Video about the project

Monday, 29 April 2013

All Change – My relationship with titles

After much deliberation and finally after talking it though with some members who came to the SCBWI Manchester critique group yesterday I’ve decided to change the titles of my Holocaust projects, associated blogs and Facebook pages. Potatoes in Spring now becomes The House on Schellberg Street and The House on Schellberg Street turns into Clara’s Story.
One of my beta readers anyway has already told me that they preferred The House on Schellberg Street as the title for the first story.  It did worry me a little that only one strand of the story actually takes place at the house but in fact only one third of Clara’s story does anyway. Possibly the first story does overall have more to do with the house:
Renate thought she was going to live there when she was being sent to England.
The strand of the story that happens there is really important and leaves the way open for a third book set in this era.
It poses a question at the end.
For a short while anyway, The House on Schellberg Street did become the title of story number one. However, I then decided it was excellent for number two. Now that Clara’s story is becoming more complex it seems less appropriate.  
I think yesterday I talked myself into this.  It wasn’t really so much that my friends persuaded me. The allowed me to persuade myself.
I rarely use the title I’ve worked with for the eventual title of a text. It’s the one thing I’d never worry about if an editor wanted to change it. I’d assume they knew better than me. I’m not good at titles and blurbs but am good at names and synopses. Each according to their strength.
I never worry about the title, though. I’m fairly confident usually that the right one will present itself. I fell reasonably satisfied with the decision I’ve made here.  

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The ABC of Writing and its application to this text

Recently someone spoke about the ABC of writing. A is for Art. This is intangible and this is where there may be talent. It interfaces with craft, the C, but Art tells you when to use which aspects of the craft and how to combine different narrative voices.
B is the business of writing. This is all about making the right contacts and connections and behaving in a business-like way. Writerly research and getting the facts right is also important business.  
C is the craft. Showing not telling. Developing characters effectively. Creating dialogue that works. Creating real time.
I’ve recently been working on the early life of Rudi Lehrs. There are only a few facts known about him but I’ve found out quite a lot about lung disease and how it was treated in the early part of the 20th century. That’s the B taken care of.
I’ve done my character crafting. I’ve put Clara and Rudi into real time. I’ve created tension and pace.  I’ve shown instead of telling. I’ve put all that I know about writing into creating a film in the reader’s head.  C is probably fine.
A took me by surprise. B and C led me to having Clara in a hospital waiting room.  Another woman with a sick child was there. Without realising it I showed Clara to be more of an optimist. The nurse invites her to wait in an enclosed garden. I’m just about to make her admire the flowers growing unexpectedly in an enclosed space. Does this foreshadow what is to come? Logic hasn’t told me to include that scene.  It seems to fit, like an extra brush stroke on a watercolour.
Presumably the successful combination of A, B and is another layer of the art of writing?                     

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Lung diseases in the early 20th century

Since I last posted we’ve found out a little more about Rudi Lehrs’ lung problem. He did, in fact, have TB so badly that one lung was removed. He was middle-aged by then. The other lung took over the function of both and he led a reasonably normal life after that.
I’ve already written my first scene where they get the doctor in the night for something that looks like an asthma attack and leaves him looking blue. They cure it with steam. We think he may have been asthmatic anyway. Käthe was and so was her grandson as a child.
I’ve also made him quite weak in some other scenes, too.  
It’s actually useful in terms of story anyway. Clara’s early married life and her childhood seem idyllic.  She initially becomes engaged in what looks like a very exciting third stage of her life. Rudi’s illness questions these good times and maybe foreshadows later doom.
TB was still a killer disease when Rudi was young. There was no vaccination then and it was possibly made worse by the dirty air and smogs of the time. Berlin was not as bad as London but it was still a busy city with some pollution and people living in close proximity to each other.  The importance of cleanliness was not understood by all at that time so disease could spread quickly. It is likely that Clara was quite house-proud though not obsessively so.   
Before Rudi becomes an adult the iron lung has been invented and oxygen masks are given to soldiers affected by gas from the Great War.           
Lung removal seems a desperate measure and it is a major operation even today meaning that a patient cannot return to work for eight weeks. It’s normally only done if cancer is present. We’re not sure whether Rudi did have cancer. It can be a successful procedure and possibly was in Rudi’s case. Although both his older sister and older brother outlived him, it was only by a few years. Pope Francis also had a lung removed when he was a teenager. He seems to be doing fine.
It certainly seems really unusual to do this after TB, although it may be that Rudi’s lungs were already damaged after bouts of asthma or whatever else it was that caused the dramatic incident I’ve invented for when he was less than a year old. Sarcoidosis? GERD? And maybe he did well despite his difficulties because he shared his mother’s optimistic spirit.               

