East Prussia

Story Writing

If you are a new-ish writer, do you ever wonder when you will finish the dang book? 

I seriously started writing my women's fiction in December 2012. I had seven chapters from a story began way back in high school.  (Oh oh! Backstory? Let me make it short and, hopefully, interesting.) 

I came up with two new protagonists: a young millennial woman and her great-great Tante, a WWII East Prussian refugee. Both women deal with violence that intrudes into their sheltered lives. 

The Stats!

  • 2012: 7 chapters
  • 2013: 36 new chapters, 5 chapters eliminated, 11 chapters reassigned to a different place in the story or combined
  • 2014: 12 new chapters, 3 eliminated, 8 reassigned or combined
  • 2015: 5 new chapters, 7 eliminated, 6 reassigned or combined
  • 2016: take a break, read as a reader then take notes of changes to make 
  • 2017: 4 new chapters, 0 eliminated, 7 reassigned or combined
  • 2018 thus far: 2 new chapters, 1 eliminated, 3 reassigned or combined

What a goofy process, right? (You can also tell I like excel spread sheets.) I was not a plotter. I was flying by the seat of my pants with this story, learning craft along the way. In my next story, I want to be more plotter-like!     

the Forest or the Trees

By writing as a pantser, I kept refining and defining the story. One of the ways I gained focus was through writing a query letter. I could stand back and look at the whole of the forest rather than the individual trees. Janet Reid's Queryshark was my go-to study blog.  

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I also studied the three-act structure, the important moments in each act, first page critiques, and various crafting issues (point-of-view, show-don't-tell, backstory, tension, pacing) through books and through blogs such as: Writer Unboxed, The Kill Zone, Fiction University, and Helping Writers become Authors.

I've also kept an eye on how many chapters each protagonist has as the main plot focuses on the millennialist. 

Obviously, I do not intend to rely on writing as a regular source of income.  Not with a 5 year writing process in place! Yikes.  

Are you writing a story? What is your writing process? 

 

 

Interstitial Lives

I started reading—Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys--last night before I went to bed and I woke up early in order to finish it! Talk about a story that relentlessly pulls you into it. 

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Placed in 1945, Salt to the Sea tells the story of the winding down of World War II from the point-of-view of four young people: a Lithuanian nurse, a Prussian art restorer, an intuitive Polish girl, and a German seaman.

Three are refugees, fleeing eastward, caught between the Soviet Red Army and Nazi Germany. We hear bits and pieces of their secrets, their generosity, their mistrust.

They link up with other refugees that the reader learns to care for: a wandering boy, a shoe poet, and a suspicious giantess.

Their aim? To board the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship to carry them away to safety.

Wilhelm Gustloff

The Wilhelm Gustloff is one of the lesser known tragedies of WWII.

Boarded in Gotenhafen, (present day Gdynia, Poland) with mostly civilians, it carried 10,500 people, with an estimated 5,000 being children. A Soviet submarine launched three torpedoes against it, killing an estimated 9,000 people. It is now a ghost ship, lying off the coast of Poland.

In her author’s notes, Sepetys writes,

“It is estimated that in the year 1945 alone, over 25,000 people lost their lives in the Baltic Sea. For months, bodies drifted to shore in various locations, haunting the coastline and its residents. Even today, some divers report a strong presence in the water near the enormous sea graves.”

In her book, Ruta Sepetys, a Lithuanian American, lists her face-to-face and book research sources. She met with a Lithuanian family and a Latvian couple who survived the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff and was in contact with more. She writes of her family connections—her father waiting in a refugee camp, hoping to return to Lithuania and her father’s cousin, who missed the Wilhelm Gustloff and sailed another ship.

Post World War II

The hardcover book also has a 1945 map of the area and a present-day (2016) map.

Many borders shifted after the war. East Prussia exists no more. Its port city of Konigsberg is renamed Kaliningrad and is part of the Russian oblast. The outer lands of East Prussia are now within the Polish border.

Poland lost its east edge to the Soviet Union, which have now become the countries of Belarus and Ukraine.

