If you’ve read my reviews of Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys and Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin you will know that I have a keen interest in Nazi Germany and the time surrounding the second world war, so when I was contacted to see if I would be interested in taking part in this blog tour I replied very quickly. Thank you to Rachel Gilbert at authoright and Clink Street Publishing for arranging this and for sending me a copy of the book. And thanks to Monika for writing this post for me.
Two young doctors form a profound and loving bond in Nazi Germany; a bond that will stretch them to the very limits of human endurance. Catholic Max – whose religious and moral beliefs are in conflict, has been conscripted to join the war effort as a medic, despite his hatred of Hitler’s regime. His beloved Erika, a privileged young woman, is herself a product of the Hitler Youth. In spite of their stark differences, Max and Erika defy convention and marry.
But when Max is stationed at the fortress city of Breslau, their worst nightmares are realised; his hospital is bombed, he is captured by the Soviet Army and taken to a POW camp in Siberia. Max experiences untold horrors, his one comfort the letters he is allowed to send home: messages that can only contain Fifteen Words. Back in Germany, Erika is struggling to survive and protect their young daughter, finding comfort in the arms of a local carpenter. Worlds apart and with only sparse words for comfort, will they ever find their way back to one another, and will Germany ever find peace?
Fifteen Words is a vivid and intimate portrayal of human love and perseverance, one which illuminates the German experience of the war, which has often been overshadowed by history.
One of the main difficulties of researching for historical fiction is just that – the research! Or more specifically getting bogged down in the research. Research is important of course and reality is so often stranger than fiction, which is why history provides such good fodder for novelists, but at the end of the day we are writing historical fiction. As a reader, if you want to read a history book, I would suggest you don’t pick up a novel. As a writer, I would suggest, that as soon as something you research sparks your imagination, get writing and stop researching. I often have blank spaces in the pages I write; spaces where a fact or detail needs to be added, but it is not so vital to keep me from actually writing the drama my characters are going through. Later on, after the writing is done, I can go back and fill in the blanks. The internet, being just a click away, is a very tempting and useful tool, but it can lead you down labyrinths that are a massive distraction sometimes. It’s better not to go there until after or before your actual writing time.
There is another difficulty with researching history and that is the history books themselves. As we all know, history can be a very subjective thing, open to interpretation and manipulation by historians, depending on their political and cultural bias. Every few decades, top secret documents are released to the public under the Freedom of Information Act, the 30 year rule, etc and we find ourselves a little closer to the truth; a little more aware of how history is not as black and white as we might have thought.
That’s why I think some of the greatest tools for research are photographs. During the research for my novel Fifteen Words, set in Germany during the last days of the Second World War and the few years after it, I would pore for hours over photos found in archives, on the internet and in my families own collections. Luckily, the age of photography was still reasonably young in the early-mid twentieth century, so the photos I saw could not have been doctored; and as such they are often the most honest and objective interpretation of the past we can find. Photos are so full of stuff to inspire your imagination; full of details that can populate your descriptions. Use them!
Private letters are similarly useful, as they can help you imagine the voices of your characters, the vocabulary they might use, the turns of phrase they might employ. Private letters often can tell us what kind of issues occupied the minds of people during the eras you are writing about. For example, nearly all of the letters in my novel Fifteen Words are near transcriptions of genuine ones I found in archives. I would match a letter to the appropriate character, or sometimes a letter I stumbled across inspired a whole new turn of events in the book.
So while the details are important, getting inside the characters is so much more important. And the best research you can do for this is to look inside yourself because, although there may be many decades or even centuries which separate you and your characters, human beings are, and always have been, very similar, beneath all the wonderful and incredible cultural and physical differences we possess. That is why if, as a writer, you can set down emotions that you have felt in a clear and honest way, readers from any part of the globe and from any epoch in the future should be able to relate to and be moved by them.
This was a really interesting book. It had similar experiences in into Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, being put in POW camps by Russians for long periods of time. However this is a different novel, it follows Erika as well who remains in Germany and it was good to read about someone remaining in Germany and seeing what happened when the Americans took control of it.
Throughout the book there is the recurring theme of “Fifteen words” and how important a simple 15 words are which I thought was an important subject as people forget how important words are, how much can change with just a few simple words. It was a good reminder to watch what you say.
Overall I found this a fairly slow read, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing as it is a heavy read and something that really needs to be paid attention to. You can’t just gloss over pages in this book like I occasionally do as it’s a difficult subject. Something that hit me with this book is that there’s a couple of mentions of one of their friends having same sex relations down back alleys and the like which I thought was a really good addition to the story because obviously being gay isn’t a new thing and I think it’s often glossed over in history.
We get to see from the POVs of Max and Erika and on the whole I didn’t really like Erika. She makes some decisions that I wasn’t a fan of and I found it hard to like her after that, especially when I’m reading from Max’s POV every other chapter. I got really attached to Max actually, like I really looked forward to his chapters.
I wish there was maybe 1 or 2 more chapters more for this book but that’s just me. I felt like it just ended and I just wanted that little bit extra after the ending. All in all this was an eye opening read.
Fifteen Words by Monika Jephcott Thomas published by Clink Street Publishing, out now