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Fact Into Fiction: How To Make Research Resonate by Ausma Zehanat Khan

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Ausma Zehanat Khan

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When you write a story that closely follows real life events, it’s important to ground your book in the facts without letting those facts overwhelm the emotional connection you hope a reader will develop with your story.

So how does a writer strike that balance particularly with a book like No Place of Refuge, which is a crime novel about a double murder connected to the Syrian refugee crisis? Given that the refugee crisis is intrinsically linked to the war in Syria, the sheer amount of information I had to contend with often seemed overwhelming, so the first thing I did was to spend time simply reading. As I read, I began to realize what material was relevant and what wasn’t, so there was a period of winnowing down to focus on what would soon become the heart of the story.

In No Place of Refuge, detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty, have a personal connection to the refugee crisis. A childhood friend of Esa’s named Audrey has disappeared from the Greek island of Lesvos where she ran a resettlement NGO. With her disappearance, Audrey has become implicated in the murder of a French Interpol agent and a young Syrian refugee. As Esa and Rachel struggle to uncover the truth, they witness firsthand the shocking scope of the refugee crisis from the camps on the Greek islands to the capitals of Europe.

I knew I wanted to delve deeply into the journey that refugees fleeing war are forced to undertake—to find not only the factual signposts of this journey, but the emotional resonances along the way, the connections to the world left behind, and the desperate uncertainty about the security of the future. So to that end, I read everything I could about the various refugee routes out of Syria, as well as all the personal testimony I could access—either through research or through personal interviews. I spoke to human rights activists, lawyers, academics, NGO workers, volunteers, refugee settlement workers, and of course, to people who had fled the war in Syria. I made notes about the larger issues at play, as well as of smaller details that struck me.

What emerged was a picture of unparalleled suffering, so staggering in scale that for a time I shut down, unable to grapple with it, unable to conceive of a way to make sense of such devastation. But eventually I realized that that was exactly what my story should reflect—the unprecedented fallout of the Syrian regime’s war against its own people. I wanted my readers to experience the same range of emotions that I had experienced during the course of my research: horror, anger, disbelief, anguish, empathy and understanding. I discovered that the best way for me to achieve my goal was to stay as close to direct testimony as possible, particularly when writing from the perspective of political detainees or from the perspective of refugees risking the journey out of Syria.

To translate the overarching global politics, and make the story intimate and relatable, I was looking at things like a rescue worker turning over a body found in the debris of a bombing and discovering it was his own son. Or a refugee describing not the horrors of the siege of Aleppo, but the desire to taste fruit again. The color of a girl’s coat as she wandered through a refugee camp. The kindness of an islander who rose at dawn to deliver fresh bread to the camps. Details like these that emerge from research are effective at not only setting a scene, but in condensing realities that seem too overwhelming to grasp. These points of familiarity draw us in, remind us of our common humanity, make us see the people behind the headlines, and give us the space to reflect on these realities from a perspective other than our own.

I’ve found that with experience I’ve become better at sifting through vast amounts of information to uncover the truths that matter. Just as I’ve discovered that authenticity is the key to a deeper emotional engagement with the story I want to tell.

(c) Ausma Zehanat Khan

About No Place of Refuge:

Amid a global crisis, one woman searches for justice…

The Syrian refugee crisis just became personal for Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty.

NGO worker Audrey Clare, sister of Khattak’s childhood friend, is missing.

In her wake, a French Interpol Agent and a young Syrian man are found dead at the Greek refugee camp where she worked.

Khattak and Getty travel to Greece to trace Audrey’s last movements in a desperate attempt to find her. In doing so, they learn that her work in Greece had strayed well beyond the remit of her NGO…

Had Audrey been on the edge of exposing a dangerous secret at the heart of the refugee crisis – one that ultimately put a target on her own back?

No Place of Refuge is a highly topical, moving mystery in which Khan sensitively exposes the very worst and best of humanity. Fans of the series will love this latest instalment.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Ausma Zehanat Khan is the author of the Khattak and Getty mystery series. The latest novel, No Place of Refuge, was published in August by No Exit Press.

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