Gill talked about why she wrote this book (it is based on her late mother-in-law’s life) and shared the difficulties in bringing it to publication. In Part 2, Gill shares what she feels are the joys and woes of writing historical fiction, gives useful advice to those new to this genre, and reveals what happened as a result of the book. This includes the development of material for use in schools. Now over to Gill…
Share what you think are the joys and woes of writing historical fiction.
You have to be careful you don’t get too carried away by the research. It can be a great procrastinating tool. I know some writers who spend months collecting material, visiting old houses, looking into archives etc. Many of them produce lovely scrap-books which ought also to be published. I collect a lot of material on Pinterest. I have boards about the 1940s and 1920’s fashions and Berlin trams, for instance. This is at once a joy and a woe.
You must also be wary of overloading your reader with information. If you try to cram every fact you’ve acquired into your narrative you’ll overwhelm the reader. It’s more a question of writing with knowledge and by some bizarre process that gets across to the reader. This is also true for fantasy, science fiction and for writers dealing with the present day and wanting to display exactly what their characters are like.
Caroline Laurence does this very well with her Roman Mysteries. The setting is strong and clear but she doesn’t preach about life in classical Rome. However, she can put her research on to her website. She writes for children so has done this in a child-friendly manner.
I’m trying this with my website though it’s a little more complex as I’m also writing for adults and teachers, scholars and academics in particular.
Incidentally, Caroline says she is certain of about 70% of the setting issues in her novels, the other 30% is informed guess work where she uses her imagination. Like me she then finds subsequent research confirms what she had to figure out.
It can be difficult if you draw a blank. But as a writer you do always have that powerful tool we share with actors. How did this character get from A to B? Walk with her in your writer’s imagination.
There is an important ethical issue as well. Giving a voice to people who no longer have a voice may seem a good thing to do. But what if they don’t want a voice and what if you get it wrong? You need humility here and have to be extremely respectful of the people you seek to represent.
What would you advise a writer new to this genre?
Don’t be overwhelmed by the setting. The story is more important. The setting is part of what the protagonist comes into conflict with. You have three tools to help you with this:-
1. Primary resources
Obviously my letters were a real find. What is important here is having something that represents a genuine reaction to the time before the person concerned has had too long to think about it, such as amateur photos, old newspapers, diaries, letters, post cards.
2. Repeated experience
Try living on a war-time diet for a while. Have a go at “making do and mending”. Live in the cellar for a few days.
3. Use your writer’s imagination
Method act your way between events.
Who are your favourite historical fiction writers and why?
I’m reading those who write for young people and/or are writing about the same era as I am.
Vivienne Docherty: she makes ordinary lives from the past important.
Paul Doswell: he writes for teens and middle-graders about the two world wars and some more recent conflicts. He has male protagonists.
Caroline Lawrence: she writes for young people. She brings in the facts beautifully subtly.
Michelle Magorian: she writes engagingly about what happened to ordinary people in and around the 1940s. Allison: Best known for Goodnight Mr Tom. The TV adaptation starred the late John Thaw.
Michael Morpurgo: he is a fantastic writer anyway and has written several books set during the two world wars. Allison: War Horse, of course, is his epic. Just how many books go on to become a film and a stage play?
Linda Newberry: she writes historical fiction for children and covers many eras.
And a little secret here: when I go to the library I’ll often cast an eye over “New Arrivals” and look for covers with 1930s / 1940s clothes on them. I’ve read many I’ve enjoyed but can’t remember them all. Shame on me!
What are you trying to convey in historical fiction? Actual truth or a sense of what it might have been?
I might best describe it as emotional truth. I use many verifiable facts and take great care to get the historical details right. Really, though, I’m putting my characters into that setting and seeing how they deal with it.
Some techniques we use in fiction do this very well. A good narrative balance helps the reader get the same picture in her head as the writer had. If we write with the senses we can give a reader a strong sense of time and place. Inner monologue is helpful. We can understand the character’s emotions that way.
A colleague of mine at the university teaches students to write creative non-fiction. This can include memoir, autobiography, biography and historical fiction. Students often choose to use the same writing techniques they would use in fiction to create a more engaging narrative and one which makes a more emotional connection to the reader.
