Friday, October 30, 2020

GREAT EXPECTATIONS: Guest Post by Libby Hellmann



The most common question authors are asked about a new novel is: “Where did you get the idea?” At the beginning of my career, I used to answer, “At the Idea Store, of course.” But time mellows us, and I no longer try to be so sarcastic. Partly because I’m trying to be more courteous, but more importantly, I’m not sure it’s the most important question to ask. 

I’d rather be asked about my expectations for the novel. What do I want it to be remembered for, if at all? What will its legacy will be? Where do I hope it will end up, in the scheme of all things “book”? 

Much of that is unknowable when a book is first released. As an author, I’m still worried whether the plot and characters are well enough developed, whether the cover reinforces the book, and if I’ve smoothed out that passage on page 235. It’s only over time that the novel’s place in literature becomes clear. 

I’ve had a little time to think about A BEND IN THE RIVER, and what I hope its legacy will be, so that’s what I’d like to share. 

Emotional Involvement 

BEND was clearly a departure for me. While I have written four historical thrillers, they’ve pretty much adhered to the craft of mystery and suspense, where plot is carefully constructed. We anguish about where to put the red herrings or what obstacles the protagonist will face. Take those tasks out of the equation, though, and different issues arise. Will the story have enough emotional clout? Will readers identify with the characters more deeply? Will readers still want to follow them, even though their journey is less defined? 

Paradoxically, those questions freed me. One of my complaints is that I hate to write, but I love having written. This time I actually enjoyed the writing. Because I wasn’t as worried about the overall plot, I was able to concentrate on each incident and how it affected the two sisters. What were their fears when they confronted a new obstacle? What strengths did they bring to the problem? Were those qualities credible in terms of who they were? Did they succeed or fail? What did they learn or not learn? Most important, how could I show all of this rather than tell? For me the process was more natural and organic than writing a mystery. I could really focus on who they were. And when readers tell me they shed a tear here and there, I think to myself, “I got it right.” 


Two generations of Americans have grown up since the Vietnam War, and for most of them, Vietnam is just a cursory historical explanation squeezed in during the Cold War. Or a story told by a grandfather who was there or knew someone who was. 

Essentially, the Vietnam war was a civil war that began before the US got involved. After the French left the country (they colonized Vietnam for decades) the US justified our involvement as a fight against Communism and the “Domino Theory.” But that wasn’t the motivation from the Vietnamese side. They wanted their country to be unified. The problem was that the North was Communist, and the South was bitterly anti-Communist. 

Most of Western literature about Vietnam has, until recently, been written from the American point of view. Former soldiers and participants in the war have written some beautiful memoirs and books, even short stories. But until The Sympathizer, there wasn’t much written from the Vietnamese point of view. Recently, there’s been more, and I saw an opportunity to provide information and context for Westerners, even though I’m not Vietnamese. I wanted to offer a fictional account based on accurate research and facts. So you can imagine how delighted I was when one reviewer said, “It offers interesting nuance and added depth to a war we thought we knew but maybe did not entirely understand.” 


Finally, I am drawn to stories about ordinary people in extraordinary times. It’s been the central premise of all my historical thrillers. In this context A Bend In the River joins the ranks. We are taught that in fiction there must be conflict on every page. Since I tend to go to extremes, a war or revolution becomes a vehicle through which many layers of conflict can be explored. Still, conflict is best illustrated by individual characters. Who becomes a hero? Who remains a coward? Why? What are the repercussions for them? Do the good guys win? I’m always eager to explore those themes, and I had the chance to do so in BEND

Will I write more historical fiction? You can bet on it. I love doing the research, imagining the characters who might have lived through the period, and the freedom I felt when writing about them. Still, there are new stories to be told in my crime fiction series. Georgia Davis tells me she has an idea for her next outing, and Ellie Foreman just handed over her most of her investigations to her daughter, Rachel in Virtually Undetectable. So I’m torn. What to do next? If you have any ideas, I’m all ears.


Libby Fischer Hellmann left a career in broadcast news in Washington, DC and moved to Chicago 35 years ago, where she, naturally, began to write gritty crime fiction. Thirteen novels and twenty short stories later, she claims they’ll take her out of the Windy City feet first. She has been nominated for many awards in the mystery writing community and has even won a few. More at

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