One of the most famous adages that refer to writing is ‘Write what you know.’ As true as it may be, how does this apply to historical fiction? We can’t truly ‘know’ what really happened on a battlefield during WW2, or how the soap smelled that our great-great-greandmothers used to wash the laundry with. But can we? Is there a way to ‘know’ what we’re talking about as writers, when we write historical fiction?
We know the world we’re writing about by doing our research — by reading books, watching footage, or leafing through pictures. We’re even closer to the past through the stories of the people who lived during those times — and this is the best kind of research, the one tinged with emotions and the nuances of what it meant to live then. I’m speaking about small details, the kind you don’t easily find through other sources, like how it felt to wear one’s best boots on Sunday, or what Mother would have prepared for dinner, or how a room might have smelled in winter, when the fire in the stove burned. I’m talking about subjective memories, the distilled human experience, effectively evoking a moment of the past, making it come alive for the reader.
Drawing on the palpable past is what I tried to do in my novella-in-flash Bottled Goods— to evoke the Romanian spirit through foods, clothing, bits of conversation, contraband magazines that fell on the floor; cultivating the spirit of reverence to the Beloved Leader by hanging his picture above the blackboard in the classroom, or the rituals (almost religious in their quality) by which the flower bearers were chosen when the Leader was visiting a province town.
Life in historical flash fiction is all about these details, and evoking human experiences that transcend time — showing what it was to be human in a different era. The secret to good historical fiction is to transfer relatable, genuine human experiences into a well-researched historical era. Or to an era that you might be familiar with from the stories you were told by your family. I was three years old when communism fell in Romania, but for Bottled Goods, I wove whatever memories I had of what had remained unchanged after the Revolution (like the uniforms we all had to wear in school, standard for everyone, from the poshest school in Bucharest to the remotest village in Transylvania), with the stories my parents and grandparents told me about life under Communism.
This might all sound rather nice in theory, but how does everybody else go about translating it into practice (or on paper)? I’ve chatted with a few flash fiction writers who had published collections or novellas-in-flash with a historical core. The über-talented Nod Ghosh, Joanna Campbell and Frankie McMillan have been generous enough to share their writing processes with you and me. Here’s what they had to say about writing historical flash fiction.
The Crazed Wind, Nod Ghosh’s novella-in-flash, is a searing account of family history, tracing back from the Partition of India of 1947, to the current day, when the demanding father and the narrator-daughter are trying to mend a strained relationship. Nod says that the novella, ‘draws on my family history, but that much of the final product is ‘made up.’’ The raw information came from notes that Nod made when she reconnected with her father after more than a decade. She says, ‘We would speak for hours, with him filling in details from half-remembered anecdotes, people, place-names, aspects I couldn’t hope to recapture from my childhood without help from the older generation.’
This atmosphere, the tension between father and daughter, the daughter’s rush to record anything she can about her own past and her family’s past, is palpable in a number of the flash fictions in the novella, like ‘The Monsoon Began on a Wednesday’:
It had been years since I’d last visited. I hadn’t ever wanted to come again.
Being in the house makes the daughter want to investigate the past:
Wading through pools that ate into the foundations of my father’s house, I found the bones of my ancestors scattered in the wet dirt.
In ‘The Porch Swing,’ the narrator says ‘We discovered safety in the past.’ And it’s this contract on both sides to tread carefully, to avoid painful themes, these dynamics of remembrance and avoidance that ensure continuity through the novella, and keep the reader glued to the book.
This journey to the past came from Nod’s need to understand her family: ‘There were key events that helped shape the attitudes and expectations of our elders and their ancestors. In trying to make sense of how I came to be ostracised for over a decade, I looked into major historical markers that may have moulded my father.’ This encouraged Nod to look closer at the era when the events that shaped her father’s personality and personal history took place: ‘I supplemented my knowledge with information from books such as The Great Partition, by Yasmin Khan (Yale University Press). I interrogated other family members in India and Europe. I watched documentaries on the Partition on YouTube. I encountered disturbing images of the Bengal famine. I drew parallels with other famines (Ireland in particular), situations where middle wealthy and middle class people survived while their poorer neighbours died in front of their eyes.’
The result is a narrative that moves back and forth between time the father and daughter spend together after their reconciliation, and historical flash fictions that stemmed from family history.
These historical flash fictions entice and fascinate.