The House on Schellberg Street fascinated me for what the characters who stayed in Germany did NOT say in their letters. There was so much between the lines not stated… I almost physically felt the heavy hand of censorship that would have been imposed by the Nazis on the letter writers in your story which I assume is what you were trying to convey.
The biggest censor for the letters that informed the book was one of the writers – the girls’ teacher, Hanna Braun. She made two interesting comments. Early on, she advised the girls to write only about their daily lives. She suggested this was what after all would be more interesting. This rendered the stories harmless and they therefore passed random checks.
When the first volume was full, she suggested they let it go round with the new exercise book she had provided just once more so the girls can rescue their photographs. The last girl, she suggests, should keep it in the attic or perhaps burn it. Fortunately the second volume was not burnt but was found in an attic and the photos were still there.
Surprisingly, perhaps, there were many precise details about the locations of barracks and places where the girls did their work experience and war work.
In a sense I have also censored. I haven’t used the letters verbatim. There were far too many different characters and also a lot of the detail was repetitive. I took the essence of the letters and then carefully crafted a series of stories told through them for a handful of girls who were a bit like the girls in the letters.
In the actual letters the girls also self-censored. They were careful about what they said in the letters. They were writing in front of the teacher who had been in charge of their class when they were twelve/thirteen.
I don’t think I’ll ever give up researching this topic. I’ve read most of the magazines for the Bund Deutscher Madel (girls’ version of Hitler Youth) that were printed between 1928 and 1943, for instance. I’m always on the look-out for material about this era.
Whilst I was on sabbatical, I wrote for about four hours a day and then researched for another four to six hours. In the evenings I had to watch comedy on TV to escape some aspects of this dark material. Sometimes the research would make me want to write in a certain way and sometimes the writing itself would pose questions.
Fascinatingly I’ve been contacted on Facebook by a relation of Clara Lehrs, with whom we’ve now corresponded a lot, and via the web site by a woman who lives in Schellberg Street.
You have developed a game and other material for use in schools based on The House on Schellberg Street. Tell us more about this aspect – how it came about, how it has been received, and whether you hope to do more in this line? Also why a board game in particular?
The plan always had been to disseminate the findings of the research through schools. Although I retain copyright and intellectual property rights for all of the books and the supporting activities, the university may still take credit for allowing me to do the research on its time and with its resources. They can do this even though I have now retired, and only work as an associate lecturer. It’s to do with what they call “impact”. We’re all very pleased about the attention the website is getting.
A talk at a conference for children’s writers gave me the idea about the board games when a writer and illustrator team showed how they conducted a class board game. The main point here is all of the characters have good and bad points and they have good and bad days. Nature carries on despite human wars and thank goodness so does human nature.
I’ve devised six board games, each with six characters. As the students work through this they collectively begin to understand the issues that face various characters. Follow-up activities include letter-writing, one character to another, then role-play/ speed-dating/ some work on a letter from Clara Lehrs to her children, and some work on the letters from Hanna Braun, the German girls’ teacher.
The one day workshop works ideally with a class of up to 36 students. Recently though I worked with a school where we adapted it to work with a whole year group. I suggest creative writing responses to the tasks and I’m currently extending the teachers’ pack to include suggestions about how to facilitate that. I’m also working on “Discovery Packs” for the students so they can explore some of the background issues.
The workshop is most in demand between Christmas and Easter as this is when the Holocaust is taught. In addition I offer a “pay what you can afford” version of this. You can contact me via The House on Schellberg Street website to discuss this. You will see from this you can just buy the materials and run the workshop yourself. I’m also happy to send any teachers the teacher’s pack free of charge. Allison: If anyone is interested, please do let me know and I’ll forward details to Gill.
I’m currently working on turning the Schellberg Cycle into a play. I finished the first draft a couple of days ago. I’ve written four of the Schellberg Cycle novels and I have a fifth and sixth planned. The Cycle just keeps on growing.
Gill, thank you once again for your time and for all your support for fellow writers.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.