Guest Post: Jennifer S. Alderson

Please welcome Jennifer S. Alderson, author of Down and Out in Kathmandu: Adventures in Backpacking and The Lover’s Portrait: An art Mystery.

theloversportraitHow archival research added texture to my novel

Let me make this clear from the start: I love the smell and feel of archival documents, those yellowing bits of paper and crumbling photographs that rustle ever so slightly when extracted from their manila envelopes. There’s something magical about scouring through meters of racks, drawers and file folders until you find an interesting or odd snippet of information recorded long ago which helps a character or story truly come to life.

While working out the storyline for my second novel, The Lover’s Portrait, I realized early on that the restitution of looted artwork and the treatment of Jewish citizens in the 1930s and 1940s, were going to be central to the plot. To ensure that any potentially controversial aspects of my art mystery were accurately honestly and accurately described, extensive archival research would be essential. What I didn’t expect, is that this same research would add much needed texture and depth to my story, infuse it with universal themes and – according to all the reviewers so far – be what sets it apart.

I knew one of the main characters was going to be an art dealer being blackmailed by a Nazi general during the Second World War. I just didn’t know exactly why he would be forced to give up his collection. Restitution of art was a topic already very familiar to me, one I’d learned much about during art history and museum studies lectures at the University of Amsterdam. However the details surrounding important events in Dutch history, and the attitudes held in Europe during that period, were not.

It was crucial for the plot that this art dealer character not be Jewish, but did need to be considered a ‘dissident’ or threat to the Nazi regime for another reason. I went to the Amsterdam City Archives with an open mind and list of questions. I’d thought up all sorts of plot twists which involved other groups targeted by Hitler’s troops – Roma’s, communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political dissidents and homosexuals – and decided to see what my adopted hometown’s archives could tell me about how they were affected by the war. The documents I found relating to the treatment of homosexuals were the least known, and therefore most interesting, to me. Before visiting the archives, I’d read several non-fiction books to better understand this turbulent time in European and Dutch history, and seen no mention of how Dutch men could be arrested, castrated and sent off to work camps in Germany based on the mere suspicion that they were homosexual. Or that lesbians were classified as ‘political dissidents’ in work camps. That’s when I realized I’d found a ‘winner’ qua topic, one which hadn’t already been exhaustively explored in mainstream literature.

The sensitive nature of the themes discussed in this novel warranted that it be historically accurate, yet it was never my intention to write a historical fiction novel, but an art-infused mystery. When my ‘final draft’ clocked in at 110,000 words, I was afraid it was too long or would only appeal to historical fiction buffs, so I slashed many of the chapters which relied heavily on the obscure details I’d worked so hard to find. The end result was shorter and less historical, but without all those enticing tidbits of information to fill in the characters’ backgrounds or help explain plot developments, the whole story fell flat. It was as if I’d ripped the soul out of my novel.

Despite my misgivings about the length, I added everything back in and even wrote three new chapters taking place in wartime Amsterdam to provide more depth and richness to the story, choosing to edit down the present day sections of the book to compensate. Man, am I glad I did! It’s the research that grabs reviewers’ attention, enhanced their enjoyment of the story and characters, and seems to be what distinguishes this novel from others in the ‘amateur sleuth’ category.

My research has also paid off in other ways. Last week, I found out the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam is adding The Lover’s Portrait to their library’s permanent collection because they are thrilled with their prominent role in the book. The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam has already added it to their library based on the merits of my research into the complexities surrounding the restitution of looted artwork. And a prominent local LGBT organization, Pink Point, is helping me promote the book here in the city because they believe the storyline to be unique.

Yes, I spent many long hours browsing through often useless documents, pamphlets, flyers and photographs in far-flung physical and digital archives. I didn’t have to. But without all of the little details adding texture, depth and layers of meaning, my book wouldn’t have been the same. And frankly, I enjoyed every second of it!

Fellow authors, do you conduct archival research in order to add texture to your fiction? Readers, do you expect fiction to be well-researched, or are you just as happy to step into a completely fictitious world?


Jennifer S. Alderson was born in San Francisco, raised in Seattle and currently lives in Amsterdam. Her love of travel, art and culture inspired her on-going series of novels following the adventures of Zelda Richardson around the globe. In her first book, Down and Out in Kathmandu: Adventures in Backpacking, Zelda goes to Nepal to volunteer as an English teacher in Kathmandu, where she gets entangled with an international gang of smugglers whose Thai leader believes she’s stolen their diamonds. The Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery follows Zelda to Amsterdam, where she discovers clues to the whereabouts of a cache of missing masterpieces buried somewhere in the city, hidden away in 1942 by an art dealer who’d rather die than turn his collection over to his Nazi blackmailer. Her third novel – another art-related mystery centered around Papua New Guinean ‘bis poles’, missionaries and anthropologists – will be released in the summer of 2017.

