Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Writing History

I’m currently working on my second Holocaust project. This is the story of one Clara Lehrs, born in 1871 and exterminated in 1942 at Treblinka. I’m writing about her life from 1918, when her husband died, until her own death in 1947. See more on my blog The House onSchellberg Street.
I have the bare bones of the story and if I divide that into scenes there is pretty well a full length book – probably about 90,000 words.
Two types of details
Concrete facts        
In order to tell the story accurately there are certain things I really need to know:
  • Where people lived
  • Where they married
  • Where children were born
  • Which day of the week certain dates fall on
  • What was happening in the background in key places at key times – e.g. Mecklenburg, Berlin, Jena, Stuttgart, Rexingen, 1918, 1924, 1928, 1933, 1938, 1942
Setting details
At various times I need to know about:
·         Homes
·         Clothes
·         Towns
·         Transport
·         Political problems that impinge on everyday life e.g. inflation, treatment of Jews,
·         Feelings of well-being / feelings of being oppressed
Sources of information
Primary resources
·         documents  - death / birth certificates
·         verbatim accounts written at the time
·         diaries
·         letters  
I actually own quite a few of these so that was a good start.
Repeated experience
·         train journeys through Europe
·         visits to places mentioned above plus Theresienstadt and Treblinka  
·         viewing the house on Schellberg Street
I’m planning a trip to cover this and I’ve used crowd-funding to finance it.
Research through imagination
There are some things we just cannot find out. At that point all we can do is put the characters in the situation with as many facts as we know and as much setting material as we can muster and see what happens. It almost becomes a type of “method” writing – a little like method acting.  

Procrastination tool?    
I tend to ascertain the verifiable facts before I write. However, the writing itself asks more questions. How did young married women behave in the early 1890s? What was it like living in Berlin 1871 – 1914 (la belle époque)?  What did they wear back then? Even when I’m sitting at my desk writing I tend to do two hours research to one hour of writing.
Then there are the visits and researching the concrete details.
So this particular 90,000 words will take a long time to write.  No matter, all the other activities are writerly ones and not actually a procrastination tool even if that’s what they look like.
And actually, what an interesting way to spend one’s time.    

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