Guest Post: Exploring the Koestler Suicides

Here’s a guest post from Bernard Otterman where he discusses his experiences writing historical fiction set in the dim, dear past of the 1980s.

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Self-Deliverance CoverFor a long time I wanted to write a novel at whose center would be a love story. I wasn’t thinking about a Harlequin romance or a tear jerker like Eric Segal’s novel, but a mature story, which would among other virtues, shed light on my own love story which includes a marriage which has lasted forty six years.

While seeking a frame for such novel, I read a biography of Arthur Koestler, who committed suicide together with his much younger wife in March 1983. At the time of his death, Arthur Koestler was as well known in London as Jean-Paul Sartre was in Paris. Darkness at Noon is judged by many to be one of the most important books of the twentieth century. He had also penned The God That Failed, a memoir of Communist faith and disillusionment. Critics claimed that Spanish Testament, his autobiography about his experience fighting in the Spanish Civil War and his imprisonment there, ranked with the war reportage of George Orwell. Later in his life, shortly before becoming prime minister, Margaret Thatcher requested that Koestler pay her a visit.

It is not known if this meeting ever occurred, but what is known is that the morning of the third of March, 1983, the bodies of Arthur and his wife, Cynthia were discovered by the police at their house located in the Kensington section of London. Arthur slouched in his living room chair dead, his wife – twenty five years younger — lying on the adjacent sofa also dead. The initial police report suggested a double suicide. My and many other people’s reaction was one of horror.

Arthur’s decision at the age of 78, terminally ill, is understandable. But why would a healthy and good looking woman of fifty-three also decide to kill herself? Did she act on her own volition or was she forced or tricked to end her life? For me, a child Holocaust survivor, life is precious. Even in death camps such as Auschwitz, very few inmates “took to the fence” — committed suicide by impaling themselves on the electric fence. Classical literature such as Romeo and Juliet and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, as well as occasional real life reports, suggests that love, when taken to the extreme, can make a partner or a spouse choose death over living the “practical life” without the beloved.

The Koestler’s suicides present an opportunity to examine love by forming a fictional group tasked to investigate the mystery of their deaths. Moreover, by subjecting the members of this group to their individual love troubles, I was able to study love in a wide variety of situations, such as cheating in marriage, love between individuals from different cultures, and expectations of what love can or should create in a good marriage, namely, a good life.

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Author PhotoBernard Otterman is the author of Self-Deliverance: The Death and Life of Arthur Koestler. You can find out more about Bernard and his book at bernardotterman.com. The book is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Writing Tools: Scrivener, I Love You

A few weeks ago I wrote about how I had been struggling as I was writing my new historical novel. Nothing in the story seemed to be working, and for whatever reason I was at a loss as to how to fix it. In this post I talked about how I decided to give myself some time off from writing. It was the best decision I could have made since it allowed me to take the brain break I desperately needed. I’ve been writing long enough to know that the ideas would show up when they were ready, and I was right. Only this time I had some help from an unexpected source.

About two years ago I bought Scrivener as a screenwriting tool. I used it to write a couple of screenplays, and that was that. I saw that it could be used to write novels, but when I looked at the directions they didn’t make sense and at that time I didn’t have the patience to fiddle with it. For whatever reason I found the directions confusing and the buttons and other tchotchkes didn’t make sense. I ended up leaving the program to languish unused and hidden in my Applications folder. While I was taking a break from writing my novel, I kept reading these posts about Scrivener and how all these writers said the program changed their writing for the better. Kristen @ She’s Novel pins these Scrivener Tutorial Posts on Pinterest, and Joanna Penn from The Creative Penn offers a course about how to use Scrivener. As I read these articles, I remembered that I had Scrivener on my computer. I wasn’t sure if the program could help me through the fog that was my novel, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to try.

Before I go on, I should point out that I’m not getting any compensation from the nice Scrivener folks at Literature and Latte for this. I’m simply sharing why I’ve come to love the program and how it helped me write my novel after I had been stuck in the mud for some months.

When I decided to try Scrivener for novel writing, I looked at the directions again, and again they didn’t make sense. This time, though, I was motivated to keep trying, and I watched some of the Scrivener tutorials on YouTube. The tutorials were integral in helping me understand what the buttons and tchotchkes were for and how they were used. My suggestion is to not try Scrivener without first watching a few of the videos or taking an online class. Where most computer programs can be figured out by twiddling with them, I find Scrivener needs further explanation. It seems confusing at first, but after I watched a few videos and played around with it I found it rather easy to use.