For instance, in ‘Bhagubhai’s Thumb,’ there are so many layers that speak of the Indian stratified society and beliefs. Bhagubhai was the ‘man-child employed to mown the lawns, clean the car, and scrub the toilets,’ but he also crept to play with the narrator when nobody was watching. This all changed when Bhagubhai cut his thumb while adjusting the lawn mower: ‘my grandmother Thakuma scurried off and locked herself in her room for fear of being contaminated by his blood.’ After the incident, ‘Nothing was fast enough, clean enough, long enough or short enough.’ After the narrator is question and admits to playing with Bhagubhai, the latter is dismissed.
This flash is powerfully evocative, and it speaks tomes about the mentalities of the time, place and culture it plays in, and also about the dynamics between the family members and Bhagubhai. It’s short, and effective within the context of the NiF. Nod has agreed to shed some light on the process of writing this piece:
‘Bhagubhai is the name of someone whom my parents employed for one or other of their business ventures. I remember little about him apart from his wonderful name, and elusive smile. Everything else is made up. However, the hierarchical aspects of the household, the brass teapot with the long spout, the massive house with forgotten nooks and crannies, the atmosphere of suspicion, the tendency for things to be misinterpreted, all reflect life in our family in the Midlands of the U.K. in the 1960s. Sometimes I work with half-memories from that era, (the late 1960s). There was a young boy I snuck off to the park with. We played hide and seek. He told me not to tell my parents, because he was supposed to be stacking shelves or something. (…) I can’t remember his name, but I can remember the feeling. I mustn’t tell anyone about this, even though what we’re doing isn’t wrong. I tried to recreate that emotion in “Bhagubhai’s Thumb.” Memory, research, powerful details, fiction — Nod has mixed all together to create this powerful flash.
‘Incomplete Lotus’ is a story about the narrator’s grandmother. The narrator remembers Prativa while she looks at her wedding photo: ‘A bride with vermillion sindoor markings pouts from 1925.(…) She was born in 1912.’ Prativa ‘embroiders a lotus flower, bright colours on black cloth.’ She works tirelessly for years and years whenever she can snatch some time. It’s a work of mythical proportions, that takes place in the faint light given by the oil lamp, while her children sleep beside her. But ‘When the needlework is almost complete, she stops. She leaves one lotus petal unfilled, a challenge to future daughters-in-law.’ Years later, the narrator questions her uncle about the embroidery. We find out that the lotus was never finished. ‘No one dared.’
The story about the lotus flower is a story about heirloom, character, and determination. It’s a heritage written in the white space of an unfinished lotus petal.
This is what Nod says about the writing process:
“‘Incomplete Lotus’ is a real story, though few who were alive at the time are around to fill in the details, so I made them up. My uncle in India provided the true story of my (actual) grandmother Prativa’s embroidery. He sent a picture of the bedspread his mother had made, with its missing petal. It is still missing.’
This echoes something else that the narrator from The Crazed Wind says in ‘Matryoshka’: ‘He is right, I think. When people die, some things are lost forever.’
But some things will never be lost, and live on not only in memory, but also in The Crazed Wind — a homage to the author’s family and heritage.
Joanna Campbell’s A Safer Way to Fall follows Johnny from his tormented childhood to his death, and it’s written in Joanna’s unique poetic, highly evocative and emotion-awakening style. Johnny’s life is marked by trauma: his abusive father kills his younger sister Gracie; he goes on to fight in the front lines in WW2; in the woods, he encounters a young German soldier, perhaps a deserter, whom he kills; once he returns home, he struggles to find his place, as well as a common ground with his former sweetheart, now his wife. It’s not until the end until Johnny finds the safer way to fall.
The NiF also has a second plotline, following the family of the killed German soldier after WW2. The bulk the family is separated one night from the late soldier’s sister when the Berlin wall is raised while she’s in the hospital on the western side for an operation. This secondary plot is centred on the trauma of separation: of the family, of Germany and Berlin. But the sister finds her safer way to fall quicker — we see her rolling down the grass on a man-made mountain with her new husband.
There is a lot of forward movement, and Joanna compresses it with skill in about 40 pages. Each flash is carefully crafted, and imbued with its specific atmosphere. I asked Joanna if she does anything differently when she writes historical flash fiction, as opposed to contemporary fiction. She said, ‘Yes, I do something a little different with historical flash. I write with a kind of urgency, with a longing for the reader to peel away the layers of ‘story’ and be touched by what lies beneath. I edit with a frenzied attention to the flow, sometimes altering a single sentence so many times I might spend a whole day on the tiny handful of words. This is because I feel a weight of responsibility: so few words, yet so much rubble and dust to clear, such a depth of suffering to reveal. Although I always write from the heart, the beat is different with historical flash. It is tethered to times which survive only if the next generation records them, and to so many other hearts whose beat is stilled.’
