Welcome to my final spot with Clink Street’s Blogival. Today we have a guest post from Monika with her tips for writing historical fiction
One of the main difficulties of researching for historical fiction is just that – the research! Or more specifically getting bogged down in the research. Research is important of course and reality is so often stranger than fiction, which is why history provides such good fodder for novelists, but at the end of the day we are writing historical fiction. As a reader, if you want to read a history book, I would suggest you don’t pick up a novel. As a writer, I would suggest, that as soon as something you research sparks your imagination, get writing and stop researching. I often have blank spaces in the pages I write; spaces where a fact or detail needs to be added, but it is not so vital to keep me from actually writing the drama my characters are going through. Later on, after the writing is done, I can go back and fill in the blanks. The internet, being just a click away, is a very tempting and useful tool, but it can lead you down labyrinths that are a massive distraction sometimes. It’s better not to go there until after or before your actual writing time.
There is another difficulty with researching history and that is the history books themselves. As we all know, history can be a very subjective thing, open to interpretation and manipulation by historians, depending on their political and cultural bias. Every few decades, top secret documents are released to the public under the Freedom of Information Act, the 30 year rule, etc and we find ourselves a little closer to the truth; a little more aware of how history is not as black and white as we might have thought.
That’s why I think some of the greatest tools for research are photographs. During the research for my novel Fifteen Words, set in Germany during the last days of the Second World War and the few years after it, I would pore for hours over photos found in archives, on the internet and in my families own collections. Luckily, the age of photography was still reasonably young in the early-mid twentieth century, so the photos I saw could not have been doctored; and as such they are often the most honest and objective interpretation of the past we can find. Photos are so full of stuff to inspire your imagination; full of details that can populate your descriptions. Use them!
Private letters are similarly useful, as they can help you imagine the voices of your characters, the vocabulary they might use, the turns of phrase they might employ. Private letters often can tell us what kind of issues occupied the minds of people during the eras you are writing about. For example, nearly all of the letters in my novel Fifteen Words are near transcriptions of genuine ones I found in archives. I would match a letter to the appropriate character, or sometimes a letter I stumbled across inspired a whole new turn of events in the book.
So while the details are important, getting inside the characters is so much more important. And the best research you can do for this is to look inside yourself because, although there may be many decades or even centuries which separate you and your characters, human beings are, and always have been, very similar, beneath all the wonderful and incredible cultural and physical differences we possess. That is why if, as a writer, you can set down emotions that you have felt in a clear and honest way, readers from any part of the globe and from any epoch in the future should be able to relate to and be moved by them.
About the book
Two young doctors form a profound and loving bond in Nazi Germany; a bond that will stretch them to the very limits of human endurance. Catholic Max – whose religious and moral beliefs are in conflict, has been conscripted to join the war effort as a medic, despite his hatred of Hitler’s regime. His beloved Erika, a privileged young woman, is herself a product of the Hitler Youth. In spite of their stark differences, Max and Erika defy convention and marry.
But when Max is stationed at the fortress city of Breslau, their worst nightmares are realised; his hospital is bombed, he is captured by the Soviet Army and taken to a POW camp in Siberia. Max experiences untold horrors, his one comfort the letters he is allowed to send home: messages that can only contain Fifteen Words. Back in Germany, Erika is struggling to survive and protect their young daughter, finding comfort in the arms of a local carpenter. Worlds apart and with only sparse words for comfort, will they ever find their way back to one another, and will Germany ever find peace?
Fifteen Words is a vivid and intimate portrayal of human love and perseverance, one which illuminates the German experience of the war, which has often been overshadowed by history.
In this extract Max and Erika are in the first throes of their relationship as young medical students in Germany. The internal struggles they experience just in getting to that first kiss are a precursor to the greater struggles they will undergo as they battle to reconcile his Catholicism with her irreligious political views. Furthermore, just a matter of months after this scene, they must attempt to survive the greatest battle of all: four years wrenched apart, Erika left alone in her decimated homeland whilst Max becomes a POW in a Siberian labour camp.
It wasn’t until the leaving ball in July. Three months after that first conversation in the Kakadu Bar. Max was so desperate to kiss her by then, but he struggled to find the courage. Erika was never backwards in coming forwards, he thought, so why doesn’t she initiate it? If he only knew how the butterflies swarmed in Erika’s stomach he might have taken more confidence from that. She was as paralysed as he was because none of those other flirtations had ever meant as much to her has Max. At the end of the ball they walked back to the house and he sat on the stairs outside her door, the stairs that led to his room above. She stood in front of him, leaning her knees on his, exploring his hand with hers as they chatted about their friends, about the ball, the dancing. Neither of them could tell you what was said then, but both could recall the sensuous ballet their hands performed like it was yesterday.
‘Kiss me kiss me kiss me!’ she thought.
‘Kiss me kiss me kiss me!’ he thought.
But it was too important for both of them. They were petrified that the physical manifestation of their love would somehow contaminate the spiritual and intellectual elements which had served them so well until now; which they were afraid could not be surpassed. They were both doctors – well, they would be one day soon – and the biochemical mechanics of attraction held no mystery for them anymore. But this connection between them was evidently more than physical. Beyond any of their scientific knowledge, and therefore to be venerated.
But the evening had finally run its course. Short of a kiss, there was nothing more to be said or done.
‘Goodnight,’ she said.
‘Goodnight,’ he said.
She sloped off down the short corridor between the stairs and her door, allowing her hand to linger on the banister as she went. He watched her go. Watched the hand begin to trail off behind her too.
Then he grabbed it.
She froze. Looking in the direction of her room. Her hand held out behind her like a ballerina.
And he found himself kissing her palm.
She melted. Feeling anything but as balanced as a ballerina, she turned back, steadied herself with her free hand and watched him through the banister. Once, twice he kissed her hand then held her palm to his face and inhaled, clamping it to his mouth with his own trembling hand on top. She moved back to stand in front of him, and stroked his hair, kissed his head. They were now a wonderful pile of hands and heads. Bowed heads, like supplicants. Praying for a future together.
About Monika Jephcott Thomas
Monika Jephcott Thomas grew up in Dortmund Mengede, north-west Germany. She moved to the UK in 1966, enjoying a thirty year career in education before retraining as a therapist. Along with her partner Jeff she established the Academy of Play & Child Psychotherapy in order to support the twenty per cent of children who have emotional, behavioural, social and mental health problems by using play and the creative Arts. A founder member of Play Therapy UK, Jephcott Thomas was elected President of Play Therapy International in 2002.