Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Time Travel


While Kelli is traveling through space to Denver, I want to talk about traveling through time. Like Kelli, I write historical fiction and to do that, I have to be able to travel back in time through whatever portals I can force open.

To write Even Smoke Leaves a Trace I didn't have to go quite as far back as Kelli, though, just to 1931 Berlin, 12 time zones and 70 years away. Why face just a historical distance when I can face twice the challenge by writing from a diametrically opposed location too? I gazed out at dancing palm trees and warm waves from my lanai in faraway Hawaii, and filled my pages with coal and cobblestones.

With my heroine, Hannah Vogel, I moved into Berlin in 1931, the year before Germany was completely lost to the Nazis. I started at the top level of research with secondary sources, thick scholarly tomes like The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, but only through page 387 because I wasn’t interested in the fall yet, just the rise. I romped through Otto Friedrich’s history of Weimar-era Berlin, Before the Deluge. And where else but in Hawaii would I have time to start the thousand year history of Berlin, Faust’s Metropolis by Alexandra Richie?
I dug deeper, down into the primary sources to see how Berliners felt at the time. Luckily, Berlin in 1931 housed wonderful diarists like Count Harry Kessler, Bella Fromm, William Shirer, Viktor Klemperer, and the grim articles of Joseph Roth collected in What I Saw. I read until their ghost voices haunted my sleep. Not always fun, because 1931 was their last moment of freedom and some of them, especially Roth, knew it. When the Nazis took power in 1933, Roth wrote a scathing indictment of all European intellectuals and moved to Paris where he drank himself to death.

I listened to the rough voice of Lotte Lenya, widow of Kurt Weill, belting out an enchanting “Mack the Knife,” a song released in—you guessed it—1931 in Berlin. Now to see their world. Berlin’s UFA Studio was the center of the German film industry from 1917 to 1945. Amazingly gifted directors who worked there would later come to the United States and become famous enough that even their early films are available on Netflix, only a few days shipping from my tiny TV, classics like M, Emil and the Detectives, and Nosferatu.

It was pure self indulgence but, I wanted to taste the city too. I trekked to a specialty grocery store and brought home boxes of bockwurst, Berliner weisse beer, chocolate, and apple strudel mix. It wasn’t quite Berlin in 1931, but at least it was my Berlin from 1985. Writers get to have fun too.

How do you like to travel back in time? If you could travel any where and any when, where would you go, and what would you bring back?

10 comments:

Judith Heath said...

hope you noir history buffs avoid the occupational hazard of moving to Paris and drinking yourselves to death.I for one want to time travel to 5th Century Argyll Scotland to mingle with the Gaelic-speaking Dalraida people from the north of Ireland who invaded and settled there. They were know as the Scotti, (a grand tale in itself).Their leader, Fergus, made a hillfort beside the serpentine curves of River Add the center of his kingdom. The place, a rocky knoll dubbed Dunadd, rises up in the midst of the broad Great Moss as if set there by a giant. A huge flat rock at the summit bears an enormous indented footprint, perhaps made by the same giant. This rock became known as the Stone of Destiny. It is said that the succeding kings of Dalraida set their foot in this imprint to be crowned. The Dalraida, who began the tradition of clans in the Highlands, made Dunadd their capital for more than 300 years.Perhaps I'd make the move to 5th Century Dunadd permanent. Perhaps I'd trade silver jewelry to the kin of Fergus for gossip about the characters in my next story. If not, I 'd grow ever more depressed, wallowing in the futility of being an author. I'd sit in the shadows gulping mead until I, too, drink myself to death.

rebecca cantrell said...

Thanks, Judith for the entertaining comment!

Maybe I'll have to stay away from mead, and Paris, to be on the safe side. And I think you could have made a great living as a bard. Certainly enough to keep you in honeycakes and mutton...

Anonymous said...

I'm not a heavy reader, and what I do read is normally either non-fiction or fantasy so it's not quite the same as a the kind of time travel I think you're talking about...however, I do often imagine going back in time to a simpler era...I think that I could have done well in the roaring 20's or the old west...a little knowledge of what happened could go a long way...save the right person or kill the wrong one and the whole course of human history spins off in a completely different (hopefully better) direction. Maybe I'd snag a few shares of the a clever stock to make things easier when I got back...

rebecca cantrell said...

A few original Microsoft stock certificates would certainly make life easier. Or even antique coins...

I think we had the roaring 20s again in the late 90s in Silicon Valley, so if you made it through that, you'd do OK.

I'm too chicken to want to go to the Old West, but some of that's because I'm a woman and we haven't always had the greatest choices in the past...

JennieB said...

Hiya, Becky! I didn't know you were over here today!

I'm a modern girl, so I wouldn't want to travel too far back. (There's indoor plumbing to consider, after all.) I've always had a fondness for WWII, though, and as long as I could get back out, I wouldn't mind dropping into 1942 or so. Or May 8, 1945. But not in Germany. London or Scotland during the war might be fun. Then again, if I didn't have to stay too long, I'd take practically anywhere at any time. Ancient Greece or Rome, Egypt during one of the dynasties, Cornwall under Arthur, Williamsburg in Colonial times... Ah, the possibilities!

Anonymous said...

Let's see, I do like the idea of New York during the roaring 20s. Or California during the 50s and 60s (the beach/hipster/sock hop scene). Perhaps Berkeley in the 60s, take a ride on Ken Kesey's bus. I did the 80s, 'nuff said there.

But I think I'd really like to travel to a place where magic is real. Where I could be one of the magical creatures from my stories. Where I could fly and perform spells with the flick of my fairy wand. After all, being merely human is so limiting.

Kaz

Mysti Berry said...

Movies and Shakespeare plays are my favorite portals to the past, though I've got to tell you, riding Puny Muni on a bad day got my imagination going--just how horrible the rail cars must have been. At least we had choices, and worst case, there was no one stopping me from walking six miles home, no cop's truncheon or killing weather...

On a lighter note, I've also tried to match geography/biodensity to get a feel for a place in a piece of writing. Too broke too travel to Mongolia, and there being no rail to the 12th century anyway, I flew and then drove to places in Montana with similar flora, fauna, and wide open spaces. There, the things you don't smell are as striking as the things you do.

I ended my visit with a foolish risk, driving into a closed national park and getting stuck in ice. Imagining a bear peeling open my cheap rental, I did get myself out of there, but it could have easily ended in one of those crazy news reports.

I would have loved to see Abraham Lincoln debate or Aphra Behn but mostly I'd love to go back to the time before my mom died, and notice more :)

thanks for sharing the quick view of Berlin, it's a fascinating place in many a time, but especially early 1930s!

rebecca cantrell said...

Hiya Jennie, Thanks for stopping by! Indoor plumbing is a fabulous invention. I lived without it during a lot of my childhood, and I missed it terribly. I suspect plumbing reliability was a lot more spotty in say London during the Blitz than movies like to show...but still worth a visit.

rebecca cantrell said...

Hi Kaz,

Thanks for stopping by! Finding a magical time would be cool. Maybe as a Druid, or JRRR's Middle Earth... Or you could kidnap someone from the past and show them what we have now and they'd think WE were magic. Of course if you went back you'd probably be burned as a witch. Lots of pitfalls for time travelers...

rebecca cantrell said...

Thanks, Mysti! Montana as Mongolia is a great substitution. I'm glad that the bear didn't peel you out of your rental. Unless you sign up for their full coverage, who knows what that'd cost you, assuming you lived through the experience.I guess ponies are more reliable than horse power in those situations...