Chicagoan Libby Fischer Hellmann is the award-winning author of ten “Compulsively Readable Thrillers.” They include the Ellie Foreman series, which Libby describes as a cross between “Desperate Housewives” and “24,” the hard-boiled Georgia Davis PI series, and two standalones, Set the Night on Fire, and A Bitter Veil. Her tenth and newest release is Havana Lost, a historical thriller set largely in Cuba. She also has written nearly twenty short stories and novellas.
This is not the kind of post you think it is. I’m not going to discuss my social media marketing plans for Havana Lost. Been there, done that. It’s boring.
This is different. Simply put, Havana Lost would not have been written without Skype, Twitter, and the internet.
I’d written the first part of the thriller, which takes place in 1958 during the peak of the Cuban revolution. I was about to start Part Two, which is set 30 years later during Cuba’s “Special Period,” an economic depression so severe it makes our Great Recession look like the Gilded Age.
Cuba’s economy started to decline when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Cuba lost most, if not all, of its petroleum imports. That meant no gasoline, no fertilizer, limited electricity, and a shortage of medicine. Cuban transportation, agriculture, and industry collapsed. The average Cuban lost twenty pounds.
I find it hard to believe Fidel didn’t see it coming. After all, the Berlin Wall had fallen two years prior, in 1989. At that point, however, Cuba was still very much involved with Angola. Remember Angola? In the ‘70s and ‘80s Cuba sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers (as well as doctors and teachers) to help Angola’s Marxist government fight insurgents who were financed by South Africa and the West.
Essentially it was a proxy war that was pretty much unwinnable. Fidel, having persevered—but just barely—with his own insurrection, should have known better, but he had visions of leading a series of third-world revolutions. It didn’t work out; in fact, Angola came to be known as Fidel’s Vietnam. Actually, although there’s no proof, I think Fidel did see the handwriting on the wall and was looking for a way to wind down. By 1989, most of the fighting was over, and Cuba started bringing the troops home.
Because the timing was right, I decided to place two of my main characters in Angola, but my question was where they should be stationed. And what they should be doing. If I was going to be true to history, which is important to me, they needed to be in Angola in 1989. Plus, something needed to happen in Angola that would have huge ramifications for my story.
I started to review what I knew about that part of the world. Which wasn’t much. I did recall the conflicts and greed over blood diamonds, as well as the mineral “rape” of the Congo, which happens to border Angola. But Leonardo DiCaprio had already made the defining film, and I’d written about diamonds in An Image of Death. I was searching for something other than diamonds, oil, or gold.
I found a few general articles but nothing that would help. So one day, in complete frustration, I put out a tweet that asked: “Does anyone know anything about Cuban intervention in Angola?” I made sure to hash-tag #Cuba and #Angola.
Imagine my surprise when, thirty minutes later, I got a reply from British expert on Cuba and Sub-Saharan Africa, Dr. Edward George. It turned out that was precisely the subject of Tedd’s PhD thesis, and he’d expanded his dissertation into a book. I couldn’t believe it!
I raced over to Amazon to check out the book. Alas, it was $300! No way could I afford that. Instead, I looked up the book in the World Cat Library Catalogue. Apparently, there were six copies in Chicago! I called my neighborhood library, and within 3 days, I had a copy of Tedd’s book. I read it cover to cover and took copious notes, but the information was so overwhelming I wasn’t able to figure out what time period or area that might be right for Havana Lost.
So I asked Tedd—by now we were communicating by email— whether he, by any chance, had Skype.
It took us a while to coordinate logistics—our conversation had to take place after his twin daughters went to bed, and I couldn’t interfere with a UK soccer match. (They take their “football” seriously). But eventually, we connected and talked for more than 45 minutes.
Not only did he help me identify a location in Angola— the town of Dundo in the north which also happens to be quite near the Congo border—but he also gave me a plausible scenario that became the premise underlying the entire thriller. I’m not going to go into more detail here—it’s all in the book. I’ll just leave you with one word: Coltan.
I did more research on Angola, the Congo, and Coltan, and wrote the chapters that are set there. Tedd was kind enough to vet them for me afterwards.
The entire adventure was one of the most exciting and productive experiences I’ve had as an author. And it was all because of Twitter, Skype, and the internet.
Sometimes social media rocks.