Tuesday, April 05, 2011

2010 Europe Trip: Research For My Novel - Nuremberg

The main reason I went to Europe last year was to do research for my historical novel. It's set in Nuremberg in the 1830s and is based on the true story of Kaspar Hauser, a young man who wandered into town one day. He appeared to not understand anything around him, including what people were saying. Eventually he was taken to the jail tower, then was taken in by a doctor who examined and educated him. Kasper said he had been kept in a cell for most of his life and had never been outdoors nor did he have interactions with anyone else, other than minimal contact with his jailer. The day he wandered into town he'd been released with no explanations.

That's all I'll say about him for now. You can click on the link if you want more info. As I said my story is based on him but I'm taking quite a few liberties with my novel though it generally follows most of the major events of his later life.

I spent all my time in the Altstadt (or old town) in the historic city center. Nuremberg was heavily bombed during the war and was subsequently rebuilt using the same building materials. The Altstadt is surrounded by a wall with the Kaiserburg (Nuremberg Castle) at the north end.

Of course Nuremberg is known for being the site of the Nuremberg trials and the infamous Nazi conventions and rallies. I made it a point to learn about Nazi Germany before my visit because I was concerned I would become distracted by this infamous history and wanted to be able to focus solely on my research.

I decided on some goals for this visit:
  • Learn about the history of the city (before the 1830s and until 1871 when the unification of Germany occurred).
  • Spend a lot of time walking around and getting a good feel for the place.
  • Find a house. Much of my novel takes place inside a house. Kasper lived in a different house at the time when my story takes place so I'm taking liberties here.
  • Find the location for a pivotal outdoors scene, what I've dubbed "The Walk in the Snow."
  • Find the location of where he came into the city and the place where he was found and attempt to retrace his steps.
I took over a thousand pictures and and something like seven short videos. More than 700 of the pictures and all of the video were taken for research purposes in Nuremberg and Ansbach.

A map of the Altstadt. These maps are all over the historic city center and are very useful for staying oriented even if they're all in German. The Altstadt is quite a small area, you can walk from one end to the other in less than an hour.

I started by walking to the Kaiserburg and taking a slow walk around the Castle. The weather was gorgeous while I was there, even a bit warmer than I'd planned for, and encouraged a leisurely pace.

The gardens behind the Kaiserburg. I had originally thought my "Walk in the Snow" scene would take place somewhere along here.

Part of the Gardens.

As I walked along taking pictures, I realized I was having problems with the idea of this scene happening here. First, I didn't know what kind of access mere mortals would have to these places even if they were well-connected, and secondly, the scene is a conversation between Kasper and his servant. It requires quiet and privacy and I didn't know if that would be possible in this place. It felt too public to me.

I was going to sign up for a tour of the inside of the Castle but realized it wouldn't be necessary since there are no scenes there. I decided it would be far more important for me to climb the stairs of the Sinwell Tower (jail tower) where I believe Kasper was kept when he first arrived in the city.

After wandering around and taking more pictures I stopped at Albrecht Dürer's House, a very popular museum across the street from the Castle. Dürer is one of Nuremberg's most famous sons and was a brilliant artist. I like to refer to him as the rock star of Northern Renaissance art. As I took the audio tour I wondered if I'd found my house but it just didn't feel right.

One of the lovely rooms in Dürer's house.

One of the defining characteristics of the house in my novel is it has to be large. Only three men are living there, not including the servants, but multiple floors and at least two sets of staircases are critical. It's difficult to explain why this is so since there's no practical reason for it but the psychological effect of living in such a house is very important for the characters and Dürer's house felt too cramped to me.

As part of my research on the city's history I walked to Fembo House, not far from the Kasierburg, a historic house which is also the city museum.

Fembo House from the front.

I learned a lot about the city's history and, most important, I'd found the house for my novel. The tour starts on the top floor and there were only two couples around. They left the floor very quickly and I slowly strolled through the rooms taking in all the exhibits and reading each sign carefully. When I was done with the exhibits I continued strolling around and around the floor going in and out of the rooms. I was letting the feel of the top floor sink in, listening to the sound of my steps, noting the air temperatures, and how the light looks in the rooms. I found out later that the top floor is where the servants live and where storage is kept. I was really happy I took so much time up there.

This room on the floor below was used as a ballroom during parties. It has its own dining room outside the door and there's a small kitchen behind me.

The first thing I noticed when I walked down to the next floor is the ceilings are quite a bit lower than we're used to and the doorways are low. This is important. Two of my characters are fairly tall, including one of my main characters. His notable physical characteristics includes his height, his posture, and the way he moves through space. He tends to be calm and has a certain grace about the way he moves, and he has perfect posture. In order for these characteristics to work, I can't have him awkwardly trying to get the through the doorway because they are too low so he can't be very tall. My other character is more secondary and it would actually make sense if he were a bit awkwardly tall, at least for this house.