Not until 1989 did the Baltic States—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—become free of Russian rule.  

Book Review

Last week I finished reading This House is Mine by Dörte Hansen, a debut writer. The book is translated from German by Anne Stokes.  The German title is Altes Land.

The story's primary timeline follows an East Prussian refugee, Vera von Kamcke, whose mother flees with her at the end of World War II. Vera is 5-years-old when her mother leaves behind their manor house in the Mazuria Lake region to find refuge in a little farm village in the Hamburg area of Germany.

The modern timeline centers on Vera's niece, Anne, who is also a refugee of sorts, from a trendy neighborhood in Hamburg. She is newly divorced and seeking refuge with her son.

We also meet Vera's neighbors in the farm village and become acquainted with Anne's deprivations and her struggles against her parents' and her own expectations. Vera and Anne become family for one another by a common experience of displacement.

The past and present timelines alternate but the points of view didn't always stay with Vera or Anne. And within a timeline strand, the story was not always chronological. I sometimes had difficulty with that but I am interested in East Prussian history (because of my novel setting and my family genealogy) and so I stayed with the book until the end.

I enjoyed the story and have gone back to reread parts of it. 

Vera's timeline intrigued me the most--her beliefs about the house she lived in, her mother's reaction to being a refugee, and Vera's manner of behaving in response to her circumstances. I appreciated the author's manner of disclosing the backstory of the specific events that happened to the mother and Vera as they fled before Stalin's army. The backstory was drizzled in just enough that I was hooked and wanted to read on to find out more.

The book also speaks to large themes: the effect of war on our ability to process (or not) our emotions, how we adapt (or not) to being marginalized, and the coping mechanisms we develop in order to survive.  And ultimately it is a book about being family in the midst of loss. 

Konigsberg, East Prussia

The following is a chapter from the first draft of my story. It has been cut because it's a sweeping history of Konigsberg (now Kaliningrad) without any characters although small bits have found their way into my current story. The description may be a just a tad overdone. Something a new author never does in their first draft, right?

However, I enjoyed the research about the area where my character, Amalie, grew up and wanted to share. 

Chapter 9-Castle on a Hill (written in 2013)

A fresh, salty sea breeze blew eastward from the Baltic Sea; up the Pregel river, past the quay, gusting around the castle and ruffling the still green waters of the Schlossteich. Puffy cumulus clouds, suspended beneath thin sheets of cirrostratus, sailed off into a dark, densely crowded horizon, dimming the sun’s brilliance.                                      

Built on a hill in 1261, the stone Schloss signified the end for the Baltic tribes, the Prusai. Living behind long sandy, forested spits that enclosed two brackish lagoons, their marshy low-lying lands graduated into a jumble of rocky ridges, irregular lakes, and dense wilderness. This topography buffered them from neighboring landlocked ethnic groups. 

The northern tribe, living on the peninsula framed between the two lagoons, survived the incursions of the sea faring Vikings between the ninth through the twelfth century. However, the whole of the Prusai tribes would experience a struggle of futility when two unfamiliar forces collided near their back door, piercing their waterlogged sphere.  

 

Militant Christian knights, whose crusading and patrolling of Roman territory had the stamp of approval from the popes of that time, forced evangelization on people living within newly acquired territory. The brutal Mongol Horde, under Genghis Khan and his sons, swept down from the eastern steppe, sacking Moscow in 1238. They then lunged further west, attacking the Holy Roman Empire’s eastern border--the land of the Poles and the Hungarians.

The Prusai, each governing their small domains, lived by fishing, hunting, and the occasional foray south, raiding animals or other possessions from their Polish neighbors. However, the northern tribe living on the maritime peninsula engaged in trade. Amber, gold of the north.

Stormy waves of the Baltic Sea cast amber ashore on their beaches. Mythologized as the encapsulated tears of a goddess grieving the death of a loved one, these ancient fossilized fragments of resin warmed to the touch, reputedly retained healing properties, and conferred courage to its wearer. Desired for perfume, medicine, and jewelry, Rome coveted it for creating rosaries.