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Putting in an extra thread - Rudi Lehrs

We only know a little about this character:
He was five years younger than Käthe Lehrs i.e. there was a much bigger gap between them than between Käthe and Ernst.
  • He only had one lung. (Though for how much of his life we’re not sure, nor why.)
  • He was a mathematician.
  • He was in London with Ernst when niece Renate Edler arrived there on the Kindertranport.
  • He ended up at the University of Ottawa.
Despite the problems with his lung he survived almost as long as his brother and sister.
At one point they could not find him: he had moved house in Canada and the notification had gone astray.  
That actually may seem like quite a collection but in fact we have much less of an impression of him than of the rest of the family. He seems to have been a bit of a loner but he has to come into Clara’s story. She was above all else a mother and a mother is concerned about her children.
I am only including a few scenes of Clara’s life before her “third stage” – her life after her husband’s death which spans the time of her involvement with the Steiner schools, the special class in Schellberg house and her persecution by the Nazis. Yet these scenes are crucial. They really build her.
For these scenes I am using the historical writer’s third tool – the imagination. (The other two are primary resources and repeated experience.) I’m inserting three scenes of Rudi’s earlier life. He will appear again later – mainly as he moves away from Germany.
There is a symbiotic relationship between the research we do and our writing in any case. We research the story in order to be able to tell it but as we write new questions appear. The research must stay out of the writing time and be seen as separate activity.  Sure, it counts as a writerly activity, it’s extremely interesting and it seems to me to be a good use of my time. But it can’t count as writing time.
I keep a list of what else I need to look into. Lung diseases joined that list yesterday.                 

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Albrecht Strohschein

Albrecht Strohschein This man had a tremendous influence on Clara Lehrs, even though he was a few years younger than her eldest son, Ernst. He was very accomplished in his work with special education within the Steiner movement and so was concerned with exactly the type of children who were later taught by Karl Schubert in the special class at the Waldorf School in Stuttgart. This class was later housed in the house on Schellberg Street.
It was probably because Clara was quite impressed with what could be achieved with one particular child who had very special needs that she eventually agreed to work as a housekeeper for the institution in Lauesnstein,Jena.
The German word for what went on there is “Heilpädogogik” - literally “healing pedagogoy”. Usually it is translated as “curative education” or simply “special” education.
We have now, by 2013, come a long way since the 1920s with our special education. What Rudolf Steiner, Karl Schubert and Albrecht Strohschein did was extraordinary for the time. Karl Schubert taught these children, albeit in a separate class, within a normal school. Although the Lauenstein centre was an institution where children lived away from their families, the aim was to allow the children to become as normal as possible, not just to hide them away from the world.   
It fascinates me that Germany is so tolerant, respectful even of the Steiner school system and also of its special education methods. Both Karl Schubert’s and Albrecht Strohschein’s work is carried on by schools that are named after them.
Clara Lehrs was a little wary of Steiner and anthroposophism. I am too. And yet.  The more I read the materials I’ve accumulated in the name of research, the more I see that there is something quite extraordinary within it.
Certainly both Shubert and Stohschein did a lot for children with severe learning difficulties.