The floors are creaky, you make noise wherever you walk. This is very important because this means you can hear someone coming even if you can't see them, even if it's too dark in the room.

As required, this house has two sets of stairs. I love these back stairs. I spent a lot of time walking up and down to get a feel for them. I should have taken some video.

More rooms on the floor below. I learned quite a bit about the layout of this style of architecture though I don't learn what the style is called. I need to do more research about that.

This model of a house with similar architecture was very useful for visualizing the house as a whole though this version is larger than Fembo House. Ground floor is the entrance hall, first floor are the bedrooms, second floor are the best rooms in the house, rooms for greeting guests, etc., the third floor is where the ballroom is located, fourth floor, only a section of the floor, houses the servants.

Fembo House is located next to other buildings and narrow winding cobblestone streets so there's no garden or stables. There is a courtyard as you can see in the picture above. Not having a garden meant I would have to do some tweaking of scenes during my next rewrite but not having stables and horses was a problem. One of my favorite secondary characters is the Stable Master. I thought about changing his occupation but it just wasn't working. The man was practically born to ride and take care of horses. The smell of horse is seeped into his bones, and the way he walks and his outlook on life points towards his occupation. I knew I had to come up with another idea. Fortunately, the Imperial Stables are right up the street and I knew they would have rented a space there.

This brochure about Fembo House is in German but is extremely useful. You can see my notes on the layout of the floors. There are good photos of the rooms too.

I visited another house later that day, Tucher Mansion, and it has similar architecture though on a much grander scale. The English version of their brochure is very short, only a few pages, and has no pictures but it gives a detailed layout of the different floors and how they were used.

I was going to go back to Fembo House the next day but didn't. I should have so I could have taken more pictures and walked around some more.

I had several maps of Nuremberg but used this one since it was the most detailed for my purposes. I used this map to figure out the route Kasper took when he first arrived in the city and to understand where Fembo House (no. 14 on the map) was in relation to the main square.

Fembo House is located right down the street from the Hauptmarkt, the Alstadt's largest square. There are farmers markets there most days, as there have been for centuries. Since coming back from my trip I've revised some of my scenes so they take place here.

The view of the street from the first floor of Fembo House looking towards the Hauptmarkt. The Town Hall, with the flags, is on the left side.

The Hauptmarkt, also the site of the world famous Christmas Markets.

I was happy I'd found the house but still hadn't found the site for my "Walk in the Snow" scene. I'd decided to find the square Kasper was found in (and it wasn't the Hauptmarkt like I originally thought) and attempt to retrace the path he took to get there.

Kasper came in through the Neutor, or the New Tower Gate. There are Baroque Gardens right across the street, and I thought perhaps I would go there to see if my "Walk in the Snow" scene could take place there but I found something much, much better.

A view of the Gate from the outside looking into the Altstadt.

I walked along the top of the city wall behind the Gate which is really nice. Lots of shady trees, places to sit, and a mini-garden. Most of Nuremberg is surrounded by the huge, beautiful wall and I think you can walk along parts of it.

The lovely garden. When I stepped into this sweet little place I knew I'd found the setting for this very important scene.

A view of the Garden looking at Neutor. This place is important for my characterization of Kasper. It's where he first entered the city and he feels a kind of kinship with this place.

The view looking down from the little garden looking towards the Kaiserburg.

I started to wonder if my walk in the snow actually takes place in the snow. According to my current timeline the earliest the walk can take place is sometime in late October, maybe early November, and I don't think it's snowing yet. I'll have to check the historical weather records. The snow isn't that important but it would make the atmosphere a little more magical.

So why go through all this? Why bother going all the way to Europe to do research on a novel that might never get published? And why bother looking for a real house to set the story in? Wouldn't it be easier to make all this up? The answer for me is no, it's not easier. True, I have a good imagination, and I could say I'm doing this because this story is based on a real person but I'm certain that I would do the same thing with all my stories if I could whether they're based on history or not. The reason is because I'm too locked into my own mindset and I make too many narrow assumptions about what a place could and should be like. The original draft of this novel was also set in a large house but the architecture was completely different and not even close to accurate. This has a profound affect on the story and the characters. Finding real places to base my settings on helps me go deeper into the story world.

Also, I've noticed when I write a story my characters and their relationship to the space around them and the setting is very important because it affects how they are. Because most of the novel takes place inside the house this is doubly true. Even many of my settings in my strange story on my Fainting in Coils blog, FailSafe, were based on real places.

I'm very happy I'd found what I was looking for on this visit. I was in Nuremberg for three days and spent all my time strolling around the Altstadt. I took a side trip to Ansbach, about 30 km away. This small town is the setting for the last part of my novel. The point was to get to know these towns and I felt I did just that. I'd really like to go back to Nuremberg in December during the Christmas Market for a couple of days and then spend at least 2-3 days in Ansbach again.

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