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Research: when to do it and when not to do it by Brandon Rolfe

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Plotting and Planning
Brandon Rolfe

Brandon Rolfe

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It helps immensely if the subject of one’s writing is of strong personal interest and not just that of commercial potential.  I have a penchant for the military scenario, hence The Dromyrk File and Checkpoint. Since the adversary element in the war/military scenario is a massive double-front of constantly shifting of political/military moods, there is subsequent need for continual research to balance these developments. In contrast, focussing on the individual solely to enrich the personal background requires careful limiting of research so as to avoid falling behind the storyline momentum.

My style of ‘live’ scenes does not allow for the skipping of details as in ‘offstage’ writing where the reader is merely told that e.g. ‘a certain character spends the next two months in Boston, travelling thereafter to Washington and next to Beijing for grave discussions of diplomatic importance affecting matters of national security — discussions which we’re told last ’two solid hours’ but of which not a single word’s utterance is ‘heard’ by the reader. Favouring my style of ‘live’ depiction of every scene as the story unfolds, to make the reader feel, see, and experience what is happening there and then before him/her, calls for a subtle degree of ‘research’ that virtually escapes the realisation of it warranting  such classification, its need being so immediate in order to give that particular setting its completion. Little things such as clothing, furniture, ornaments, personal health and psychological effects along with other ‘trivial’ commodities that are wholly vital in making up the scene’s otherwise invisible background.

Amazing, or perhaps not so amazing, the amount of precious time consumed, with minutes, hours, even days!, tracing that suit fabric’s proper commercial trade name — would war time rationing have allowed that specific brand of liquor to have been so readily available for the soldier to have thrown it back so liberally in bathing his tonsils? — was Benny Goodman’s piercing clarinet carried by BBC radio waves at that time? — would that be the year The Wizard of Oz was on everyone’s tongue as an  alternative talking point to utility clothing coupons? — and did Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall really consent to being interviewed on AFN (American Forces Network)?

With Berlin being only twenty miles from Communist Poland’s border, and so isolated well within the DDR, only two means for Westerners accessing the encapsulated city were permitted by Moscow’s ruling. A narrow air corridor patrolled by Soviet MiG fighters — and an equally constricted land corridor monitored by tall sentry towers perched on the hillside, as well as occasional armoured vehicles bristling with their threat of intervening  by the side of the long empty autobahn running through the otherwise barren landscape; my personal opportunity for seeing potential research material ’in the flesh’ was by travelling along this long empty line from Hamburg to Berlin — somewhat with the semblance of the tiny laboratory mouse progressing along its tube, all the time under constant watch.

That was in 1982, as confirmed by the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) endorsement stamped in my passport at FriedrichsraBe checkpoint (the one facing Charlie from across those nerve-racking yards of no-man’s land stretching between the two opposing forces. The Schutzpolizei border guard does, in fact, pencil in a secret number, known only to you, in your passport for the purpose of defying any East German defector’s attempt to escape to the West, using the passport stolen from you. I.e. he would have to know that ’secret’ number.) Comparing the East Berlin of that time and the modern-day Berlin seen on my many visits to the city, the degree of structural transmogrification does not fail to catch the eye. From great mountainous masses of coarse-faced concrete residential blocks heralding the Soviet Union’s universal might and power, to bright sparkling multi colours of a modern-day Capitalist-minded Potsdam looking to the future for commercial enterprise. One can indeed now safely enjoy a thimble-sized cup of black kafee served in that “– beautiful restaurant on Karl Marx Allee”.

With The Dromyrk File’s protagonist being a Swedish psychiatrist tending to the Messianic Fuhrer’s inner throws of mental conflict, there is a virtually insatiable need for research into family background childhood development and medical history, especially in the field of psychoneurosis and psychosis. Doctor Dromyrk’s relaying details of how Hitler’s disturbed mind fluctuates to the British War Office in the effort to defy the German war machine, blatantly ignoring the Hippocratic Oath and patient confidentiality, throws us right into the arena of war, where there is never too much research to be done. The massive backcloth of raging war, with its bombers, ships, tanks, and expendable human units, calls for a never-ending supplying of information to satisfy the reader’s burning questions concerning specific technical points.

Although Checkpoint has a narrower storyline, there is still the need for a constant running supply-line of information for the reader, since the central character, a US Military Intelligence officer, is an important unit actively engaged in yet another, albeit quieter, war —  the Cold War, where the two titanic powers muster their colossal might in readiness to annihilate each other.

(c) Brandon Rolfe

About Checkpoint:

Whilst having ‘only recently’ survived the catastrophic horrors of a war, to pull through into a hopefully new era of peace, Berlin is nevertheless still enmeshed in the military grip of martial rules imposed by the opposing armies of occupation vying for control of the city, the US/Western Allied Forces and the Soviet Red Army. Brimming with a heavy atmosphere of tension honed sharp as the bayonets bristling in its streets, the city has a precarious instability that threatens to tip over into an outbreak of open warfare. To stave off this fearful possibility, US Army Intelligence Officer, Major Frank Falzoni, works in close conjunction with post-war OSS replacement, CIA, and British MI6, keeping things under control, following Soviet Leader Khrushchev’s failure of a ‘Cuban Gambit’ to threaten the United States with missiles fired from the Caribbean island of Cuba. Soviet countermeasure in retaliation for having its missile threat ‘blunted’ by US naval blockade, is directed at generating instability in West Germany to cause eventual removal of Allied Forces military occupation and Capitalist control of West Germany. The spear-point focus for the Communist onslaught is hotbed of spies, Berlin. Already fraught with tension over its ideological conflict of a divided city, Cold War Berlin’s problem is heightened by the new development of a stand-off challenge of US tanks being confronted by Russian tanks at the city’s border-control point of Checkpoint Charlie. Apart from suffering leaks in its intelligence system, an embryonic CIA is further burdened by this additional task of keeping the lid on what amounts to a cauldron of simmering belligerent upheaval — and World War III.With East Germany’s state police, the Stasi, making a formidable opponent to elude in this shadowy world of secrets, double secrets, and betrayals, the Major has to handle a cell of subversive dissidents; bring an important defector over to the West sector; plant a ‘stooge’ infiltrator in the ‘enemy camp’ ; root out a ‘mole’ in his own intelligence network; — as well as being set up and framed for the murder of an allied agent.

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About the author

Brandon Rolfe studied ophthalmology and ophthalmic optics at university in Glasgow; later serving Internship Year in busy bustling NHS hospital practice in the country’s second largest outpatient department at that time, in Coventry. He later moved into private practice in London. Locum duties at medical centres took him far and wide across the Greater London Area. Marketed own patented product. (UK, USA, S/African patents). Qualified also in psychology, he later opened a private psychotherapy clinic. This entailed putting in several hours a week at the local psychiatric hospital.

When retired, wrote/published novels: Countdown to Doomsday; The Analyst; The Dromyrk File; Checkpoint. Spent time in Hollywood, at invitation of Nat Mundel, founder and CEO of Voyage Media Films, discussing possibility of putting books on the screen. Lord of the Rings producer, Adam Fratto, recommended The Analyst for the large screen, and The Dromyrk File for extended TV series. These two books written up in preparatory format for screenplays by Michelle Sy, producer of Jason Bourne series; Finding Never Land; The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

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