In the March issue of Writers’ Forum I talk to Anna Ellory about the research for her historical novel, The Puzzle Women, and how she combatted travel restrictions.
Anna explained her books always start with a character.
“My characters talk to me, often annoyingly, and once I have their voice firmly planted in my head I can find their time and place in history. The story develops from there as a collusion between history and voice.”Anna Ellory
She first encountered her character Rune, whilst she was editing her first novel The Rabbit Girls. At that time, he was a small boy, younger than when we meet him in the THEN sections of The Puzzle Women, he had a story to tell and Anna was listening. It wasn’t until Lotte found her too that the book made some sense and she knew she was on to something. Lotte was cheerful and unaffected by the abuse their mother endures, she was protected and lived within her own bubble.
It took Anna many full drafts before she realised Lotte had Down’s Syndrome. Anna revealed Lotte had hid this from her and she wrote her entire character without this knowledge – she was her full complete person, before the ‘label’ of Down’s Syndrome and Anna hopes this comes through in the book. The Down’s Syndrome does not in any way define who she is or what she has to say.
Anna used to be a children’s nurse and has worked professionally with children and young people with Down’s Syndrome during her career. She was able to draw on this experience as part of her research. She had also read a number of novels that feature a character who has Down’s Syndrome including children’s literature and YA books. Many adult novels feature Down’s Syndrome as THE character, a mother who gives birth to a child who has this diagnosis and the journey they go on thereafter. Anna did not want that to feature in her book.
Lotte is her own person, offered love and support and a great deal of time and space by Rune and Mama to be able to be very independent. Anna told me:
“I think a great deal of literature out there is highly negative of Down’s Syndrome and with screening and abortion options available now, it is important to understand the power of language we offer women at the time of diagnosis and, I hope, seeing fictional characters offers an alternative way to imagine a child who has Down’s Syndrome rather than the leaflets which list possible ‘health complications.’”Anna Ellory
The Puzzle Women is also about domestic abuse, but seen from the child’s perspective. Anna explained that everything the children in her novel witness has been done to a woman, many women, maybe even a woman who lives next door. Anna felt it needed to be treated with the sincerity of refined and clear research so readers were not jolted away from the story by the uncertainty of facts. Anna wanted her research to be accurate and then to fade into the background so the characters could take the stage.
It is set in Berlin during the cold war. There is a theme of survival, of fragmented knowledge and of overcoming trauma that is still relevant now as much as it was during the cold war. As part of her research Anna watched many German movies, including The Lives of Others, Goodbye Lenin and Barbara, staring Nina Hoss. She found that a national trauma can be translated into art, informing and inspiring further creativity too.
At the time Anna was living on benefits, a full-time single mother with a part-time job that made almost nothing. She had no ability to go to Berlin, to see these places. She had a small child and a house she could barely afford, relying on food parcels from family and friends to keep us going over many months. Anna told me:
“I think it’s a luxury to be able to travel and now due to the coronavirus, there is a universality to restricted movements. I made do with what I did have and used all the information available.”Anna Ellory
Anna’s research consisted of speaking – via google translate to many people at libraries and museums in Berlin for the small details she wanted to know. She also used her local library. She found maps and old documents which she used google translate to read. She used trip advisor for places she would have loved to have gone to, but couldn’t. A one-star review of Teufelsberg gave her the noise of what it must be like on the roof of the old listening tower in Berlin where Rune sits and contemplates his future.
And many documentaries, YouTube videos, books and art allowed her the insight into a world of Berlin, torn apart by a wall, that she had no access to. Anna highly recommends not writing a book set during a turbulent time in history, where street names are changed regularly, before technology and in a completely different language to your own as it was a real challenge. There are easier ways but Anna just didn’t have access to them.
“I wanted to offer the truth to the history I was re-creating in my novel. I wanted it to be as close to real as I could possibly make it, because I wanted the reality of the characters’ lives to become real to the reader.”Anna Ellory
Anna explained that being very clear on what you want from your research enables you to fill in the blanks when you reach them. But not just ‘what does it look like?’ but ‘what aspects of this would my characters see?’ Each character would see the same building completely differently. To some the Berlin Wall was a monstrosity, to others it was a blank canvas. Knowing who is walking around your world enables the world to be rich in the eyes of your characters and therefore the readers too.
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