Scrivener Manuscript with Synop and Notes

I’m not going into step-by-step details about how to use Scrivener since there are so many tutorials that do that far better than I can. I’d just like to point out some of the features that helped me get my thoughts straight. First of all, I like that you don’t have to write your novel in one long file. You can write your story in separate chapters or you can write your story in scenes if that’s the way you think. You’ll notice on the left-hand side of the screen the different folders for each section I have so far. On the same screen you can also see your synopsis of the section you’re writing, and you’ll notice I added my research notes in the bottom right hand corner. This way I don’t have to go back and forth between my research notes and the section I’m writing—the notes are right there on the screen. If you find those doo-dads on the screen too distracting, you can use the full screen mode so all you see is the text you’re writing.

Scrivener Split Screen

Now here’s something I really love about Scrivener—the fact that you can import photos. The novel I’m writing is historical fiction, set in England in 1870, and so of course I need references about clothing, buildings, gardens, furniture, etc. If I want to see a particular photo, all I need to do is scroll down to the folder where I store my photos, click on the one I want, and there it is. If I split the Scrivener screen (another handy-dandy function) I can have the photo right in front of me as I describe it. In the example you can see the photo of the church in the beautiful English countryside, which is the photo I used as inspiration for the funeral scene that happens at the beginning of the story. With the split screen I can look right at the photo while I’m writing. Since I tend to use photos to inspire my writing, this feature alone makes Scrivener a winner for me.

Scrivener Corkboard

Another thing I love is the corkboard. I know a lot of writers who use have real corkboards on their walls in their writing space. They write scenes, ideas, notes, etc., on index cards and pin the cards onto the corkboards. I’ve always loved that idea, but I don’t have enough room on my walls for a corkboard so I was never able to try it out. With Scrivener’s virtual corkboard I don’t need room on my walls. I can create virtual index cards with all of the same details—characters, plot, research, ideas, notes—and I can rearrange the cards however I like. This feature actually helped me figure out the plot because I could see at a glance that the order of some of the scenes didn’t quite fly and I kept rearranging the cards until I liked the way the scenes flowed. I was also able to spot that there was some missing information—missing scenes, if you will—and I was able to add new cards with information about what will happen in that scene.

Research Split Screen

I also like the fact that I can add my research notes. Since my novel is historical fiction, I have pages and pages of research notes that I need access to while I’m writing. Instead of keeping a messy pile of notebooks around, which is the way I used to do it, I typed my notes into the Research section of Scrivener. From now on, instead of handwriting my notes I’ll type them into Scrivener. If you’ve typed your notes on another program like Word, Scrivener allows you to import them so you don’t have to retype them. And just like with the photographs, you can split the screen and look at your notes while you’re writing. As I said earlier, I like to add my research notes to the bottom right hand corner of the page, but if I have a lot of research notes for a particular section, I’ll probably split the screen so I have easy access to all the information.

Through the process of adding my novel to Scrivener, deciding on the folders I needed, using the corkboard, and importing the photographs and research notes, I was able to sort through the story. As a result, a lot of the problems I had are gone. I understand the characters better, I have a plot I’m happy with, and I can see where the story is going and what the underlying themes are. What Scrivener did for me was allow me to think through the story in a step-by-step way that helped me see what was missing and what needed to be reorganized and revised. I still have a lot of work ahead of me, but at least now I have a direction, which I didn’t have before.

I’m definitely on the Scrivener bandwagon. It isn’t crazy expensive ($44 when I bought it), and to me it’s worth the price for the way it allows me to organize my work. They even offer a free 30 day trial so you can try it out to see if you like it.

Have you used Scrivener? If so, what has been your experience? If not, are you going to try it?

Guest Post: Writing the Love that Dare Not Speak Its Name in Historical Fiction

Here’s author Laurel Deedrick-Mayne talking about her new novel, A Wake For The Dreamland, and her experiences writing historical fiction about a gay character during World War II.
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cover imageHow do we write the love that ‘dare not speak its name’ within the genre of historical fiction? I confess that even writing the love that can be ‘shouted from the rooftops’ has thrown me into flushed-faced fits of laughter… and since this is historical and not hysterical fiction, I have to take a deep breath; maybe recline amidst the mass of rumpled sheets…not those kinds of sheets… (picture me tearing page after page of bad sex writing out of an old underwood) and try, try again. It’s not all ripping corsets and popping buttons.

Writing historical fiction is tricky to begin with— dodging the deadly slings and arrows of ridiculously overly researched, smarty-pants narrative history dumps, often at the expense of our beloved characters. Trickier still: How does a middle-aged-heterosexual woman in 2015 write about sexual awakening of a male soldier in WWII? One can’t even fall back on cliché because…back to my opening sentence: it was love unspoken and unwritten. Homosexuality was a criminal offence under civil law and convicted service personnel risked court martial and dishonorable discharge. See what I mean? There was an accidental history dump.

