Fiction as a Means of Establishing Fact

{Truth in Fiction Series}

The second in a group of upcoming posts about the interplay of fact and fiction in our writing. If you feel you have something to contribute, would like to offer a guest post — please email me


Guest post by writer, publishing partner at Bridge House and Lecturer in Creative Writing at Salford … Dr Gill James …

Over to you Gill and many thanks for your post.

Two biographical projects

I have two projects on the go at the moment. One is a completed “novel” finding its way out to agents and publishers. The other is a prequel to that novel. They both tell the stories of remarkable women and are to some extent biographical.

For the first one, The House on Schellberg Street, I have a few more facts: the woman here is my late mother-in-law, Renate Edler, a German Jewish “Mischling” who came to England on the Kindertransport. I have some of her own notes, remembered conversations – with me and with my husband — copies of letters her former classmates sent to each other 1941–1944 and documents such as her parents’ divorce papers and her and her mother’s naturalisation papers. The second project, Clara’s Story, is about her grandmother who was eventually murdered in Treblinka and for this I have fewer facts to work with. I established, however, that she died in Treblinka and not Auschwitz as the family had thought up until now and that here she was shown a final small act of kindness: the Nazis had renamed her Klara (German spelling) Sarah (assignation of Jewish name) – her transit paper from Theresienstadt to Treblinka named her simply and accurately as Clara Lehrs.

Writing as a tool

There are many tools available to the writer of historical fiction and biography but I’m only going to discuss one here: the writing itself – which uncovers possible facts and even poses more questions.

A shared premise

Indeed, a crucial question in both stories is how did a Jewish woman, herself persecuted, manage to hide and protect up to 64 severely disabled children? She was so successful that at the end of World War II the special class that had found its home in the cellar of her house was able to operate quite openly. In fact, a school that is still functioning today was established. The devotion of Clara Lehrs and of the teacher Karl Schubert, some well-meaning Germans, extreme care and cunning and some officials who turned a blind eye, and the rest, all play a part. However, today I’d like to deal with two very specific examples, one from each story.


Hans Edler and the V2s

Hans Edler allowed his wife and child to escape to England and then went through a Nazi-enforced divorce. Why did he not go with them? Later, he and Renate established a good relationship and he even had a reasonable one with his former-wife. We do know that no way would he have been allowed out of the country: even before the war started he was working on defence weapons. We also know that he eventually worked on the V2. But what must that have been like for him? He had no idea whether his wife and child were still alive and if they were, where they were living. As I wrote part of his story and got into his head it became clear that he would drag his feet on this one and would hope that the war would end before such a deadly weapon could be launched. I was delighted to read sometime later that in fact some German engineers working on the V2 were so horrified by what it might do that they deliberately made mistakes and worked slowly.


Clara, Kurt and the angels

A major puzzle in Clara’s story is why didn’t she too escape to England as urged by her two sons and her daughter? We do know that he had great faith in human nature, she always believed the worst was over, she didn’t consider herself to be Jewish and she felt great loyalty to the children in the special class. But could this be enough? I doubt that she could ignore the terrible happenings on Kristallnacht –  the night of the broken glass, 9-10 November 1938 when synagogues were set alight and shops owned by Jews had their windows broken and were looted. The house on Schellberg Street is on a slope in Stuttgart and Stuttgart is one of those towns built on seven hills. It would be difficult not to notice. In my story I actually have her looking down on the town from a nearby viewpoint. There is no doubt about it – Jews are not welcome and she is defined as a Jew by race. Something else must have motivated her.

One snippet we have is that she is finally persuaded to help out at the Lauenstein, a centre in Jena for disabled children, because of an involvement with a boy who believes in angels. We also know that she had some difficulty accepting anthroposophist beliefs at first but later became convinced. My Clara is gradually becoming convinced that Kurt’s angels really work. At the end of her story she will attribute the correctness of her name on her transit paper to those angels.


Ethical considerations

In both of these stories I am giving a voice to people who can no longer speak for themselves.  This is a huge responsibility for the writer. All the other historical notes must be authentic so that these imaginative guesses can be as accurate as possible. They must also be made with the utmost respect for the people involved. I hope I’ve achieved that. I hope also I have managed to portray accurately something of the real Renate Edler, the real Hans Edler and the real Clara Lehrs.


Wow thanks Gill for your insights and these projects sound amazing. What a great post to end the week and we look forward to updates and seeing these works in print. Keep up posted.


If anyone else wants to add to this series do get in touch, some real food for thought … and please feel free to comment on the posts — let’s get some discussion going 🙂


Have a great weekend everyone!

A great premise for living life!

A great premise for living life!

1 Comment

Filed under a book deal, Acceptance, being a successful writer, Believing, Blogging, Character development, Conflict, Conflict in fiction, Dreaming, ideas, Indentity, Learning to be a writer, Novel writing, Passion for life, Passion for writing, Ppoint of View, Reading, Real events that inspire fiction, Theme, thoughts in fiction, time to think, Truth in Fiction, Truth in Fiction Series, Winning, Writing

One response to “Fiction as a Means of Establishing Fact

  1. Annecdotist

    Morning, Debz. Morning, Gill.
    Nice to have the opportunity to say hello again to 2 Bridge housers together!
    Your project sounds really interesting and I think that holocaust story needs to be told again and again.
    But I’m not so sure that Clara’s reluctance to leave was so strange. With hindsight it seems so obvious but, at the time, would you really believe that anyone could get away with such a blatant attempt to exterminate a whole race? Don’t we all turn a blind eye to things we find uncomfortable? Even if, like our overconsumption of fossil fuels, it’s going to lead to our extinction?
    All the best with the novel.

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