Basing a Novel on Genealogical
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
by Katharina Gerlach and Anke Waldmann, Lulu.com, ISBN
978-1-84753-754-6; free sample chapter: http://www.tapio-de.org/english/angel.html;
Genealogical data of the Waldmann family
(some 20,000 records): http://www.die-waldmanns.de.