In my book, A Wake For The Dreamland, the world is on the brink of war and friends William, Robert and Annie are on the cusp of adulthood. Haunted by memories of a boyhood dalliance with a lad and more than platonic feelings for Robert, William feels shame and longing to be ‘normal’. But these are not normal times. Every arena of their young lives is infiltrated by the war, from the home front to the underground of queer London to the battlefields of Italy.

The moment I knew I was writing a love triangle, I also knew that William would be gay. It seems strange to say this but I knew he was gay before he did. That is to say, I understood that the emotional stakes were very high and that it was up to me, to write his experience in the most authentic and honourable way possible. When I began writing in 2003 there was scant information available on homosexuality in WWII. But there were a couple new documentary films and a few excellent books. I had the benefit of a thoughtful archivist who remembered cataloguing a collection of love letters between two men from the 1940’s. And then, there was mustering the courage to come right out and ask the veterans who were helping me with the military aspect of my research. It wasn’t always easy and I experienced some kick-back along the way. There was the retired Major who, upon listening to my ‘Reader’s Digest Condensed’ version of the novel, declared, “Not in this Regiment!” That nearly sent me scurrying into re-write mode but another veteran friend, 90 years old at the time, reassured me that of course there were gay men in the unit. It didn’t bother anyone so long as they were a good soldier and did their job. I guess if you’re a good killer it doesn’t matter what kind of lover you are. There was the indignant participant at a workshop where I read an excerpt. She demanded to know, “Does your veteran friend know you’ve turned him into a homosexual?” I admit I had some fun with that one.

Where the truth lies, is the no man’s land where historical fiction writers tread. Writing the love that dare not speak its name during WWII and the aftermath was like crossing a minefield that could end in disaster. Confinement to a particular time and place in history: truth; gave me a scaffold upon which my imaginary friends could play out their infinite and intimate struggles and triumphs: lies. It was the ‘story’ in history that mattered to me. Nothing else. I kept reminding myself not to be afraid to be afraid, that this was not a story about war as much as it was a story about love. Those rushes of adrenalin were there to remind me I was on the right track.

Those of us writing historical fiction are excused from that old prescriptive chestnut: write what you know. But if we know something about friendship and love, fear and longing, grief and loss— that understanding will allow our characters to rise from the page and into the very hearts of our readers. The rest, as they say, is history. And my closing advice to anyone is simply this: Soldier on.

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Excerpt from A Wake For The Dreamland

It was London where he felt most alive. Where he could walk the line between civilian and serviceman, where he could connect with other Allied soldiers for whom the city held the same degree of safety and danger, possibility and peril, sociability and sex. At the Buckingham Gate Urinal or alongside the Albert Tavern, behind two telephone booths, he could steal a kiss or more…gratify his longing. There, or Charing Cross Station, or the gardens in Trafalgar Square.

But it was at Cyril and Lou’s apartment, in an enclave of others like himself, that he first slept in the arms of a man, a lover. There, for three days and nights, the sport he endured and enjoyed came as close to killing him as the war ever would— and it was heaven. Spending each waking moment in the pursuit, the act, or recovery from every conceivable means of lovemaking. To sleep: however briefly, only to be awakened by hunger in the belly, mouth, or groin. And listening: to music, to poetry – reading and writing it, too— and eating and drinking and tumbling, tumbling willy-nilly into bed again.

In the city her learned the language of his type: invisible to passersby, visibly to each other. He learned to go from being hunted to being the hunter. He learned to find his way in the dark, to seek an encounter, to be less afraid, less alone, seduced by the allure of safety and privacy where he could be himself without fear of discovery. And yet. While the other fellows were sleeping it off and the mantle clock in the parlour squeezed out the minutes until dawn, a sickening sadness would sneak through his limbs and curl up in a ball at the foot of his heart.

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IMG_9171_Web1_CLaurel Deedrick-Mayne was born and raised in Lacombe, Alberta but has spent her adult life as a city dweller and now makes Edmonton her home. Once an arts administrator (dance publicist, concert promoter and ad copywriter) Laurel has become a juggler: raising a family, managing her private massage therapy practice, serving on multiple arts boards … and writing. This book is a tribute to the generation of her parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles who took the time to hang on to family letters, clippings, stories, and poetry — all those treasures that inspired this story. A Wake For The Dreamland is Laurel’s first novel.

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