The Craft of Writing Historical Fiction

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As a pediatrician, I immunize against infectious disease; as a writer, I invoke memory as an inoculation against the atrocities humans inflict upon each other – an ethical immunization that fosters respect, compassion, and justice against the diseases of intolerance, hatred, and violence.

Historical fiction as a literary genre portrays manners, social conditions and other details unique to the period depicted. Sometimes it explores notable historical figures in these settings, allowing readers to better understand these key individuals and their historical moments. And, often it explores ordinary people living in extraordinary times. The spirit and essence of the writing, the synergy of history and fiction, often engenders a creative tension between historical authenticity and the author’s imagination – something unique to historical fiction.

About the Book

BEFORE THE COURT OF HEAVEN, is populated by ordinary Germans caught up in the maelstrom of Nazi ascendancy. My protagonist, Ernst Techow, was a real person and this is his story – part factual, part fable. Historically prominent figures are characters in my novel as well. Ernst, a real fascist assassin, has an historically accurate interaction with Joseph Goebbels in the 1931 Stennes Putsch, an internal Nazi coup that almost brought down the Nazi party by undermining Hitler’s authority. This is history writ large and small.

Consider my 2 epigraphs:

Picasso: “Art is a lie which makes us realize the truth.”

Wally Lamb (This One Thing I Know is True):  “What are our stories if not the mirrors we hold up to our fears?”

BEFORE THE COURT OF HEAVEN is historical fiction inspired by the history of how German’s Weimar democracy became the Third Reich. It is based on the true story of a young fascist assassin, Ernst Techow – an early Nazi – and his complex and harrowing atonement and redemption. He participated in the assassination of the highest-ranking Jew in the Weimar Democracy – Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau. It’s the story of his family, his friends, his co-conspirators – ordinary Germans who became complicit in extraordinary crimes. And it’s a tender love story of Ernst’s inextinguishable love for Lisa. They are star-crossed lovers buffeted by the storm of Nazi ascendancy.

BEFORE THE COURT OF HEAVEN spans an epoch in Germany from before W.W. I, to revolution and unrest after World War I, to the fragile Weimar democracy, the rise of the Nazis, World War II and the Holocaust.

The Value of Historical Fiction

George Santayana, the Spanish writer said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

He enjoins us to recognize the echoes of painful history and do what we can to prevent its repetition. History is cyclical, but we can never anticipate how recurrence will manifest. It’s never identical. We must be ever vigilant.

This history is compelling and critical – some have called BEFORE THE COURT OF HEAVEN a cautionary tale for today. My hope is that my historical fiction will allow the reader to appreciate the hope and tragedy of Germany’s Weimar democracy. My prayer is that it is an immunization against recurrence.

It is our unfortunate nature to project evil onto others, as if we are not somehow capable of it ourselves. In considering the history of Nazi Germany, we do so at our peril. The Third Reich rose to power as a malignancy within Germany’s Weimar democracy that followed World War I. Germany, an enlightened society – the nation that brought us Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Goethe, Bertold Brecht, Thomas Mann, Schiller – also brought us Hitler and the Nazis. A plurality of Germans voted for the Nazi party and Hitler became Chancellor in 1933 through legal parliamentary processes.

Jochen Bittner, the German journalist and New York Times columnist noted that there were 4 conditions that cleared the path for the fall of the Weimar democracy and the rise of the Third Reich

  1. loss of trust in institutions
  2. social humiliation
  3. political blunder
  4. economic distress.

I would suggest, though not identical, these conditions exist again today.

History, Alive in the Present

The echoes of this history that we feel today must be understood through the filters of history. Throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s Hitler worked his will legally and took advantage of the Weimar democracy’s vulnerabilities. He articulated ordinary Germans’ fears, their rage, their humiliation. They had been left behind, betrayed and threatened by a ruined economy, a degenerate culture, by women making free choices, by Communists, by Jews, Slavs, Romany, immigrants. He gave voice to their fear of “the other.” He gave credibility to Eugenic theories that reinforced Germans’ own racist bias of Aryan supremacy. In exchange, the German people, ordinary people no different than you and me, gave Hitler the reins of a dictatorship that would carry out the Holocaust.

The Holocaust began with the tragic failure of Germany’s Weimar democracy – before a single Jew was murdered. Indeed, Rathenau’s 1922 assassination might be considered the first Holocaust murder. This was the time to act, to resist. It was civil passivity that allowed the Nazis to flourish.

BEFORE THE COURT OF HEAVEN explores the capacity inherent in each of us for unspeakable horror and remarkable goodness – our devils and our better angels. I want to make this history come alive, to go deep and be present, to evoke the feelings that informed and impelled this history’s unfolding.

My title has a double meaning. I first heard this story of the redemption of Ernst Techow – an early Nazi – as a Yom Kippur sermon at Middlebury College in 1992. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar – the Day of Atonement – a day to plead before the court of heaven for forgiveness for sins against God, a day to turn from evil and redeem one’s self. But sins against our fellow humans must be confessed and atoned person to person. How does one do that after murdering someone? What does that atonement look like – the redemption that must precede, that is before the court of heaven?

Literature often treats Redemption as a facile phenomenon, often a fait accompli. But it’s enormously complex. It can’t be oversimplified, or shortened, or made painless. In BEFORE THE COURT OF HEAVEN, I have probed and studied the reluctant, complex and harrowing journey of Ernst’s redemption.

