do not match pictures of the other, and gradually the true Dar emerges.

However.  One of the earliest descriptions of Lyautey’s residence is in Edith Wharton’s laudatory description of her 1917 (state-sponsored) trip through Morocco, where she refers to “Bou-Jeloud, the old summer-palace of the Sultan’s harem, now the house of the Resident-General, where lodgings had been prepared for us.”  There follows a lyrical description of the extensive gardens, an unlikely accoutrement to a house buried within the crowded Fez medina.  Similarly, the Andre Maurois biography of the Maréchal starts with Lyautey’s entry into Fez, on the heels of a revolt and with the hill tribes pushing into the city, saying: “Lyautey was led to the palace which he was to occupy, the Dar Menehbi.”  Yet he later writes: “One day when Madame Lyautey was receiving some English visitors, she saw a throng of Moors entering the courtyard of Bou-Jeloud” to gather under the Maréchal’s window.

Having spent some hours with maps (maps of Fez being just what you’d expect of a town of some half a million residents with 9,000 teensy streets too narrow for cars: and GPS?  I laugh.) I can safely say that Dar Mnehbi is not at Bou-Jeloud.  Which means I need to research the palace of Bou-Jeloud, first to see if it is or is not the same as the royal palace adjoining the Bou Jeloud gardens, and then to see if I can figure out whether or not Lyautey shifted around, depending on his needs at the time.  And also to answer the question, Why on earth would a newly arrived general be settled into a house that was deep inside a walled and largely inaccessible medina, with an enemy already in the process of infiltrating that very medina?  And to decide if answering those questions is worth burying myself inside the various collections of letters and biographies (other than the four or five sitting on my shelf at the moment) which are invariably written in French.

The next step being, of course, to ask local experts, although that always seems like cheating, or perhaps an admission of defeat.

I am not, you understand, writing a biography of Hubert Lyautey.  This is a novel, one in which Hubert Lyautey plays a very minor part.  This is a novel, in which I need to decide whether or not to have a conversation take place in a garden, or in a tiled courtyard.  This is a novel, with half a dozen other characters whose multiple biographies sit on my shelf, set in half a dozen other places whose details are equally slippery to pin down: Which of two men with nearly identical names went to see a third man in late 1924?  Is X built of brick or stone?  (And yes, it matters a lot to the physics of the plot.)  Can one see the walls of Fez from Y?  Where did the railway lines reach in December, 1924?

I tell myself that it does not matter, that I am avoiding work, not investing in it.  I tell myself that if I spend an entire day trying to figure out if said X has any stone or not and still can’t decide, the number of people who will read the book and fling it against the wall in a pique before posting a scathing blog about the universal untrustworthiness of my writing because I’ve guessed wrong (brick? stone?) are relatively few.  I tell myself to get on with the plot, for God’s sake, or the book will never end and it won’t matter whether X was made of brick or stone or saltines glued together with peanut butter because I’ll be living on the street and hanging around libraries, using their free Internet connection to hunt down one more dim photograph that seems to indicate…

And yet, the note-cards pile up.


  1. Traci Barela on May 18, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    Morocco was the first country to recognize the U.S. with a treaty…. 1777
    1778 a ratified treaty… which is still longest held treaty between the U.S. and any other country…

    I can help with note cards. ;^)

    • Laurie King on May 18, 2011 at 1:22 pm

      Yep, that treaty is mentioned in the book.

  2. Alisa Callos on May 18, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    I laughed when I read this post. I can so relate to what you’re going through. The compulsion I feel, as a writer to be historically accurate, can be maddening. At the same time however, it feels very good when I do nail the facts, and get it right. Those of us who love your books appreciate the extra mile you go to make the story real.

  3. Aaron Lazar on May 19, 2011 at 7:04 am

    Oh, Laurie. You make my head spin, and motivate me at the same time. I guess this is why I always tend to write books set in places and times I know intimately, or at least have visited. (1964, Europe, Maine, FingerLakes, Adirondacks.) God bless you!!!

  4. Pat Floyd on May 19, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    How frustrating it is to feel the pressure of time while still wanting to get one’s framework firmly in place. Most of my work has been with quarterly publications, which adds to the stress. Once when we were pushing a deadline my very meticulous assistant disappeared for the whole morning. He was in the library trying to find out the present-day value of a first century coin that we mentioned only once. It is so easy to get lost in research. We could say with Andrew Marvell, “Had we but world enough, and time. . .”

  5. KarenB on May 20, 2011 at 4:39 am

    Much sympathy as I, too, have gotten lost in the intricacies of research and don’t even have a book I’m writing as an excuse. I would recommend taking a deep breath and saying, “I’m a writer, a writer of fiction. My job is to MAKE THINGS UP!” Rinse and repeat as necessary. The vast majority of your readers, while appreciating your historical accuracy, will not worry whether the house is stone or brick or saltines with peanut butter (well, we might cavil at that!), we would simply like you to get on with the book! Good luck!

  6. Lenore on May 20, 2011 at 6:48 am

    Although I am sympathetic to the problem, occasionally suffering through it myself (When do I stop reading cases and write the damn brief?!), I’m voting in favor of as much research as you need. I’m one of those readers who screams in frustration at errors a writer could have avoided by looking something up. Mountains north of Paris? (Dan Brown — who also puts streets in the wrong sections of Paris — can’t the guy even read a map?) Religiously observant medieval Jews eating eels? (Ariana Franklin) Tell your editor that your readers need to know you have it right!

  7. The Bold Flying Officer on May 20, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    The devil has always been in the detail, whether you write fiction or fact. I applaud your tenacity, Dear Lady. It shows in your work – and I have to remember that Mrs Holmes is American, so would say “conductor” and not “guard”. (A very small detail, m’dear.) I can’t help this trail but please don’t give up.

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