When it came to where this historical flashes came from, whether from research, her interest in the era, or from a kernel of truth, Joanna said, ‘I believe the kernel of truth is the trigger, the essence which elicits the emotion. And my kernel of truth came from my time living in divided Germany and studying East German literature and culture: people trying to piece together their old lives in a shattered country which couldn’t give them back what was lost. People left to drift, both together and apart, some into new relationships and some into isolation, some into the heart of the community, others to the edge, on the verge of slipping. It is the ‘others’ who moved me to write.
When I re-read all my old flashes which eventually became A Safer Way To Fall, a unifying strand kept appearing: the notion of falling. Every character was tilting, teetering, set to tumble.’
Let’s see how this translates in the case of individual flashes.
In ‘Stiff,’ Johnny and his friend Tommy are fighting on the front line in WW2. The constant contact with death and desolation around them is suggested obliquely by a few details. The two search the dead for whatever they can salvage, and Tommy finds a camera, which gives him the occasion to remember how his grandmother had a picture taken of her little Rosie when she died.
Gran got a good photograph of her Rosie in the end. It were normal back then, you know, wanting the final picture.
Tommy goes on to take pictures of the dead. ‘To show ‘em at home.’ It’s a macabre ritual of remembrance, and perhaps a sublimation of Tommy’s wish not to be forgotten if the same happens to him. But the next day, Tommy dies, and Johnny ‘buries the camera.’ While doing so, he unsettles ‘a platoon of ants.’ ‘They regroup and march (…) losing a few along the way, one to the crush of Johnny’s shoe.’ Thus, the ants mirror in their micro-universe what happens at the larger scale. The last line resonates powerfully: ‘The smashed corpse clinging to his sole, Johnny rejoins his men.’
It’s a powerful flash, suffused with melancholy and gloom. Its strength rests in the mirroring and repetition of motives: the act of taking pictures, in a Victorian past and in the bleaker present of war; the death of soldiers, in real life and in the micro-universe of the ants.
This is what Joanna says about how this flash came to life: ‘Thinking about the motif of the camera in ‘Stiff’, my late father was a technician in the photography lab at Ealing College, and before that in the pathology lab at St Mary’s Hospital. I so often think about him preparing body tissues for analysis, then developing images of people from film. Looking at the human body from inside, then outside. Seeing it in parts, then as a whole. Viewing it both dispassionately and creatively, but always with a technician’s eye, in both cases for scrutiny and evaluation. And it makes me think of the Berlin Wall and how people in the East were watched so closely, followed so closely, unable to trust even their own family, that they began to watch themselves just as meticulously.
Exterior eyes, interior eyes.
The burial of the camera in ‘Stiff’ is Johnny’s way of making sure no one is tempted to photograph Tommy’s remains for posterity in the way Tommy proposed to take pictures of the corpses ‘to show ’em at home.’ His intentions were good, but the images would have been distressing, like my father’s two jobs if they had merged.’
In ‘Mothers,’ Johnny wanders ‘out of harm’s way, into a dark-green wood thick with crows shrieking.’ There, he encounters a German soldier.
Two of us, alone. Two of us, together, like Hansel and Gretel. But no fairytale. He’s pointing his gun at me in the same half-baked way as I’m pointing mine at him.
Johnny is terrified, doesn’t have want to kill the young soldier (‘The gun’s primed. But not me.’), and admits to himself that he wants his mother. The German soldier is so frightened, that he starts trembling. And then, Johnny is able to truly focus. ‘I see the enemy, a reflection of me. (…) This lad standing six feet from me, he has a mother, too. Mutti.’ Johnny takes aim, and shoots. ‘The training is designed to smash through hesitation. Stay angry with your enemy.’
This is a gut-wrenching flash, showing us how a young man we sympathise with is turned into a killer. It resonates deeply because it illuminates something essential about the human condition. So I asked Joanna how this flash came about. ‘(…) The truth ignited the fiction (…) The line ‘…he had a mother too’ is a direct quote from the conversations with my fellow lodger in Germany, a middle-aged man called Konrad. He remembered being a young soldier, faced with a Russian soldier even younger, and with no choice but to shoot him dead. He would describe it to me and say, “But, you know, that man, he also had a mother.” And his eyes would fill with tears.
