by Cathy Gohlke
Access to information affects the motivations, actions, and consequences borne by every character we create.
This truth came boldly home to me while writing Saving Amelie, a story set in Nazi Germany during 1939 and 1940. In writing about a society controlled and censored by a dictatorship and rife with propaganda, it was difficult-sometimes overwhelming-to determine who knew what, and when.
Consider the diversity of these character roles and the information each might have access to:
Rachel Kramer-adopted daughter of an American eugenics scientist, Rachel has been lied to since birth. Raised as an American of means and opportunity with a sense of superiority, she is an unwitting component of Germany’s planned “master race.”
Jason Young-driven American journalist on a crusader’s mission to expose the slippery slope of eugenics in America and its horrors in Germany, is censored by the Nazis at every turn and unable to get straight answers from the powers that be. Even so, Jason has connections to the resistance and friends in many places.
Amelie Schlick-deaf, she is the four-year-old daughter of cruel SS Officer Schlick and American mother, Kristine, who fears for her child’s life in the New Germany.
Curate Bauer-a Catholic priest living in Oberammergau-the Bavarian Passion Village-active in the black market for the sake of Jews and others he tries to hide and protect.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer-a dissident German pastor who speaks and writes of discipleship, hoping to bring the German church to its senses and responsibility.
To help unravel their information ball of yarn, I created an information timeline for each major character. Two teacher’s planning books did the trick.
• Across the top of the pages I listed each day for the two years my research spanned. Saving Amelie covered just over a year, but having two years of material gave me information needed to create backstory, buildup, and a credible epilogue.
• On the left side I listed important characters in different colors of ink.
• As I researched the time period, I made notes on each day, each week, regarding the actions of and/or information accessible by each character-when and where. This also showed me what other characters might have known or not known at that time and possible overlap.
By the time I inserted Hitler’s orders and the actions of the Third Reich, added timelines for Jason Young based on American foreign journalist William Shirer’s Berlin Diary (which reads like a novel) and for Dietrich Bonhoeffer based on his letters and journals, inserted documented events in Berlin and Oberammergau during those years, added the perspective of some of the Jewish community in Germany and the limited knowledge of the average American visiting Germany, I had a pretty clear picture of the world known and experienced by my characters.
Creating this world, getting inside the heads of my characters and weaving their story through the early years of WWII was the most daunting research and writing I’ve ever done. But, I learned more in the process than I could have imagined-a journey worthy of a novel.
Cathy Gohlke is the two-time Christy Award-winning author of Saving Amelie, Band of Sisters, Promise Me This (one of Library Journal’s picks for Best of 2012), William Henry Is a Fine Name, and I Have Seen Him in the Watchfires, (one of Library Journal’s picks for Best of 2008, and winner of the Carol Award). Find her at www.cathygohlke.com and on Fb at CathyGohlkeBooks.