Video about the project

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Two stories crossing

I am at the first crossover point between Clara’s Story and The House on Schellberg Street. This is the birth of Renate Edler, who is the main character in the first story. She was born five weeks prematurely in a thunderstorm and there were concerns about whether she would live. So, she was christened straight away. Her father had to find a priest quickly and the only one he managed to locate had had rather a lot to drink. He made three mistakes:
·         He got the names in the wrong order
·         He spelt Renata wrongly
·         He spelt Clara wrongly.
The family had wanted the Italian spelling of Renata, not the German Renate. She was supposed to be named Clara after both of her grandmothers. So, instead of being Renata Clara she became Klara Renate. This may eventually have helped her to get out of Germany more easily in 1939.

Childbirth in early 20th century

In order to write this scene I’ve had to do some research about childbirth in the early 20th century. Five weeks prematurity would not be too critical these days. It still was then. Births would normally be at home and this is the case here though because labour started early the doctor as well as the midwife is in attendance. The husband would not be present at the birth like nowadays and even the doctor, the other nurse and the mother looked away as the midwife checked “down below”.
Was the disorientation as the second stage started recognised then? Even if it wasn’t, chances are women experienced it. Käthe, being the modern young woman she is, gives vent to those feelings, though Clara, enlightened as she is, remains a lady, and although she recognizes what Käthe is going through she remembers that she didn’t mention it out loud.
There was no machinery – no heart monitors and no oxygen on demand. The doctor and the midwife relied on stethoscopes and the baby’s airways had to be cleared manually. Clara fears a still birth but all is actually well.   

Handling the crossover

Where the stories cross over they will have to match.  This is the first of many, now. However, although they must never contradict they show different angles of various events. Now we see everything from Clara’s point of view instead of Renate’s or Hani’s. I hope those who have already read The House on Schellberg Street will enjoy reading about these events from this other point of view. Those who haven’t may wish to after they’ve finished Clara’s Story. They will of course then have the answer to the question left open; they will know what has happened to Clara. This isn’t really a problem – most people will have guessed anyway.            



Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Am I creating darlings that I’ll need to kill?

I enjoyed writing the end of one chapter and the beginning of another yesterday. I’m conveniently at a stage with this project now where it’s a pleasure to turn to it and I know exactly what I’m going to write. But is it all a little self-indulgent?  

Character building

I’ve worked a little more on Käthe and Hans and on Clara’s relationship with Käthe. The little scene I created there contains an important plot point: Käthe announces her pregnancy. We need to know that the baby should be born in August.  She will actually arrive in July, in a thunderstorm and will be christened wrongly. This latter fact may save her life. Her full story is told in The House on Schellberg Street. But do I need this story strand again in Clara’s Story? It remains to be seen.
In the second chapter, I have Clara feeling strange and working vigorously in the garden.  She’ll soon encounter Kurt again, a young boy with severe learning difficulties, who becomes a bit of a spiritual mentor to Clara. It may become important to both the plot and building the character. The drama of the day is that Rudolf Steiner dies. By the time we come to Rexingen, Clara must be firm in her religious beliefs and sunny and optimistic by nature.


Oh, I am so enjoying writing the scene in the garden where Clara feels the soil in her hands and is filled with hope as she see the buds swelling and looks forward to the birth of her grandchild. I’m looking forward to the next bit where Kurt comes with his words of wisdom. But is all of this needed? Might I eventually have to cut it out? I have several scenes similar to this for The House on Schellberg Street. They seemed precious at the time.

Sometimes writers need to write what readers don’t need to read

Sometimes we just have to write to help ourselves along the way. Look how often first chapters get reduced to one paragraph. I probably need to write those scenes described above so that I get to know my characters a little better. I won’t know for sure if they’re needed until I’ve written the whole novel and started the editing.  Even if they are darlings that need killing it won’t really matter. They will still have been useful.       

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Imagination – a tool that helps uncover truth

I’m finding out a lot about the lives of Clara and the people who surround her. Some of it comes from the facts I establish through the usual means – primary resources, documentary evidence from the time and archival records. Much too also comes from the testing with the imagination that all writers use. Thinking is not enough on its own. I guess as we write each answer poses new questions more rapidly than when we merely think. Here are three recent examples.

Leo in World War I

I decided I did need to include some scenes from World War I. I couldn’t really skip form 1913 to 1917 without some mention of it. Anyway something that happened then that made Leo, later called Ernst, turn from science to spirituality. Possibly the only way to find out what was to write about it.
Certainly, there are plenty of eye-witness accounts, several of which were made at the time so these are very authentic. Leo’s character has already been created in earlier chapters. We know also that he became an officer. What did this sensitive young man make of the mud, the cold and the constant fear? What did he do so well that they promoted him?
Still in the trenches, and to some extent joining in the “live and let live routine”, I have him  questioning the morality of it all. He knows the Brits are just sixty metres away and that they are sons, brothers, husbands and fiancés just like his own men. I get him to write it all in a diary that Clara later reads.

