The Woes of Doing Obscure Research

Everyone raves about doing research on the Internet. It’s supposed to be easy, which is true; fast, also true; and accurate — but there’s the rub. What is the sound of two “facts” rubbing against each other when they differ? The shriek of a frustrated researcher.

Are books better sources? Usually, if carefully chosen — but again, not always.

Recently I decided to do some research on Neo-Nazis for the last two Nola O’Grady books. Someone needs to poke a little fun at these vestigial dorks, so why not me? For this purpose I have created a group called The Golden Tentacle, cf. Miguel Serrano’s El Dorado Cordon, and my intrepid band is in league with, of course, the psychic squid from alternate Venus. (Yes, it’s complicated.)

Anyway, I started doing some mostly unpleasant reading, which led me back in time to the roots of Nazi ideas, that is, to the situation in Germany in the 1920s, as the Nazi Party was forming, and other interesting topics. (Okay, so I can find any subject interesting except maybe golf.)

A confession: I am badly hampered in this project because I don’t know German. I’m restricted to English and French sources, and for a change, the French are in some ways worse than the English, especially when it comes to Nazi “occultism.” Yes, there are online translators. Their results are often laughable.At this point I ran into the Contradictory Information problem.

Part of this arises from the heavy firebombing of German cities during WWII. A lot of documentary evidence went up in flames, especially as it applies to the minor figures of Nazi history. We know a lot about the likes of Goebbels and Hitler, but much less about the men who scurried around following their lethal orders. When they realized they’d lost, the Nazis themselves destroyed a lot of information, both written and physical, as when they blew up parts of the death camps.

Finally, a lot of the surviving paper data has been hoarded by the Russians until just recently.Another big problem comes from the sheer amount of utter nonsense that’s been written about the supposedly “occult” or “demonic” ideas that allegedly “dominated” the Nazi ideology. Bullshit, nine-tenths of it, but it’s made a lot of money for unscrupulous authors who claim to be writing non-fiction. The worst is perhaps Trevor Ravenscroft and his SPEAR OF DESTINY, but there are many others. Don’t believe a word of it, is my advice.

What the Internet’s done is taken this vast confused body of information, speculation, cross-referencing, and outright lies from books and mixed it up yet once again. The gullible have websites about Nazi magic, hidden military bases, flying saucers, Thule, Atlantis, various lost cities in the Far East, Holocaust deniers, nd other fictions. Each website seems to cite the others in an endless loop.

Here’s an example. Since I’m also interested in the Cathar heresies of the Occitan in the Middle Ages, I decided to get more information about Otto Rahn, a middlebrow medievalist who wrote a couple of interesting if romanticized books on the Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade against them. He was recruited into Himmler’s “Aryan culture” arm of the SS, so the two lines of research crossed. Sources agree when he was born and when he died, 1904-1939. When did he join the SS and how? I’ve gotten two different dates and three different versions of how. Did he commit suicide or die in an accident? The first is very likely but some say the second. Since he died in March of ’39, why wasn’t he buried until ’40? No one seems to know, but the nutcases think he was reanimated by a Nazi zombie program.

A modern writer, who I shall leave nameless, has written a whole book claiming Rahn was the “inspiration” for the Indiana Jones movie about the Grail. This book’s adverts are decorated with a picture of a man who has to be 50 or so while Rahn died at 35. (Unless this is a snapshot of the zombie.) Rahn’s work had next to nothing to do with the stuff going on in the film, but Nazi! Secret! Stuff! still sells. (Rahn’s discussion of the Grail centers around textual analysis of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s PARSIFAL. His grail is NOT the cup of Joseph of Arimethea.)

It’s all enough to make the casual researcher gibber hopelessly.


About Katharine Kerr

Katharine Kerr's bookshelf Katharine Kerr spent her childhood in a Great Lakes industrial city and her adolescence in Southern California, whence she fled to the San Francisco Bay Area just in time to join a number of the Revolutions then in progress. After fleeing those in turn, she became a professional story-teller and an amateur skeptic, who regards all True Believers with a jaundiced eye, even those who true-believe in Science. An inveterate loafer, baseball addict, and rock and roll fan, she begrudgingly spares time to write novels, including the Deverry series of historical fantasies or fantastical histories, depending on your point of view. She lives near San Francisco with her husband of many years and some cats.


