A Door, A Guarded Building and Serendipity: Researching a Novel

In my first novel Absolution, I set chapters in Vietnam, although I have never been there. In A Stone for Bread, I recreate the World War II Mauthausen concentration camp, a site I have never visited (it exists today as a memorial to those imprisoned there). As a consummate researcher, I find personal observations of the places I write about extremely important. But traveling to those sites isn’t always possible. Author Laura Hillenbrand’s illness has prevented her from this kind of on-site research, yet her best-selling nonfiction books Sea Biscuit and Unbroken brim with a wonderful sense of place and particularity.


Those of us who write fiction are granted extra latitude in our depictions of place, what we call artistic license. Even so, when we set our fiction in actual locations, it’s important not to stray too far from reality. Readers love to find our errors and anachronisms, which is made easier by the Internet.


For my Absolution research, the Internet was an essential tool, particularly in describing Vietnam. But one location in that novel which should have been easy to see for myself turned out to be surprisingly problematic: the courtroom where Billy Nguyen’s trial was held.


I came up with zero photos of a Boston Superior courtroom on the Internet, possibly because photos aren’t usually allowed in courtrooms. I had seen episodes from the TV series The Practice about a Boston law firm, but when I read a blog about that show, I discovered an unsettling fact. At the time my novel is set, the Superior court had been temporarily moved to a courtroom in Boston’s Federal Building. I found only two photos of that space, one a kind of schematic used for a court case, the other the door into the courtroom, pictured here.Courtrm


Time to go to Boston, I realized. So I did. But—


The Federal Building was about to be renovated. Okay, but maybe I could walk inside and get a feel for the place. But no, the makeover was for its new tenant: Homeland Security! A guard was stationed outside the main entrance. No one allowed in. I explained and begged and finally convinced the guard I wasn’t a foreign agent and he let me step just inside the door for what amounted to a few seconds. No photos, but I at least saw the sweep of the grand lobby, the wide stone stairs up to the mezzanine and elevators. But no courtroom.


I next visited the Superior Court which by then was settled back into its original building. There, I was directed to the “trial of the day,” that of a man who had shot and wounded a policewoman. As I entered the courtroom, everyone suddenly stood up and left, including two rows of uniformed police officers. What was happening? I asked that question to one of the few people still there, a young man who seemed to be waiting just beyond the courtroom bar. The jury was out, he said, and introduced himself as the defense attorney. As we chatted, I asked him about the time Superior Court was held in the Federal Building. He’d had a number of cases in that court, he told me. And then he described the room in vivid detail:  how the plain Superior Court furniture looked drab and out of place in the elegant high-ceilinged Federal courtroom, the odd rectangular spaces of color on the walls where portraits of Federal judges had recently hung, the paint brighter than the surrounding walls, which had faded from years of sunlight through the tall clear windows.


That was all I needed. One lucky conversation and I had found my courtroom.