He had accepted his military duties, but never came to terms with his conscience. I don’t think a day passed without him telling me about the Russian soldier and checking, over and over again, that I understood. I think he was asking to be forgiven.’
The secondary plot line in A Safer Way to Fall follows the fate of this killed soldier’s family in postwar Berlin. As to why she chose to include this other plot line, Joanna said, ‘The first reason for the two strands is that they symbolise the disharmony between the UK and Germany as well as the division of Germany into East and West. However, the characters form connections which breach the divisions, interlock the two story-lines and fashion a kind of unity.
The Berlin Wall was one of the most fortified barriers on earth, one of the most brutal stone edifices ever built. Those who lived in its shadow suffered phobias and depression, and there was a far higher rate of alcoholism and suicide, leading to the term ‘wall sickness’, which still affects people today. I lived over 300 kilometres from the Wall, but it emitted a long, lingering shadow.
People with children on the other side of the Wall could only speak using hand-signals. They had to watch family weddings or funerals from the other side, straining for a glimpse of those they loved. (…) The violent contrast between the image of German arrogance perpetuated during the war, and this broken German forced to serve in the war and then to suffer even more during the peace, also prompted the use of two story-lines.
The third reason is the way the past intrudes on the present, creating a different backdrop from the one we remember. The return to ‘normal’ after war becomes impossible because the ruins (of both homes and humans) distort all that went before.’
One particularly evocative flash that plays in Berlin is ‘Devil’s Mountain.’ The killed German soldier’s sister, the one caught on the other side of the wall the night when it was raised, is celebrating her wedding to a man of West Berlin. The flash opens with an exceptionally moving image: ‘My bride’s father stands on top of an apple-crate to see our wedding.’ He’s reduced to a simple bystander by the cold, unforgiving existence of the wall separating his life from the one of his daughter. ‘The breath of peacetime blows, Kalashnikov-cold, on the backs of their necks.’ The narrator and his new wife look down at Berlin from the man-made mountain, which has emerged from war rubble piled on top of an old military school that the Allies weren’t able to detonate. ‘History has become geography.’ The two roll down the grassy slope. “It feels like falling,’ I shout (…) ‘Yes, but safer,’ she says.’ In spite of all the trauma brought down by WW2 and its the aftermath, this young woman finds the strength to move on. This ends the second storyline, and mirrors in an inverse manner Johnny’s incapability of making sense of his own life.
But what prompted this wonderful flash which says so much about an era and its people? Here’s what Joanna says: ‘The ‘Devil’s Mountain’ in the eponymous flash is rooted in the research I undertook for a minor scene in my novel, ‘Tying Down The Lion’, in which an Austrian tourist is on a mission to climb the mountain, but changes his mind when he discovers it is constructed entirely of war rubble on top of a Nazi military school which the Allies couldn’t destroy, even with dynamite. (…)
Some of the emotions in ‘Devil’s Mountain’ stem from a visit I paid to the east/west border during a school exchange trip when I was fifteen. All of us English students climbed out of the coach and stared at the barbed wire and the sign that warned no one was permitted to cross. The atmosphere was chilling, silent. Our German friends, whose families we were staying with, opted to stay in the coach. The girl I was staying with chose not to go on the trip at all. “I find it too sad,” she said.
(…) fields growing from the same batch of seeds were crudely divided. A farmer’s own land became suddenly out-of-bounds. He could take one step too far and be shot. Like the warm air of the West Berlin subway blowing freely up from the ventilation shafts and rising to the East Berlin pavements, here the only harmony was underground, where, roots could spread, free to travel at will, unseen. The armed guards patrolled, also unseen, but our guide assured us they were there.’
This is one exceptional example of how a memory, the eeriness of that atmosphere is transferred into fiction, by creating new characters that are moving within a very palpable setting. Like I explained in my opening, transferring transcending human experiences into a specific era.
Sophie van Llewyn was born in Romania. She now lives in Germany. Her prose has been published by Ambit, the 2017 & 2018 NFFD Anthologies, New Delta Review, Banshee, New South Journal etc. and has been placed in various competitions – including TSS (you can read her Flash Fiction ‘The Cesarean’ here). Her novella-in-flash, ‘Bottled Goods,’ set against the backdrop of communist Romania was published by Fairlight Books.
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