The confluence emanating from: Mongol Horde viciousness, terrorized Poles, and Christian military crusaders, excited Rome’s lust for more and precipitated the end for the Prusai. By 1255 the Teutonic knights, at the request of the Poles and under the aegis of the pope, had defeated the Mongol Horde and gone on to conquer the Prusai, either through extermination or baptism.

The castle, leitmotif of European feudal civilization, ushered in a new era, an unfamiliar religion, a different lifestyle. Building up the Teutonic State, the knights drained marshes to create arable land, annexed the amber trade for Rome, claimed Poland’s port cities on the the Baltic Sea, and invited German colonists to repopulate areas decimated by battle.

Settlements burgeoned south of the castle, metamorphosing into Königsberg, a port city designated as a Hanseatic League city in 1340. Appropriate to the era of the time, symbolic additions were made to the stone Schloss through the centuries: a grand hall, a Gothic tower, a palace church, a royal library, and four bay towers surrounding a huge open courtyard in the heart of the castle.

The Teutonic Order’s last Grand Master, Albrecht von Hohenzollern, strategically resigned his title in 1525. With the invention of the printing press, the increase in literacy, as well as the growing unrest under corrupt practices within the Roman Catholic Church, mutiny occurred, splitting Christendom. Within the Protestant Reformation, Albrecht shrewdly professed allegiance to the incoming Lutheran faith, swearing fealty to Poland under his grandfather, the King, who was also the Grand Duke of Lithuania. With the Teutonic State removed, the area was  renamed as the Duchy of Prussia. Albrecht retained his status as Albert I, Duke of Prussia.

Königsberg blossomed into an intellectual cultural center. Unlike the orthodoxy prescribed under the knights, religious variety co-existed within the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth which encompassed Orthodox Slavs, Roman Catholic Polish, persecuted Jews, and Muslim Tartars. Absorbing this lenient philosophy, Königsberg offered sanctuary for persecuted religious group; the Swiss Mennonites, the French Huguenots, in addition to Jews, who flourished during the early 1900s.

Albert I founded a Lutheran university in 1544 focused on sciences, mathematics, and philosophy. Later institutions for learning included a vocational school for construction engineering, a Physical Education teachers’ institute, an establishment for midwives, an upper girl’s department, a commercial college, a painting and a music academy.

Preserving their borders against incursions from their neighbors, the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth continued battles against the Ukrainian Cossacks in the south, the Muscovite Russians to the east, as well as the Swedes from the north. The deposed Teutonic knights and their families evolved into their own social class, the Junker. They retained ownership of large farming estates passed onto their elder sons. The younger sons saturated the political military leadership in the principality.

A subsequent Duke, assessing his options when Sweden attacked the Commonwealth, sided with the Swedish king. A year later, after the Commonwealth had again gathered strength, the Duke negotiated with the Poles for Prussia’s independence. Then together, the Commonwealth and the Duchy routed the Swedes.

The first king, Frederick I, crowned himself at the Schloss in 1701. Later, when the bubonic plague depredated Königsberg’s population during his reign, he extended an invitation for replenishment through emigration; receiving Polish, Lithuanian, Dutch, English, and Scottish immigrants.

After gaining their emancipation, East Prussian kings found themselves overruled twice: first with Tsarist Russians from 1758-1763, secondly through Napoleon’s France from 1807-1813.

William I, continuing the Hohenzollern dynasty, incorporated Prussia into the German Empire in 1871. When World War I ended, Emperor William fled to the Netherlands to live in exile with his family. The Treaty of Versailles gave Poland a port city, the Free City of Danzig, via the Polish Corridor, splitting East Prussia from the motherland of Germany.

In 1939, Königsberg embraced a population of 350,000 people within its 9½ mile perimeter. However, as another era glimmered on the horizon, Jews began migrating, leaving the progroms and bloody cataclysms of the Soviet Union and moving west this time rather than east, searching again for another safe port in the vast ocean of discrimination and persecution.