Clara and the Steiner Organisation

Clara had some doubts at first about the Steiner belief system. She was born a Jewess, became a protestant and believed, along with her children and husband, more in the natural sciences than in a deity. We know that eventually she was reconciled with the Steiner beliefs – we know that she used these to encourage herself and others when she was exiled to Rexingen. Presumably they also propped her up when she later moved to Theriesenstadt and then Treblinka. So how exactly did she become convinced?  
I’ve decided that Kurt, the young boy who actually was instrumental in persuading her to go and help at the Lauenstein was also an influence in this. I’ve made him obsessed with angels. He is a frequent companion of Clara’s and gets her thinking about angels, too. It is a way in.
It was also important to decide what Clara actually did at the Lauenstein. I imagine she was a manager rather than just a worker though she wouldn’t be afraid to get her hands dirty. I have just written a scene where she is sewing missing buttons on the boys’ shirts and darning the girl’s stockings on her afternoon off. She spends some time with Kurt talking about the angels. She generally gets on very well the children and the other staff despite her doubts. We know, from what is written of her future, that she was always a pleasant and sunny character.  


We know that she was feisty.
·         She was the first woman to gain her driving license in Munich.
·         She astounded her husband by driving in the dark.
·          She astounded Munich taxi drivers when she lifted the bonnet on the car and started fiddling with the “sparkling plugs” as she called them.
·         She cursed herself for not shooting Hitler when she had the chance – she was shown into the same anteroom as him when she had a pistol in her bag and didn’t think to use it.
·         She fled to England soon after her daughter had come here on the Kindertransport.
·         She studied natural sciences at university – at a time when not many women went to university and even fewer to study science.
·         She married her professor.
·         She endured a Nazi-enforced divorce.
·         She worked for a London-based advertising company until a few weeks  before her death at the age of 83.
·         She had the audacity to teach English to other non-native speakers yet she spoke with a strong Yiddish accent – that she learned off German Jews living in London, rather than it being natural to her.
Some of these incidents may appear in the story – if they are in the timeline – but I’m now beginning to think she deserves a book of her own.  Does this mean I have another project sorted?
But what was she like as a person and how did she become so brave?
I’m making her slightly awkward. She is a middle child, and they often are uneasy with themselves. She is frustrated to some extent because her brothers seem to her to have it all easier. I’m assuming her courage comes partly from her highly-strung nature.
I’m currently in the middle of the scene where she arrives to tell her mother she is expecting a baby.      

Parallels with the stage

It almost becomes a type of  improvisation. It’s a matter of getting into the heads of characters and seeing what they make of the situations we actually know about and deciding what else is likely to be happening.
The reader, of course, sees mainly Clara’s point of view but I’ve had to pop into the heads of the others too.
I’m certainly learning a lot!      

Monday, 13 May 2013

Ernst Jüngers Kreigestagebuch

This is a gem of a resource. It is a diary written by a young German soldier who was in World War I, 1914-1918. A diary written at the time is so much more useful than an account given later coloured by all that the person concerned has experienced in the meantime.    
Jüngers simply tells of everyday occurrences. Some excerpts are longer than others. And he doesn’t write every single day.  In the earlier accounts, there is a lot of pea soup “Erbsensuppe”.
434 of the 656 pages are diary entries. The other material is equally important and interesting. There are then about 160 pages of notes and further explanations about some of the entries. A summary of Jünger’s time in the war follows. Some other titles are suggested and finally come the publisher’s acknowledgements.  
The diary entries are beautifully simple and matter-of-fact. “ich ließ mich im Schlafe nicht stőren” ( I didn’t allow my sleep to be disturbed) he writes of his first night in the trenches on 3 January 1915.
On 4 January we read “Dann kracht es wieder an 4, 5 versheidenen Orten. Nachher rauche ich mit Peipeke meine Cigarette und wir glauben hinten auf dem Felde einen Franzosen zu sehen.” (Then it bangs again, four of five times in different places. Afterwards I smoke a cigarette with Priepke and we think we see a Frenchman on the field, at the back.)
I am so glad I can read German. This book will be such a useful tool in helping me to understand what Ernst Lehrs went through in the Great War.    


Thursday, 9 May 2013

To the trenches

Here we go with the imagination. I’m thinking about the cold and damp. The lice and trench foot. Constant hunger. Constant fear. The trauma of seeing comrades killed. The adrenalin rush as they go over the top.  But also the live and let live policy. The Christmas truce. The thought that just sixty metres away there were men just like themselves, with the same concerns about their daily lives and the lives they’d left behind but fighting for the other side.   
I’ve had to include some of Leo’s First World War scenes. They offer some explanation about why he is the way he is in the early 1920s. About why he is disappointed with the world and why he seeks something more spiritual. Can I make Clara understand? Did she ever know what her son went through - even though she eventually goes through something even worse? I have to constantly paint her as a glass half-full type of person.
I’m including three extracts from Leo’s diary, a letter to Clara and a reaction from her.
And I need to do some more research. Probably in the area of repeated experience. I’d like to enrol for a trench experience but preferably one where you feel the cold, the mud under your feet and the fear.  How can we recreate the fear?
We’ve recently had an MA day at the university where I teach. Several of our creative writing students were clear about the symbiotic relationship between fact and fiction in biographical writing. They were a little less clear on the necessity for writers to submerge themselves in repeatable experiences and to understand their characters settings completely.  Might my reflection on that process here help them?