Writing Historical Fiction(9): David Gillham

David Gillham, the author of City of Women explains how he created the atmosphere of 1943 Berlin.

One way I tried to build the atmosphere of Sigrid’s Berlin was by introducing wartime movies, music, and food into the narrative. Of course, when Sigrid attends the cinema, it not really to watch a movie. She’s looking for a small space of privacy, which is why she favors war movies. These didn’t do very well at the box office in Berlin; the audiences for them were usually sparse. The average Berliner was less interested in seeing propaganda films such as Soldiers of Tomorrow than Heinz Rühmann in escapist fare such as The Gas Man, or Gustaf Gründgens in a lavish eighteenth-century costume drama. For more recent movies that capture either the essence of Berlin or the stunning contradictions of the war years, I’d recommend Cabaret and Europa, Europa.[Guest post by David Gillham: Watch, Listen, Eat]

Writing Historical Fiction (5): Research

Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction for 2010 has gone to Ann Weisgarber for The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. This book does not tell the story of murder or hidden treasure or scheming viziers, but  is about black settlers in the American West. This is not my cup of green tea, but here is a snippet from an interview with Ms. Weisgarber on how she did the research.

Next I had to learn about the issues that shaped Rachel when she was a child and a young woman. This called for history lessons about black culture. I discovered popular music, slaughterhouses in Chicago, and race riots in East St. Louis. I discovered Ida B. Wells-Barnett and admired her greatly. So did Rachel. Absorbing the culture was another step toward my seeing the world through Rachel’s eyes.
Last, I had to learn about the mindset of the time period. I read novels and diaries written before and after the turn of the 20th Century. I discovered Rachel’s story was not unique; most women in the West, including Indians, struggled to feed their children. Many women lived with determined men. Heartache and homesickness were not unique experiences, but shared by many women. Rachel was one woman among many
My background in sociology pushes me think about my characters as people of their times. I believe it’s important to include references to literature, to music, and to popular culture. Characters don’t live in vacuums but are influenced by the news of their day as well as by events in the past. Newspaper headlines impact lives.[An interview with Ann Weisgarber]

The Earliest Writers & Writing Systems

A major human breakthrough, besides agriculture, was the ability to represent a language graphically. In ancient societies, where most of the people were illiterate, the writing was done by scribes.

  1. In this video, Sara Brumfield of UCLA demonstrates how scribes wrote on clay tablets in Mesopotamia.
  2. This video from The Oriental Institute, Chicago, talks about these scribes and the rationale behind cuneiform.
  3. Egyptian scribes and their work is described in this video from The Oriental Institute, Chicago