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Basing a Novel on Genealogical Research

By Katharina Gerlach
Copyright 2008 by Katharina Gerlach, All Rights Reserved

When I was at school I hated history. Who was interested in something as boring as the dates about dead people? If anybody had told me then that I would come to love history and would actually write a historical novel I would have laughed at him. So how did this change? Why did I write the historical novel Ann Angel's Freedom?

It all started at university when I made friends with Anke Waldmann. She confronted me with a strange and seemingly boring hobby: genealogy. She had found a box with old documents that her father treasured although he couldn't read them. She started translating the old German handwriting into today's script, a difficult and time consuming task. At the same time I made my first stumbling steps as an aspiring writer. Soon, every other word from Anke was about something new and exciting she had found out in the documents.

One day Anke came home from a family weekend especially excited and full of wonder. An American couple had shown up looking for the home of their ancestor. Imagine their amazement when they found out that the descendants of their ancestor's brother (Anke's great-great-grandfather) were still living there. There had been no contact between the families since 1866 when the heir to the farm had emigrated to the U.S.

When Anke and I visited her relatives in Wisconsin some time later, I finally realized that behind all those facts Anke had fed me with was a treasure trove of stories. I half jokingly suggested writing a novel about the emigration, since it was rather unusual for the heir of such a rich farm as the Waldmann's to leave home. Together we started to look for his reasons but found them hard to trace. Meanwhile Anke discovered more and more interesting facts in her old documents.

I felt my fingers itch. I wanted to write. If I couldn't start with the emigration I had to find something just as compelling. Together Anke and I sorted through the documents. We finally settled on the time when the family bought their freedom from serfdom because it was the best documented story in the pile. Even minor events (like who had an affair with whom or who owed how much money) were written down in a document about a five year lawsuit her family was involved in.

I anxiously began my own research into the time period between the first and the second Napoleonic Wars. There were many books on the overall political picture but very little information on everyday life.

Our research took roughly five years -- but that was the easy part. When I finally sat down to write the novel I found that there were many difficulties. I write them now for the interest of others who may eventually attempt to write their own historical novels based on their genealogical research.

One of my problems was that there were too many people involved in the stories. One of the worst tasks was sorting out who wasn't needed for the novel. In one instance I merged two uncles of the family because although both their actions were important, it did not matter which one did what.

I was lucky that the order of events needn't be changed, but there was still the problem of making them exciting. With little more happening than people walking to the court of justice and back, any potential reader would have fallen asleep after but a few pages. I had to find the right point-of-view.

I experimented with different people by writing a couple of short stories from different points of view; I even tried an outsider's viewpoint. The person I felt most comfortable with was the middle daughter of the family, Ann Angel, and I ended up writing the whole book from her point of view. Although she was hardly involved in the lawsuit at all, this decision set me free to explore themes like the work of the women at that time, the concept of family (very different from today) and the social obligations of neighbors. It was still more difficult than I had first anticipated because Ann Angel turned out to be utterly uninterested in being the daughter of a free man. It was hard to make her change her mind. I literally needed to kill someone to achieve it. Luckily the facts supported this twist in the story!

The next problem I faced is a universal one for writers of any genre. The most quoted phrase any writer hears is: "show don't tell". To illustrate what this means I will give a short example from the novel before the first rewrite:

Angel was sitting on a hard, wooden bench. She was cold since the small windows had no panes.

And after:

Angel moved a little on the wooden bench but the seat stayed just as uncomfortable as ever. An icy breeze came through small windows in the thick walls.

The difference between these two passages is minimal but essential. The first one is static, simply stating the facts, whereas the description in the second paragraph is merged with small actions of Ann Angel. After revising the whole manuscript it seemed perfect until I gave it to Anke for criticizing.

I learned that writing a novel takes many thorough revisions. Only with a lot of hard work will any novel stand a chance on the market against all those other novels competing with it. (By the way, if you want to collaborate distance makes a good comrade at the rewriting stage of a novel. You can't scream at an email.)

In retrospect, I can see that it was good that Anke and I worked together. Anke, as a genealogist, is a specialist in research. She happily digs deeper and deeper creating an ever-increasing mountain of facts. Of course this amount of research gives an authenticity to the novel that not many have. But, had she tried to write the novel by herself, she might have failed because her desire to portray the given time period as correctly as possible by adding fact after fact might have made the resulting novel boring. Also, she would have had a difficult time with characterization. More often than not genealogists know the people that feature in their story. They try to stay as true to the person as possible, loosing the freedom to create a fully fleshed fictional character -- one that readers can believe in.

Had I written the novel by myself, I would have failed, too. The books would have lacked the accuracy that Anke provided.

Ann Angel's Freedom by Katharina Gerlach and Anke Waldmann,, ISBN 978-1-84753-754-6; free sample chapter:; e-book:

Genealogical data of the Waldmann family (some 20,000 records):