Friday, November 13, 2009

Fact Into Fiction: Novelizing SS-5

Well, I'm three-fourths of the way through my SS-5 novel! (If you're new and don't know what that is, check out this post: Today I'm going to post some of the original diary, and then an excerpt of the novel, showing how I'm turning the fact into fiction.

Here is the diary entry:

MAY 10, 1940

Mother awoke me this morning. One look at her serious face, and I knew that something was wrong. She kissed me and said, “Happy Birthday," but it was so unlike my mother, who is a very jolly person. This morning it was all very sad.

I could now hear distant thuds. "What is it?" I asked.

The Germans have invaded Holland. I pray for Father, and for our poor country."

I washed and dressed very quickly, and went down into the street. Everybody had a different story to tell. Schiphol airport was on fire, but some soldiers--they were fifth columnists in Dutch uniforms, I learned later--said that we were doing well and beating back the Germans.

And here is the same scene as I've novelized it.

Jan woke again to the dim blue light before dawn. He lay, gazing at the just-visible ceiling, wondering where and why he was. Till he remembered, and lay for a minute longer, thinking of the day before.

It was when he turned over and pulled the covers tight that he sensed it; the sense of something wrong. He could almost smell it, feel it; heavy and prickling like a rough wool blanket.

But not warm.


Fumbling back the covers, he scrambled out of bed, grabbed for his slippers, scared without knowing why.

Soft footsteps tapped outside the door. The knob turned, and his mother entered. He couldn't see her face in the shadows, but he smelled the faint scent of coffee as she came toward him, put her arms around him, kissed his cheek. “Happy birthday, Jan.”

She hadn't held him like that since he was eight years old. Then her touch had been all he needed to drive away the nightmare.

Now it only made him more afraid.

He pushed her gently away, noticing with a shock that he was taller than she. “Mum. What's wrong?”

“I'm sorry.” He heard the wobbly smile in her voice. “I don't think we can have your party.”

“Mum. What is it?”

Her whisper shivered through the air. “The Germans have invaded. Crossed the border and are coming into the country. Our army is fighting them...” He heard her swallow. “Come on, sweetheart. I—I made pancakes for your birthday...”

Only half-hearing her words, he yanked open his wardrobe, wriggled into trousers, pulled a shirt over his head. Shirttails untucked, he leaped barefoot down the stairs, shoved his feet into damp boots, and grabbed for a coat.

Outside, red fingers of dawn reached up over the city to the east, lighting the streets with an odd pink glow. Standing on the doorstep, Jan saw his neighbors coming out of their houses, clustering together, or just staring toward the east, as if the red dawn was the fires of invasion.

Slowly, dreamlike, Jan stepped into the street, letting himself get caught up in the surge of people. Snippets of conversation ebbed and flowed around him like paper shreds in a breeze.

“It can't be an invasion, there must be some mistake...”

“...we're neutral, Hitler knew that!”

“I said it all along, I did, never trust a Hun...”

Sharp voices cut through the clamor, and the thud of nail-shod boots on cobblestones echoed as a group of soldiers in uniform turned the corner.

“Attention! Please give us your attention!” The leader, tall and blond, lifted his arm. “There is no need to panic! Do not believe any rumors. Holland will never surrender! Hitler will soon see this and leave. You can help best by remaining in your homes and not panicking. Do not panic.”

“My dad,” Jan thought, then realized he'd said it aloud. “My dad's fighting, he's fighting at the front, can you tell me, is he all right?”

His words were swept away in the clamor as fifty people jabbered their own questions at the soldiers. Jan elbowed his way through the crowd, trying to get closer...Dad's got to be all right. Of course he is. He's Dad. It can't be so bad, anyway, not if there's soldiers still here...but the crush of people pressed him out, and after a moment he gave up, as the soldiers' grey and blue uniforms started to disappear around the corner of the street.

Everything seemed to become quiet, to fade into the distance, as Jan turned a slow circle in the middle of the street. Was everyone here, standing in the streets, waiting for news? The Verdeers, wealthy and superior, had the biggest house on the block—but no stork on the roof—and didn't mingle much, but they were out too, Mr. Verdeer in the middle of the street, wearing evening jacket with pajama bottoms. Mrs. Verdeer was coming back from following the soldiers, a silk shawl clutched around her shoulders, apprehension lining her face.

On the stoop opposite Jan's house friendly, witty Hans Lambert crouched with his camera, photographing the scene. For one moment he lifted his eye from the camera's shutter, and Jan saw fear on his face too.

“John!” From next door their newlywed neighbor stumbled out, her hair straggled out of curlers. “My John's in the army! Has anyone heard anything?”

Kindly Mrs. Smit pushed out of the crowd, putting an arm around the trembling young woman. “Hush now, it's all right. You heard the soldiers. John will be all right, dear. He'll be all right.”

All right...all right...all right...

Dizzily, Jan kept turning, his eyes searching automatically for the flag above the government buildings. He saw it every day on his way to school. How many times had he taken it for granted?

Then he saw it, flapping slowly in the early morning breeze.

Still flying.

“Well, of course it would be.” In the sudden relief he became disgusted with himself for panicking. “It isn't like they've exactly reached the palace yet!”

That couldn't happen, obviously.

Of course not!


In that scene I was able to follow very closely what the diary said. The scene is expanded, but most of the details (information about the neighbors, the government building, some of the dialogue) I gleaned from other entries.

But not all the scenes are that simple. This project is proving to be an incredible challenge! There are so many places where Jan hints or mentions something in passing, and when I research it I realize it's a major event in the war. Filling in the gaps is one of the biggest problems, since sometimes the diary isn't clear as to what happened.

Creating a good piece of fiction, while remaining true to the events and characters, is like nothing I've ever done before. It's difficult and extremely scary. But I'm hanging on because this story needs to be told and it won't let me go!


Hannah said...

*screams* FINALY, a bit of the story!!!!!!

Nina Hansen said...

I posted two excerpts on NaNo - didn't you see those?

Hannah said...

No. I'm on YWP, not the adult.

Elisabeth said...

Nina, I've done a lot of browsing people's excerpts and synopses this year, and I have to say yours is one of only a couple that made me really want to read the finished novel! I really liked the first piece you posted. It's a fascinating story and I hope you do finish it and get it published so I can read the rest. :)

Oddly enough, I haven't posted an excerpt of mine yet this year. I just haven't been able to pick a suitable piece. But I'm hoping to get one particular section whipped into shape to post by the end of today!

Nina Hansen said...

Elisabeth, you have no idea how thrilled that makes me! :) Thank you so much for letting me know!

Did you get your excerpt up? I would really, really like to check it out if you do!

Hannah said...

Oh, Nina, how do you get your novel infos up on your blog?

Nina Hansen said...

I'll send you a PM to tell you how!

Spits said...

I love SS-5 Nina. Have I mentioned that before?!

Post a Comment