Historical Fiction: Getting the Details Right, a guest post by author Kip Wilson
Even though historical fiction isn’t nonfiction by any stretch, it’s still based on history and set in a historical time period, so the facts behind the story still very much matter when it comes to the details. Like most other historical fiction authors, I absolutely agonize over these details. Getting something wrong is definitely near the top of my (long) list of worries.
The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin (coming March 29, 2022) is about orphaned 18-year-old Hilde who finds family, love, and her voice when she stumbles into a queer club, Café Lila, in Berlin in 1932. It’s historical fiction like my debut, White Rose, but unlike that novel, the main characters in this one are fictional. Still, I wanted the historical backdrop and the plot, as well as the imagined characters themselves, to be as authentic as possible for the story to come across as an accurate representation of what people like Hilde would have experienced in this time and place.
As part of my process, I like to focus on facts that can contribute to authenticity in four areas: setting, character, plot, and voice.
Investigating the details that will bring a historical setting to life is one of my favorite pieces of the research process. This is of course harder the farther back in history a story is set, but there’s definitely a wealth of information available for many 20th century settings.
Research into a historical setting typically includes lots of reading, including general nonfiction about the time and place, fiction and poetry from the era, historical maps and guidebooks, and newspapers and magazines. Beyond reading, photographs and films from the era are often even more effective in showing what a particular setting looked like at the time, and not only the streets, buildings, and modes of transportation, but the people, the fashions, and their habits at work and at play.
Finally, actually visiting the setting in the present day can be a great way to get a sense of the place, even if—as is the case in Berlin—so much of the city has changed. For me, walking the streets in the Schöneberg neighborhood where The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin is set really brought the setting to life for me.
With White Rose, I had a wealth of information available because my protagonist, Sophie Scholl, was a real person. She left behind letters and diaries and plenty of eyewitnesses who knew her and granted interviews over the years.
My main characters in The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin are fictional, so I found studying memoirs and essays by queer people who lived in Berlin at the time a very helpful way to understand the challenges—and joys—that people like my own queer characters would experience.
The plot of a historical novel is very much informed by the events of its time period, so having a firm grasp on those events is crucial. 1932 was the last full year of the Weimar Republic era before the Nazis came to power—well before the beginning of World War II. Still it wasn’t a quiet time at all. Many important historical events are scattered through the eight months when the story takes place.
Again, general nonfiction books and trusted history websites were helpful in helping me pinpoint important events, including multiple national elections held in Germany during 1932. But probably the most helpful sources of all for nailing down the story’s plot were periodicals. Some of these sources are heavy on the photograph side, like the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, which were a great way for me to “see” certain events. Others presented the more left-wing, liberal take on the events my main characters agree with, like the Vossische Zeitung.
But there were certainly other opinions at the time, and even if my protagonist doesn’t agree with them, she notices them in campaign posters and headlines from right-wing, nationalist sources like the Nazi party newspaper, Völkischer Beobachter. Even in 1932 before the Nazis came to power, their rhetoric was already frightening and ominous. But because my characters of course don’t have the hindsight that we do today, their matter-of-fact observations of happenings hopefully provide some insight about why no one was able to stop the Nazi rise to power at the time.
Another important way to capture a historical era is through my protagonist’s voice. Because I write in verse, every word matters, so this process is particularly enjoyable to me. From the first draft, I try to use words and a way of speaking that correspond to my protagonist’s background and her time— and perhaps even more, her heart. But even after my own revisions, good questions still come up in edits and copyedits. The last thing a historical author wants is to include anachronisms or to make characters seem too modern for their times.
In the end, facts really do matter when it comes to historical fiction, so it’s important to make an effort to get the details right. The areas I outline above can certainly add up to help give the story a sense of authenticity, so I try to layer in as much as I can. And while mistakes can always still make their way into a work of historical fiction (as hard as I try to avoid them!), I consider attending to the details and respecting the facts of the past the least I can do.
Kip Wilson is the author of White Rose (2019, Versify), a critically-acclaimed YA novel-in-verse about anti-Nazi political activist Sophie Scholl. Kip holds a Ph.D. in German Literature and was the Poetry Editor at Young Adult Review Network (YARN) for five years before joining Voyage as an Associate Editor in 2020. Her next YA novel-in-verse, The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin, is forthcoming from Versify in March 2022.
The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin
After her eighteenth birthday, Hilde, a former orphan in 1930s Berlin, goes out into the world to discover her place in it. But finding a job is hard, at least until she stumbles into Café Lila, a vibrant cabaret full of expressive customers—and Rosa, the club’s waitress and performer. As the café and all who work there embrace Hilde, and she embraces them in turn, she discovers her voice and her own blossoming feelings for Rosa.
But Berlin is in turmoil. Between the elections, protests in the streets, and the beginning seeds of unrest in Café Lila itself, Hilde will have to decide what’s best for her future . . . and what it means to love a place on the cusp of war.
Filed under: #FactsMatter
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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