The Woes of Doing Obscure Research — 20 Comments

  1. I would seize this as an opportunity to remake the nonsense into my own image. You create it — the entire story of how it worked, and foist it off onto the chaos and disorder of the evidence. In other words, make it up!

    • Definitely for the Nola books I’ll make it all up. If there are readers out there who don’t understand that books about psychic squid from an ocean-covered Venus are fiction — well, let us just say that I have sympathy for their families.

      But it’s hard to do satire if you don’t have a grasp of the reality. I suppose I’ll rise to the challenge. 🙂

  2. I’m like Brenda. This is where I would read until something jumped screaming out at me making me go, omg can I use THIS. And then I’d pull threads from other directions until I wove something “inspired by” but in no way meant to “be” the source material. Of course, this is the only way I feel comfortable writing this kind of thing, because if I don’t already have the background, I’m never going to spend the time researching and educating myself to feel comfortable enough to write it unless we all understand this is my fun take on something, not ever intended to be Michener-esque in its depth or detail.

    • I agree!

      On the other hand, sometimes this kind of research pays off. I realized for instance that I can use Otto Rahn’s story in SORCERER’S CURSE, because the significant ambiguities (no, not the zombie theory) fit Maya’s past lives. You never know what will come in handy, like.

      • That’s what I love most–finding details and bits and bobs that either already weave neatly into my universe, or give it an intriguing new dimension!

  3. If it is so difficult that even you cannot figure it out, assuredly the casual reader will have no idea of the facts of the matter at all.
    I found myself recently in need of a Southeast Asian nation to use as a major setting. Rather than devote a lot of irritating work to bone up on the history of the Philippines or Indonesia (and I don’t read either of their languages) I just made up my own. So much easier to just plop a new nation into the South China Sea.

  4. And often there’s a lack (or indeed utter absence) of meaningful citation of sources.

    • Yes, indeed, and the key is “meaningful” citation, not yet another link to the “Marduk is waiting on Arcturus 6 to conquer Earth” website. (There are apparently people online who do believe that the Babylonian god Marduk comes from Arcturus 6.) Hmm, maybe my problem is envy. How can a mere novelist compete with this stuff?

      • Perhaps in order to compete one has to don an aluminum foil hat and lose one’s sense of irony ;).

  5. Yay! More psychic squid!

    Sympathies. I must agree that unless it is critical that something adhere to a true timeline, mixing up your own version of it can be fun. In fact, this post can go in the back of the book, as explanation for why you finally said, “I’ll take one from column A, two from B and three from C, please.”

    When people say “You did what?” you say: alternative timeline/world.

    • Let’s hope people realize that Nola’s world is most definitely an Alternate. Though sometimes I wonder about San Francisco and environs, having lived here for most of my life. 🙂

  6. The wonders of high fantasy! You can read all the neat stuff and steal it all, filing off the serial numbers.

    Of course, then you sometimes get the buffoon who tries to explain to you how feudalism works in your imaginary world. . . .

  7. However, just stealing historical details and / or just making it up, when it comes to a fictional treatment of same can be deeply troubling. For a current example, look at this discussion of a popular stage production about Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act:

    Because fiction imprints deeply, and often is the only account of events and eras that the audience encounters, this can cause real life, political and social problems. Distortions of facts can result even in such still believed lies as “The Glorious Lost Cause,” and that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery.

    • I was particularly annoyed to read that the playwright had LBJ offering compromises he didn’t offer on the Civil Rights Act. Lyndon Johnson was a wily politician and had many flaws, but he deserves honor and respect for the way he used the power of the presidency to address the horrors of Jim Crow America.

      (Though this isn’t as bad as making FBI agents heroes of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi Burning.)

    • Especially with all the pompous assertions by fan boys that in the middle ages all that women did was get beaten, tortured and raped?

      Love, C.

      • There’s a panel at FogCon tonight called “When Is Your Heroine Going to Get Raped?” Judging by the panelists, it is not going to express the pov of idiot fan boys that don’t believe women could — or can — take care of themselves.