Historical Fiction: The Magic of combining Fact with Fiction :by Kathryn Gauci

One of the wonderful things about writing historical fiction is the journey we take. I like to think of it as a cycle – the gathering of the knowledge in the first place and then sifting through it all until it emerges again like a butterfly from the chrysalis into the finished novel. A tale based on facts. That is the moment the magic comes alive.

When I read historical novels myself, I like to learn something. For me this is as important as the plotline – more knowledge – therefore I want the facts to be as correct as we can possibly get them. I also want my own reader to feel that they are learning about history without reading a history book. I have published two historical fiction books and have almost finished a third but the approach has always been the same.

Collate the facts first even though the way those facts are used may vary according to the story itself. The first novel, The Embroiderer, is a saga told through the female line and is set in Greece and Turkey. It spans 150 years from 1822 through to 1944 with a modern day section set in 1972. Central to this story is the Asia Minor Catastrophe, 1919-23, and the burning of Smyrna in 1922. When I first heard about this, I was working in Athens alongside Greek refugees who had survived the Catastrophe and resettled to make new lives and so I was able to hear first-hand from some of those survivors and their children. The gathering of knowledge had already started and it would simmer away until some 35 years later a long with more gathering of knowledge, until it emerged as The Embroiderer.

As it was written primarily for a Greek reader and those who wanted to know of the events that shaped modern Greece and to a certain extent, Turkey also, it was crucial that the facts were correct or it would not have been picked up by a Greek publisher. At the same time, the lives of the protagonists are human stories which carry the facts along. Travel and reading inevitably opens up new possibilities and it’s hard not to stray, hence I have a pile of notebooks which have sparked off more stories for later.

The magic in translating all this information is with you all the time but it especially sparkles when you find something obscure as happens when we cast our research net wide. One such resource led to the story of an 8 year old boy who was witness to the massacres on Chios in 1822, which is where my story begins and ends. Christophorus Plato Castanis was captured by the Turks, sold several times as a slave before managing to escape. He wrote his story some years later. When the Cultural Chapter of the Chian Federation of Astoria, N.Y. re-published his memoirs, they kept it exactly as it was written, thus not only giving me a rare glimpse into that world but also the “voice.” The following is an excerpt from my protagonist’s own memoir showing how I incorporated this into my story.

“For my cherished granddaughter, Sophia.

             That she may bear witness to my life as I know it.

                                                                                          Dimitra Lamartine

                                                                                 August 5 1922, Smyrna

 ………….The household had many servants; some were bought as slaves and each one performed a singular duty. When Aunt Kuzul married, she had the good fortune to bring her own maid with her, a Circassian called Emine. Emine had irreproachable manners and always addressed Aunt Kuzel as ‘my dearest lady.’ When I was three years old, I was given my own maid – a Greek girl called Polyxeni who had been my wet nurse. I later found out that she had given birth to a boy just before I was born and that after the slaughter of her child by the Turks, she and her sister were taken to a slave market in Smyrna where she was bought by Rifat Bey. We never found out what happened to her sister. At first, Polyxeni was forbidden to speak her own language but sometime after she became my maid, Aunt Kuzel allowed her to speak to me in Greek
This excerpt opens up a window in life on Chios straight after the massacres.

The protagonists’ changing world is also shown through embroidery, textiles, and couture and is the major thread which binds the story together bringing in my background as a textile designer and allowing us a glimpse into their lives. The history of textiles at this time adds a rich and exotic visual element to the story.

 “She ran her fingers over the embroidery.

‘Light and shade enhance the beauty of such composition that never before have all my senses become so aroused as when I touch your silken threads. I smell the fragrance of your roses and I hear the melodious song of the nightingale.’”

Superstition is another major thread which gives a glimpse into the way people thought.

My second novel, Conspiracy of Lies is set in France during WWII. It evolved partly out of research for The Embroiderer and reading the stories of female agents working undercover for the Special Operations Executive – SOE – alongside the Resistance. In this novel, the facts primarily center around the characters and what their life would have been like in occupied France. Research into war and wine and the Nazi elite’s love of the good things in life helped to give a contrast against the dire hardships experienced by the French population. This applied to fashion also. My protagonist became a connoisseur of fine wine and champagne and her family never knew why.

 Claire noted the label. The sommelier popped the cork and proceeded to pour.

‘Krug 1928,’ said Marcel. ‘One of the finest champagnes ever made.’

After Reims, Claire was impressed.

The servants brought out the food – silver trays laden with everything from roast goose to venison with a rich red-wine sauce accompanied by an assortment of seasonal vegetables. This was a far cry from the meagre food served up at Bistro L’Arlequin. In the short time she had been in Brittany, meat, with the exception of pork knuckle or rabbit was rarely on the menu. It was years since Claire had eaten this well.

She also wore clothes designed by those French couturiers who had not left the country or who were willing to design for the German women. Researching fashion and the Third Reich was quite an eye-opener: the way Hitler set up the German Fashion Institute and the rules about Aryan clothing, much of which was disregarded by the top Nazi wives who still preferred Paris fashions. I also researched the magazines these women would have read which told how the honorable Nazi woman should act with regards to the Reich and her family. All of this entered the novel as facts and magically came out in the world of my protagonists.

 Claire glanced at the German fashion magazines on the table: Modenschau, Praktishe Damen und Kindermode, Claudine, and lastly a popular magazine called Frauen Warte, which translated as ‘Women Wait’ and was widely known for its Nazi propaganda as well as its fashion advice. She picked up one with a cover featuring a German peasant woman pushing an old-fashioned plough against a shadowy backdrop of soldier’s helmet and flicked through it. Among its many features on home economics and photographs of celebrities was a smiling Hermann Goering pictured cuddling his daughter, Edda.

‘That’s an excellent magazine, ‘Eva said. ‘It’s a pity you can’t get it here. Some of our servants could do with learning a few of its tips. But it’s not the best for fashion – at least not the sort of thing I like. This one is better for that sort of thing.’ She showed Claire the latest edition of Modenschau and then her sketches. ‘I’m going to Paris next week to have a gown made. What do you think of this?’

She pushed the pad towards Claire.

Eva smiled. ‘Jürgen has an important meeting in Berlin soon. The Führer will be there so I must look my very best’

Each story takes us on a journey: a magical carpet ride of that blend of fact and fiction which makes historical fiction all the more alluring for me to write.

Kathryn Gauci was born in Leicestershire, England, and studied textile design at Loughborough College of Art and later at Kidderminster College of Art and Design where she specialized in carpet design and technology. After graduating, Kathryn spent a year in Vienna, Austria before moving to Greece where she worked as a carpet designer in Athens for six years.There followed another brief period in New Zealand before eventually settling in Melbourne, Australia.

Before turning to writing full-time, Kathryn ran her own textile design studio in Melbourne for over fifteen years, work which she enjoyed tremendously as it allowed her the luxury of traveling worldwide, often taking her off the beaten track and exploring other cultures. The Embroiderer is her first novel; a culmination of those wonderful years of design and travel, and especially of those glorious years in her youth living and working in Greece – a place that she is proud to call her spiritual home.