A historical novel is a curious hybrid of fact and fiction

Anamaría Crowe Serrano on writing a novel to better understand her grandfather

Anamaría Crowe Serrano with her grandfather, José María, in Avenida del Ejército (now Avenida Lehendakari Aguirre), Bilbao, May 1970.

Anamaría Crowe Serrano with her grandfather, José María, in Avenida del Ejército (now Avenida Lehendakari Aguirre), Bilbao, May 1970.

 

During the Spanish Civil War, a bomb fell from a Republican plane and landed beside my grandfather on a battlefield near Teruel, in the north-east of the country. Like many Republican bombs, it hadn’t been correctly primed and didn’t explode. My grandfather, who only ever became agitated when his football team was losing, picked up the bomb in the middle of the mayhem, defused it and brought it home as a souvenir.

Like everything else in relation to the war, he never said another word about it. So, when I set about writing a memoir to honour the wonderful person he was and discover more about his motives for joining Franco and the Nationalists, I had no first-hand information to guide me.

To my surprise, what eased me into the historical moment that he had lived through, was an idea that came to me for a fictional character – a deserter who makes his way home to wait out the war hiding under the stairs. It wasn’t until I started teasing out this character in my fledgling novel – which became In the Dark, set during the battle of Teruel (December 15th, 1937 to February 22nd , 1938) – that I began to appreciate how much a novel’s characters express different aspects of truth, rather than undisputed facts, even though both are essential for compelling fiction.

In The Dark by Anamaría Crowe Serrano is published by Turas Press
In The Dark by Anamaría Crowe Serrano is published by Turas Press

Writers will usually tell you that as they create their characters they often feel as if they are seeing the world through their characters’ eyes. This was certainly true for me, but given the historical aspect of the novel, I realised I couldn’t rely on imagination alone.

Even if I never mentioned details such as what pictures were on the Spanish stamps that were issued on January 25th, 1938, or how many grams of sugar could be bought with a ration card on a specific month, knowledge of these facts would help me build and portray my characters more realistically. After all, everything they do and say is influenced by their surroundings and what’s happening in their world.

At the outset, I was only vaguely aware of who my two main female characters were, María and Julita. They are sisters who, like many siblings in civil wars, have opposing political views, in this case compounded by their clashing personalities.

I placed them in the besieged town of Teruel during one of the coldest winters on record, reluctantly living together with their children, struggling to maintain some semblance of family life. Beyond that, however, it was difficult to imagine the level of hardship civilians endured and the many ways they coped.

The history books and documentaries I initially consulted were useful in giving a macro view of events that were eye-opening for me and made sense of why so many people sided with Franco and the military rebels in the first place. However, they didn’t reveal what I wanted to know about the experience of war at a human level. I was grateful, therefore, to learn in the Military Archive in Salamanca about the online newspaper archives.

Anamaría Crowe Serrano
Anamaría Crowe Serrano

As soon as I began reading the Barcelona-based Republican newspaper, La Vanguardia, for the dates spanning the battle of Teruel, I found the kinds of details I was looking for. The minutiae of everyday life reported in the newspaper helped to give the novel its shape: the plot uses some of the events and details described in the paper as key points in the narrative.

Personal ads gave insights into people’s lives: tradesmen and secretaries were in high demand, but so too were husbands – widows often placed ads looking for someone to share the gap in their lives. We get glimpses of the enormous work women did from requests in the newspaper for clothing for the soldiers at the front, with specific pleas to women’s groups who rallied throughout the war to support their menfolk by knitting clothes to keep them warm when they themselves were often deprived of the most basic comforts.

In spite of the sombre mood that permeates In the Dark, there are celebratory moments. One in particular was inspired by media accounts of street parties. The Republican government, speaking through its newspapers, was keen to keep morale high. La Vanguardia always minimised losses for the Popular Front, while even small victories were reported with fanfare and invitations to street celebrations, followed the next day by coverage of how successful the festivities had been.

Renowned for its political propaganda, the Republic was no doubt also conscious that within the horrors of war, entertainment was an essential counterbalance to the daily deprivations. I wove this need for celebratory moments into María’s and Julita’s lives, whose fictional status was blending more and more with the reality reported in the contemporary media.

From the newspaper I learnt that the aurora borealis was visible in Spain around January 25th, 1938. In fact, it was visible all across the world – a rare occurrence – between January 16th and 26th because of an unusual light storm. People didn’t know what they were seeing and thought it was a fire or some kind of divine apparition. This, too, found a place in the novel.

Another valuable resource in gleaning details of day-to-day life was the diaries of Carlos Morla Lynch, a Chilean diplomat who remained in Madrid throughout the war. Some of the details he mentioned about his daily activities made their way into my characters’ constricted circumstances in María’s house.

Even though Morla Lynch’s diaries, titled España sufre, represent a privileged position that was far from the experience of most Spaniards, they were invaluable in that they offered a first-hand account of people whose lives were also turned upside down.

Everyone at the Embassy suffered acute hunger, the windows of Morla Lynch’s home were blown out like most other people’s so that it was impossible to keep warm in winter, there were constant electrical outages, many hundreds of people took refuge in his home in the hope of being evacuated, and he braved the streets every day to help people despite mortar shells falling more frequently than rain.

Through Morla Lynch’s diaries, my characters continued to grow into more realistic versions of themselves. Now I knew that they would not only know the difference between the sound of a Russian Polikarpov and a German Messerschmitt, they also had mattresses and pillows to hand for protection whenever they heard bombs whizzing through the air.

María and Julita became characters who reflected the resourcefulness of the real men and women I read about, from learning the art of bartering to offset the effects of massive inflation, to taping up the windows so that the glass wouldn’t shatter and send dangerous splinters around the kitchen. They adapted to rations quickly, and improvised by filtering snow when there was no water to drink. They played games and helped the children stage theatrical and musical productions at home to pass the time, while outdoors, the children collected discarded cigarette butts they knew might be valuable to others.

A historical novel is a curious hybrid of fact and fiction. On the one hand, the plot relies on the author’s leap of imagination, but its success lies in how convincingly the author uses facts to build a picture of a period that may be well known to the reader.

In the same way that the characters’ personalities and their emotional truths are invented, what brings them to life within their context is attention to historical detail. These psychological truths, and maybe philosophical ones, too, are often better illuminated by fiction that is creatively bolstered by fact, especially if, like in all civil wars, there are many competing versions of the truth.

In The Dark by Anamaría Crowe Serrano is published by Turas Press

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