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?