20 thoughts on “Guest Post: Jennifer S. Alderson”

  1. Welcome, Jennifer, and thank you for visiting! I write contemporary cozies so have never done any archival research, but your descriptions sound much more enticing than the Google searches I usually use to find out information 🙂 As a reader, I appreciate well-researched work since I often read to learn something new. Your series sounds super interesting, and it’s cool that each book takes place in a new foreign location!


  2. First let me say that I love that you use the sense of smell in describing your delight in the archives. I knew exactly what you meant by your description. Isn’t it amazing that a dark, musky, scent can create so much excitement!

    Your book sounds wonderful and completely worthy of all of the attention it is receiving. Fascinatingly different take on a very current events topic. One of my degrees is in history-I’m a research junkie so yes, research is important to my writing. As a reader, it’s important to me that the information be correct (albeit fictionalized). I would stop reading a book if I discovered that the background facts were also fiction due to a lack of research. I’m sure there are times I don’t know the difference though.


  3. Welcome Jennifer!

    I too write mostly contemporary, so there’s rarely a need for archival research. But I do have to research facts for my stories. I’m willing to give a writer some latitude with the facts, but if I stumble across something that rips me out of the story, well, it’s over. But it sounds like you did a bang-up job, so I doubt I’ll have that feeling with your book. 🙂


  4. Thank you Mary Sutton/ Liz Milliron! I agree with both you and Kaitcarson; as a reader I go with the flow unless the facts are so blatantly wrong that it jars me out of the story. However, I know from your own post on texture, you do conduct some research to enrich your (fascinating sounding) story!


  5. Welcome Jennifer! I cannot wait to read your book. And, yes, for the historical series I’m plotting, I spent a ton of time in the library reading microfiche. As soon as I get back to Adams, I’ll be doing it again. I can access the fiche on but it doesn’t print nearly as well. Microfiche doesn’t have the flavor of paper but one must make do. The newspapers of the era are so rich!


  6. Welcome, Jennifer, your books sound fantastic, and I am looking forward to checking them out! I am also a travel bug, and so I search out books (especially mysteries) set in the places where I travel. I will be in Amsterdam next year, so yours will be perfect! Under another pen name I do archival research. It’s a challenge knowing how much to put in and what to leave out to give the right amount of flavor.


  7. Your book sounds amazing! I did some archival research for a class in archives for my master’s degree in library science. I love this kind of primary sources.


  8. Sue Star – thank you! I hope you have a great time in my adopted hometown! Qua research, I agree completely. As a researcher, you’re thrilled with every tantalizing tidbit and want to include everything you’ve found, yet as a writer you don’t want to bore or overwhelm your readers. I found deciding what to leave out the most difficult part of the process.


  9. Lovely to hear, Kimberly G. Giarratano! There’s something so satisfying about searching through meters of old documents until you find that one piece of information which sheds new light on your subject matter. Sounds like a fascinating course!


  10. I love research, though it can be distracting and lead you into some strange places. There’s much information on line these days, but there’s nothing like handling an original document or photo. Your book sounds very interesting.


  11. I just had eye surgery. (No big deal. All okay.) But I was seriously looking for a reason—any reason—to pop by this post and move on. I have over 400 emails to get through. And my vision still sucks.

    But wow! You nailed a wonderful post and I pretty much think I was a Jew in a past life. (Don’t roll your eyes.) Anyway, while I don’t write historical fiction, researching contemporary data can easily lead to historical data which adds texture. I love that you had the guts to add those words back and create more.

    Kudos to you on the inclusion of your book at the Historical Museum. Well done!


  12. Such a fantastic post! Thanks for visiting. I’m definitely adding this to my TBR pile. I’m a research junkie, but I haven’t had much cause to do true archival research. I love the process of research, though, and my WIP needs in-depth scouring of local archives (soon). This post has inspired me to do that sooner, rather than later! Thanks for sharing with us.


  13. Thank you, J.R. Lindermuth! I agree, there is something magical about holding an original document or photo with its creases and fading texts. Definitely prefer to visit the actual archive when possible. Though I have recently fallen in love with digitalized libraries and archives simply because they give access to material I wouldn’t otherwise be able to view.


  14. Peg Brantley, I am truly honored! I really appreciate your comment, and agree that historical details can enrich contemporary fiction, without making it a historical fiction novel. I hope your eyes are recovering nicely- take care!


  15. How lovely to hear, Pamela A. Oberg! I wish you much luck with your own research; what an exciting place to be in your own novel’s development. Thanks for commenting, and all of you for having me here on Mysteristas – it’s been great!


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