Who Knows What When–A Writer’s Challenge

Information affects the motivations and actions of every character writers create.  But, not every character is in the know at all times, nor do they have access to the same knowledge.  The exact moment (when) and way (how) they discover or receive information determines motivation and action.

This is true in any novel, but the consequences heighten in historical fiction (stories set before the advent of “instant information” through social media or the internet, and in most cases before television or radio).

Decisions made by a few (such as world leaders or law makers) may affect individuals or the masses.  But, those individuals and those masses may not receive information re. those decisions before they bear their consequences.

Saving-Amelie-Book-Cover-250x374This truth came boldly home to me while writing Saving Amelie, a story set in Nazi Germany during 1939 and 1940. Characters from all walks of life peppered the pages, each with their own backgrounds and worldviews, and with information limited to their sphere.

In writing about a society controlled and censored by dictatorship and rife with propaganda (Nazi Germany), it was difficult to determine who knew what, and when. The difference between the “truth” each character assumed at any given time made the story especially challenging.

Consider their roles:

Rachel Kramer—adopted daughter of a German American Eugenics Scientist, Rachel has been lied to since birth.  Raised as an American of means and intelligence with a sense of superiority, she is an unwitting component of the planned “master race.”

Jason Young—driven American journalist on a crusader’s mission to expose the slippery slope of eugenics in America and its horrors in Germany , is censored by the Nazis at every turn and unable to get straight answers from the powers that be.  Even so, Jason has connections to the resistance and friends in high and foreign places.

Amelie Schlick–four-year-old deaf daughter of cruel SS Officer Schlick and a American mother, Kristine, who fears for her child’s life.

Friederich Hartman—a gentle, Bavarian wood carver, who wants only to love his wife and mind his shop, but is conscripted into the German army and ordered to commit atrocities against the Poles—orders he cannot follow, no matter the cost to himself.

Curate Bauer—a Catholic priest active in the black market for the sake of Jews and others he tries to hide and protect.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer—a dissident German pastor and spy with strong social connections, thanks to his parents’ considerable social and academic influence.  He speaks and writes of discipleship in his book Nachfolge (translated as The Cost of Discipleship), hoping to bring the German church to its senses and responsibility, but is willing to be a “spoke in the wheel” of Hitler’s aggression.

Some historic events impact characters directly.  For example, in Saving Amelie, Hitler ordered his army to invade Poland, sending a conscripted Friederich to war.

Some events impact characters indirectly.  For example, Hitler’s decision to eliminate those he deemed “unworthy of life”—T-4 program—pushed Kristine into entrusting her deaf daughter, Amelie, to a wild and dangerous scheme in order to save her life.

How, when and where characters discover the truth of events that affect their actions depends on why they need to know what—and how that knowledge moves the story along.

Characters can’t be effectively written from the luxurious perspective of history—our characters can’t know the end from the beginning, even if we do.  We must show plausibly when, where and how they gain new knowledge that affect their actions.

One of the most daunting parts of research is determining who can legitimately know what at any given time and how that knowledge overlaps—or doesn’t—between characters.  And all of this needs to be shown, not told.

For me, that task seemed overwhelming with this book.  To help, I created an information timeline for each character.  For writers more computer savvy, there’s surely a good software program to help with this.

For my purposes, two Teacher’s Planning Books did the trick.  At the top of the pages I listed each day for the two years my book covered (later I condensed the story, but having two years of information gave me the time needed as well as its buildup).  Important characters were listed and some were assigned different colors of ink.  As I researched the time period, I made notes on each day, each week, re. the actions of and/or information accessible  by each character—what they knew or did, when and where.  Finding that information was another story—another project.

The most helpful book I found was William Shirer’s Berlin Diary, a book written from the diary Shirer had kept and hidden during the very time Unknown-4period my story covered. The difference between reading a history book (written after the fact from the perspective of the victors) vs. reading a diary or journal (written as events unfold) makes all the difference in understanding how characters—real or imagined—see their world.  The urgency, the immediacy, the uncertainty of what will come, how things will unfold, what the end will be . . . makes Shirer’s diary read like a novel.

Because Shirer was an American and a foreign journalist in Berlin, I was able to use his timeline and diary to help create Jason Young’s (my journalist) timeline.  By the time I inserted Hitler’s orders and the known actions of the Third Reich, added a timeline for Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who also kept detailed journals), inserted what I could learn of events in Berlin and Oberammergau through those years, added the perspective of the Jewish community in Germany for a young woman in hiding and the limited knowledge of the average American visiting Germany for my heroine, I had a pretty clear picture of the world known and experienced by my characters.  Still, I had to be very careful.  I could not allow them to step outside their sphere of knowledge or experience.

Creating this world for my characters, getting inside their heads to experience their personal “aha” moments, and weaving their story through the early years of WWII was the most daunting research and writing I’ve ever done.  Fascinating, frustrating, fulfilling—all of that.  But, I learned more in the process than I could have imagined—a journey worthy of a novel.

I hope you enjoy Saving Amelie, and its journey through WWII Germany.

God’s blessings for you,

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  • Hi Cathy –

    This post would make a wonderful workshop at a writer’s conference.

    Although my novels are set in the future, I hope to tackle a historical down the road. After reading how you handled research, I think I’d better get started now.

    Susan 🙂

  • Cathy Gohlke says:

    You’ll love the historical research, Susan. I can get caught up in that for so long that I have a hard time beginning the writing! But, I must confess that this book was a real challenge for my brain. The book I’m working on now covers some of the same time period, but with fewer points of view, it’s much easier. Each book is a challenge and joy in its own right–I know YOU know this, too!

    Blessings on your writing, and thanks for stopping by!

  • Nancy says:

    I pray daily for my family members and was so pleasantly surprised to find my great-granddaughter’s picture was used to portray Amelie on your book cover. I count this as a word from God that He is working in our lives. I am particularly grateful for the inscription in her copy. I read the book eagerly and am recommending it to all I know.

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