Mystery writer William Shepard shares his story behind the writing of his latest Robbie Cutler mystery. It's available on Kindle.
Murder On The Danube was a story that I wanted to tell. The heroic
days of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 had thrilled the world, and I wanted
that story to be known by a new generation. When I was assigned to the American
Embassy in Budapest as Political Officer in the early 1970s, however, the
country was still under a Communist regime, and research into the period was
impossible. It was even dangerous for Hungarian citizens to be seen talking
with Western diplomats, let alone telling their story of this famous uprising.
Years later I left the Foreign Service and became a writer. I began to
plan the novel, which would incorporate the Hungarian Revolution as a backdrop
for a present day murder. I must confess that the film, “The English Patient,”
had made quite an impression on me. I wanted also to have a memorable love
affair in the back story of this novel set in Budapest.
The initial problem was how to portray the Revolution itself. Those who
knew it knew those thirteen days from October 23 to November 4, 1956,
intimately, every detail remaining etched in their memories. Would I have
flashbacks from time to time? That struck me as confusing for the modern
reader. At the same time, I had to give enough detail so that the reader who
didn’t have knowledge of those days would acquire it. The problem bothered me
for several months. Finally, an inspired comment from a high school student in
a seminar on creative writing that I was giving provided the answer. He
suggested that at the end of each chapter, I set forth what happened in one day
of the Revolution itself. With this insight, the structure of the novel began
to take shape.
Those chapter end segments would, of course, have to be tied together to
the main plot line. Why not have their development parallel what was going on
in the main story? Then it occurred to me – the best way for both the current
story and the background to fit together would be for the same characters to
fit in both. If I told the story of a small group of Freedom Fighters, for
example, one traitor on the group could also be the murderer in the present day
story – he or she would kill to avoid the truth coming out.
This is where the plotting came in, and it lasted for months. I did
charts and time lines for each character, when he or she was with other members
of the resistance group, and when alone. And then, with a good time line in the
form of a memoir by the group’s leader, I couldn’t resist having him mistaken
on several key details! Unlocking those unplanned errors would be the job for
my diplomatic sleuth, Robbie Cutler.
Of course, clearly I would have the final manuscript vetted by a veteran
of that heroic street fighting. But I had to master the details, and so with
the assistance of the Hungarian Embassy in Washington I visited Budapest and
went to the 1956 Historical Institute, where I held a seminar on the period,
and in turn received a thorough, day by day briefing on the street fighting.
And so the novel began to take shape, the backstory developing nicely,
and the contemporary story gave me an opportunity to have the reader discover
today’s Hungary – with even a peep over the Romanian border for a scene or two
in Transylvania! For fun, I also introduced a ranking Australian diplomat who
escaped Hungary in 1957, became a distinguished Australian citizen, and has now
returned to Budapest – to find who murdered his brother during the 1956
All was now ready for the conclusion, when the entire process ground to
an unexpected stop. How was I going to have Cutler find out who was the traitor
in 1956, when all of the records from the period have been officially sealed? I
checked this out with the Hungarian Embassy, and found that this policy had
been rigidly followed. They did not want the murders and cries for vengeance
that had followed when other former communist nations had opened their records
from the period.
For a month or
so I was stuck. Then the solution occurred to me out of the blue – I remembered
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.” Sometimes the solution to the most
difficult of problems is really right in front of you, in plain sight!