In Hebrew, the closest word for this interpretation of redemption is T'shuvah, repentant turning from evil, repairing the breech.  It is a kind of Truth and Reconciliation process that requires:

  1. A full recognition of the sin followed by an oral confession of the specifics. One must confess before man and God.
  2. Genuine remorse – the palpable inner pain and regret that follows recognition of the sin. To apologize from the heart, to make appropriate restitution for the injury, to assuage the feelings of the injured, to understand the past.
  3. Convincing determination to make amends and do everything possible to avoid future relapse.

Most challenging of all, Ernst must forgive himself - overcome his shame.  

I am not an experimental writer. I write visually – cinematically. I’ve known my characters for 25 years. I have an understanding with them, literally and figuratively.

I chose a fixed Point of View (POV) – only Ernst. I rejected a shifting or multiple POVs, there is no omniscient narrator, the narrative is mostly linear, without tricky chronologies. The reader is only aware of what Ernst experiences and thinks in his linear world. We see through his eyes only. I wanted to get into the head of a Nazi. This approach allows the reader to “feel” how ordinary people – fundamentally decent people – make accommodations with evil, incrementally and often with sound rationalizations; ordinary people who ultimately become complicit in extraordinary crimes.

After living with Ernst for 25 years, I have tried to get inside his heart as well. Plot, the “how,” is suspenseful, but Character, the “why,” drives the novel. Ultimately, I try to understand how intelligent, cultured, and civilized individuals could freely choose Hitler’s dictatorship.

The Challenge

Another challenge in writing historical fiction, is that as the author, I am mindful of my knowledge of what actually happened, as opposed to my characters, unaware, who live in their particular and eternal present. Their choices are made in the confusion and challenges of their moment, their fears and their doubts.

Any good story has Conflict, a Narrative that is (hopefully) seamless and well-written, and an Arc for each main character. My arcs involve Redemption, fear, the lust for power, the lust for justice, the pursuit of inextinguishable love, and forgiveness.

A critical element of character development is voice – my own and my characters’. I want to establish my characters’ voice and give them agency. But for historical accuracy, this requires evidence, research, and occasionally gifts. I received such a gift when I stumbled upon a hidden treasure – microfilm from the National Archives containing transcripts of Ernst Techow’s arrest, interrogation and trial. Like finding Gold! But all in German, some of it hand-written.

Marita Schine, a German friend, sat with me every Tuesday, at Middlebury’s Ilsley Library, translating these transcripts frame by frame. I am so grateful for her support and thoughtful translation as well as her critical reading of this manuscript. Thank you, Marita.

I was able to use these documents to capture the actual events and dialogue, and synergize them with my real and imagined characters. I have hewed faithfully to the transcript’s description of events, particularly the Organization Consul Trial of October 1922, a world-wide sensation. Much of Part 1 of BEFORE THE COURT OF HEAVEN is at least partly, creative non-fiction. I could not have invented the twists and turns and outrage of this seminal trial, where the first stirrings of Nazism are manifesting.

BEFORE THE COURT OF HEAVEN tells the stories, real and imagined, of individuals embedded in this history. As a writer I use the particular to focus a larger reality through the ordinary lives we can relate to, that are the sub-atomic particles of history. We glimpse a larger whole through the examination of quotidian details.

Going Forward

My hope is that by animating this history, readers will understand it in a visceral way so we don’t repeat it. Expository depiction of history is dry, lifeless – it appeals to our academic intellect – one narrow intelligence – necessary, but not sufficient. Convincing, compelling historical fiction is alive. It is an animated narrative that explores characters, real and imagined, and their personal relationship to their historical moment. I write about a flesh and blood family, the Techows, complex individuals in the interwar period and how they make accommodations with the rising Nazis. Sometimes, you won’t like my protagonist and other main characters, but you will always care about them. Worthy historical fiction gets to the emotional core of a particular history and those who must live it, in fact and in imagination.

I want you, as a reader, to ask yourself the questions that hung over my head as I wrote this book, and my previous book LIFE IN A JAR: THE IRENA SENDLER PROJECT.

“What would I have done?” And when a similar situation arises again, “What will I do?”

These are disturbing questions because we cannot answer them with surety. The disturbing truth is that we are all bystanders to the atrocities that occur with sickening regularity: Bosnia, Rwanda, The Congo, Darfur, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, the list goes on. The German word for bystander is more challenging. “Mitläufer” – fellow traveller – one who makes accommodation with evil. The implicit guilt is more incisive than our more passive, understandable, even forgivable notion of “Bystander.”

To be fair, though, it is fear that makes us bystanders. A psychiatrist friend told me before he passed away, “If you’re not scared, it isn’t courage.” Think about that. Fear is the handmaiden of courage. You can’t have one without the other. I urge you to remember this, take it as an affirmation, as encouragement. And then act in spite of your fears.

In trying to understand the rise of Nazism, these early years are critical. At some point Nazism and the Holocaust may have been unstoppable, but it should have been unbearable. Where was the hue and cry from public and religious institutions, from citizens, that this was fundamentally wrong and unacceptable?

Perhaps the best we can hope for is to be “active bystanders” – “Upstanders,” recognizing our responsibilities, forgiving ourselves for our failures, but indomitably pursuing justice and righteousness when we can.

I urge you to do whatever it is YOU can, no matter how small, to repair the world – Tikkun Olam in Hebrew – to challenge hatred, intolerance, neglect, aggression, bullying; to advocate for decency.

Two thousand years ago, a Hebrew sage, Rabbi Tarfon, said, “It is not for us to finish the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.”

It is our charge to answer, “What would I have done?” with “Here’s what I will do,” to affirm justice, decency, respect for all people, tolerance and compassion as the expected norms of community.

Because not to do so would invite the repetition of painful history.

Because not to do so would be unbearable.