Video about the project

Friday, 26 July 2013

The joys and pitfalls of writing historical fiction

I was at the Society of Authors North Summer Social yesterday and met Nina Boyd who has written From Suffragette to Fascist, the Many Lives of Mary Sophia Allen, and who is currently working on a biography of Lizzy Lind of Hageby, a Swedish feminist and campaigner for animal rights. We discussed some of the problems we face when we try to write the story of people who are not all that well documented and are no longer alive.
Uncovering the facts is hard enough. But we also need to pay attention to the details of everyday life. Finding out about both of these areas can be fascinating and can also be a great distraction. Often we’ll try to find out these details before we start writing. Occasionally questions only occur to us as we write. Sometimes the writing itself uncovers the truth.   
We have to take care not to overwhelm our readers with facts. It’s tempting to try and cram in everything we know. It’s better to relax into the story and just write with the knowledge we’ve acquired rather than about it. Somehow what the reader needs comes across. It’s like this with characters we invent, too.
I’ve chosen to use a narrative-style that is more normal in fiction. I believe this makes my text more palatable to the reader. Much of what I am writing may be fiction anyway. Not only was Clara murdered but most evidence of her existence was annihilated. There is very little of her left apart from the plaque on the house in Schellberg Street and the Stolperstein in front of it.   
There is a huge ethical issue here, also. We put words into these people’s mouths. We supply their voice and they cannot defend themselves. This is slightly better than them having no voice but only if we represent them accurately and sensitively. In Clara’s case I am related to her closest living relatives – her great grandson and great-great-grandchildren. I have their permission and trust.         

Monday, 22 July 2013

Clara’s stubbornness

I am getting to the trickier part of Clara’s Story now. Hitler is rising to power. She didn’t really see that coming nor did she have that political interest. However, she is shrewd and understands people well, though she is not aware of her ability to do this. She soon realises that she does not trust this man but understands why other people do.
Clara refused to leave Germany and then couldn’t. There were several probable reasons for this:
  • She considered herself to be Christian, not Jewish and German, not Jewish. She was a little naïve about the Blutschutz laws.
  • She was eternally optimistic about the basic good nature of people. This came partly form her new-found religious beliefs but also from a more humanitarian standpoint she had always had and her natural sunny nature.  
  • She felt a very strong loyalty to the children who came to board. Even after the Waldorf School had closed the Hilfsklasse was still allowed to carry on working in the house on Schellberg Street.    
I have already created her a little this way in TheHouse on Schellberg Street. I’m fast coming to the point where the two novels will completely cross over. I am going to have to make sure that the two personalities match.   

Thursday, 18 July 2013

How did Hitler do it?

There are probably thousands of theories about this and hundreds and hundreds of books, articles and academic papers written on the subject. It’s not my job here to add to that particular bank of knowledge. Rather I’m exploring how it all seemed to an ordinary German woman.
Our story really begins on 9 October 1918. Women were granted the right to vote in Germany only on 12 November of that year. I’m painting Clara as intelligent but not particularly interested in politics. I have made her naïve in comparison with the young people she cares for. They know some facts about the man. An argument ensues with the following points raised:
·         He is not German – he gave up Austrian citizenship but did not become German straight away. He was stateless for a while.
·         He has been in prison.
·         He was treated well.  
·         He wrote Mein Kampf whilst there.
·         He has some good ideas about how to help the economy after the Wall Street crash – that did have huge repercussions in Germany - and the hyperinflation.
Clara reads up about him later.
Later Paul von Hindenburg wins the presidential elections, though Hitler gets a substantial part of the vote and Hindenburg is getting very old and too tired for this role.
Clara likes to think of herself as a very rational woman. However, she is actually very intuitive. In her investigations she sees several photos of Hitler. His eyes scare her, just like Rudolf Steiner’s used to. Both sets of eyes suggest power. Hitler’s also include evil.
Later Ernst points out that Hitler was loyal during the Great War.    

Sunday, 14 July 2013


There is a lot of this in Clara’s Story. Most readers will know how the story ends and I’m making no secret about it on this blog. Even people who have not read this blog may have read The House on Schellberg Street and will have worked out her fate even though the characters in that story are not yet aware of it. Others will guess as it is foreshadowed in the book.
Most of the time I’ve done this unconsciously and it’s only as I’ve edited that I’ve realised what has happened. I, and hopefully the subsequent reader, say “Of course.” I’ve noticed three examples lately:
1.      Kurt and his angels. Kurt, a boy with severe learning difficulties, sees lives as watched over by angels. Clara will encounter an angel just before her last journey. She will remember Kurt at that moment. We were very touched to find out about a small act of kindness by one of the officials near the end of Clara’s life.
2.      The builder of the house on Schellberg Street remarks about how many students could fit in a room if they are put in bunk beds.
3.      On a Christmas visit to Stuttgart, Renate declares that she would like to go to the Waldorf School. Later in England she does go to a Steiner school. On the same occasion Hans and Käthe announce that they will be moving to Nuremberg. This makes Clara shudder. She might think it is simply because he will be involved with making defence weapons but we all know about Nuremberg. It is a similar shudder to the one she experienced when Ernst senior died. It remains partly unexplained to her. The reader may have more insight.  
And so we go on. It all has to be there but it all has to remain subtle.         

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Writing as a means of discovery: Clara’s spiritual journey

Ernst Lehrs, in his autobiography Gelebte Erwartung, tells us that his mother became a dedicated anthroposophist and brought comfort to other people living in the ghetto because of   her outlook on life. He also tells us that early on she found the beliefs of the anthroposophists difficult to understand. She believed that her husband only lived on in her memory and not that he was somewhere else now that he had died. Lehrs doesn’t tell us exactly how she came to change her ideas.
However, he does relate an extraordinary thing that happened to her. She was hurrying to the school because she was late for a lecture when she heard a scream from above and a child dropped into her arms. She rushed back to the house with the child. Then she “woke up” to find herself still standing on the street, her arms held open and apparently talking to herself as some other people on the street gave her some funny looks. This all happened on a day when a child had died because of heat-stroke.
Lehrs offers us no connection between this incident and Clara’s spiritual journey. I saw none either. True, it could make her think that there are some supernatural occurrences but knowing Clara she was just as likely to think that she was also suffering from the heat. However, as I wrote this scene I realised it was a turning point for Clara. As she joins her son in the dead boy’s vigil, she realises that the soul is still in the body and concludes that she had been returning the soul that had escaped too soon. It is a part of a belief system related to anthroposophy that the soul stays in or near the body for three days.
It’s interesting to look at my own process here. It wasn’t a conscious decision to make this the turning point for Clara. Yet, actually, Ernst Lehrs implies it is though doesn’t explain why. I remember a discussion before my mother-in-law’s funeral (she was Renate, whom we meet in this story) about the Christian Community’s belief concerning the time of departure of the soul. Whatever the cause, even for a rational person like Clara, this vision / hallucination must have been pretty startling. I uncovered the enormity of it for Clara as I wrote.